Strange Brew: Beer Equality Law Opened Gates for New 'Alcopop' Drinks
By Dave Dewitte, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - A single 23.5-ounce can of Four brand malt liquor, with 12 percent alcohol by volume contains almost as much alcohol as four cans of Budweiser.
That's plenty to get some adults legally drunk if consumed within an hour or two.
But the fruit flavors in which the beverage is sold, like peach, grape and raspberry, hardly seem to be developed with grownups in mind. The huge brightly-colored cans don't either.
A new generation of high alcohol flavored malt beverages with names like Four and Joose have hit store shelves in the past three months. They're already hot sellers in some markets.
They are an unintended consequence, some say, of a March revision of Iowa's alcohol laws intended to let Iowa microbreweries produce high-alcohol craft beers.
"With every law, there are unintended consequences, and this is one of those," said Doug Alberhasky, beer specialist at John's Grocery in Iowa City.
Alberhasky was a supporter of the "Iowa Beer Equality Bill." The bill was intended in large part to help in-state microbreweries compete by allowing them to apply for licenses to produce craft beers containing up to 15 percent alcohol by volume It also allows beer wholesalers to apply for licenses to sell high-alcohol beers..
The bill was inserted into a massive government reorganization bill, Senate File 2088 signed by Iowa Gov. Chet Culver in mid-March.
Alberhasky supported the beer equality beer because he wanted Iowa breweries to be able to compete in the growing high-alcohol beer category. When the high-alcohol flavored brews started hitting the shelves this summer, Alberhasky received an e-mail from a member of the state alcoholic beverages commission chiding him: "Is this what you had in mind?"
Alberhasky responded in the negative.
Before the passage of the new beer laws, Iowa retailers could only get the high-alcohol malt beverages by ordering them from the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, according to Judy Seib, special projectsion coordinator for the division. Private distributors were not allowed to sell them to retailers.
The state's alcoholic beverage department did not stock drinks such as Four in its warehouse, Seib said, mainly because they have limited shelf life and there are too many varieties to keep them all in stock.
The law enabled private beer distributors to begin stocking and delivering the high-alcohol brews to retailers.
The first shipments of 11 percent alcohol Axe Head malt beverage arrived about three months ago at the Cigarette Outlet, a liquor and tobacco store in a lower-income Cedar Rapids neighborhood at 1404 First Ave. NE. It tasted like beer, however, and was not fruit flavored.
The Axe Head was followed about one month later by Four malt beverage, another high-alcohol brew, but one that came in fruit flavors. One week later, a third fruity concentrated malt beverage called Joose arrived on the scene.
Watermelon-flavored Four is now the hottest seller of any "alcopop" malt beverage at the Cigarette Outlet. Beaupre expects the drinks to quickly surpass beer as the cheap drunk for many underage drinkers, because of the fruity flavor and high alcohol content at a low price.
"What do you think will happen when the kids catch on to this?" Beaupre asked.
Even though the store cards buyers religiously, Beaupre said it doesn't stop the problem of adults who buy alcoholic beverages and share them with minors.
"They're definitely targeting youth," says Lindsay Elam, a certified prevention specialist for the Area Substance Abuse Council. "They have done this with several other energy drinks, like Sparks."
Actually, Elam says, the new high-alcohol malt beverages are marketed as energy drinks. They contain caffeine and other ingredients that younger drinkers prefer, because they believe the stimulants will help keep partying longer.
Earlier alcopop energy drinks such as 4-percent-alcohol Sparks come in cans that look quite similar to non-alcoholic energy drinks, Elam said.
"If you don't read labels carefully, it would be hard to identify what was what," Elam said. "It poses a problem because it includes alcohol without the bad alcohol taste. You taste a fruity taste with it."
While Sparks and Four could both be called alcopop energy drinks, there's no comparison when it comes to the alcohol-to-energy ratio.
A bottle of Four costs about 40 cents more, but is 12 percent alcohol compared to Sparks' 4 percent. The volume of beverage in a can is 50 percent greater.
One 23.5-ounce container of Joose or Four, to uninitiated young drinkers, equals one drink, Elam said.
"Kids are going to take it as, "I only had one can of alcohol, so I only had one drink."
Although John's Grocery in Iowa City is patronized by many University of Iowa students, Alberhasky said he won't stock the new high-alchohol malt beverages. He called them "irresponsible," and diametrically opposed to his goal of supporting responsible consumption of high-quality brews.
"These products are for nothing but effect," Alberhasky said.
A call to City Brewing Co. of La Crosse, Wis., the maker of Four, was not immediately returned.