Q&A Time

So people occasionally ask me questions about brewing and beer and occasionally I give them pretty thorough answers. This is one of those second occasions.

Someone was asking me about alcohol content of beers in Mississippi, specifically if standard beers like Budweiser are more alcoholic in other states. What ya know about this?


To give a little background on the question, Mississippi has many archaic blue laws. Here are some of the ones I have experienced in Oxford, Mississippi: no alcohol sales on Sunday; no sale of beer and liquor in the same store (I have also heard it stated as being illegal to sell liquor and wine at the grocery – either way, this amounts to beer in gas stations and groceries, and liquor and wine have their own stores); and no sale of cold beer (this law was circumvented by the local “beer barn.” They kept their beer outside in a drive-through barn, and so during the winter the beer would have been naturally cold without refrigeration). Different versions of these laws may be present in different counties in MS, and some of them may be statewide.

Most pertinently, though, the entire state forbids sale of beer over 5% ABW (alcohol by weight). ABW is an archaic term for measuring the alcohol content of something. It differs from ABV (alcohol by volume – this is what you always see on modern beer labels) because while the specific gravity of water is 1 gram per milliliter (g/mL – specific gravity is the density of a liquid relative to water, so water is 1), the specific gravity of ethanol (drinking alcohol) is 0.79. What this means is that a pint of water and a pint of alcohol will have different weights (16oz versus 12.8oz) even though they are the same volume. So to convert from ABW to ABV, we divide ABW by 0.79. Thus, (5% ABW)/(0.79) = 6.33% ABV.

What this boils down to is that a lot of the world’s beers are illegal to sell in Mississippi (I don’t know if it is technically illegal to possess them, and I don’t care to find out). If you are interested in getting this foolish law overturned and letting Mississippi join the other 49 states in enjoying higher-gravity beers, direct yourself towards Raise Your Pints. RYP is an advocacy group out of Mississippi that is determined to have more reasonable beer laws in place. They also hold special tasting events and hosted the state’s first beer festival last Summer. They are good people, like all craft beer drinkers.

So after my initial rambling, back to Matt’s question:

Someone was asking me about alcohol content of beers in Mississippi, specifically if standard beers like Budweiser are more alcoholic in other states. What ya know about this?

I have heard this rumor perpetuated regarding several states and several beers before. The answer is: not with beers like Budweiser, no. There are some (very few) beers that will ship with two different alcohol contents, but that is usually the exception, not the rule. I can’t even give you an example of one that does, but it is theoretically possible. I think that practice may officially be dead. At 4.2% ABV, Bud Lite doesn’t come close to breaching MS law, nor does regular Budweiser at 5.0% ABV. Off the top of my head, the only beer that Anheuser-Busch InBev brews that does violate the MS law is Wild Blue, which has an ABV of 8% and an unnatural blue tint. From personal experience, I assure you MS is not missing anything.

Anyway, the Bud brewed in FL is the same as the Bud brewed in MO is the same as the Bud brewed in CA. Today, for a mega corporation like Anheuser-Busch InBev, it would be fiscally irresponsible to brew a special beer just for a blue state. It’s also worth noting that if Mississippi were to, say, lower the legal alcohol by volume to 3.9% (Budweiser is 5%, Bud Lite is 4.2%, Michelob Ultra is 4%), AB-IB has the money and power to get that fixed real quick. AB-IB accounts for roughly 45-50% of all beer sales nationwide. Yes, one in every two beers purchased is an Anheuser-Busch InBev product. Miller-Coors is less than that, and I think “everybody else” aka microbrew is 5-10%, but that may be an overestimate for them. As it stands, AB-IB actually has a vested interest in keeping the blue laws on the books because it doesn’t limit any of their products (except Wild Blue) but it keeps over 2/3 of the overall competing beers out there off the shelves in MS. An interesting (though clearly biased) documentary on the subject is Beer Wars.

Over the past century there were more laws on the books limiting the alcohol content in beer (as usual, MS is the last to hold on to tradition… AL and WV were the other last states to have these laws, but they dropped them last year), and so some breweries were brewing different beers for different states. The technology of the day was also something that permitted this because lack of refrigeration was the most limiting factor for most of the past 150 years, so you basically had to brew what you could sell locally. (The ice-harvesting business for transporting beer was actually a significant national employer at one point… I can’t remember the number but it was unbelievable that so many people were harvesting natural ice.) Canning also did not exist for a long time, which was a big help in keeping beer from spoiling over long distances.

As recently as the 1970s, laws and geography were major players in beer distribution. The film Smokey and the Bandit is actually about smuggling a truck full of Coors east of the Mississippi River and into Georgia, where it was illegal. I am wholeheartedly willing to consider it a documentary for this reason.

So a few weeks later I was reading Brew Like a Monk: Trappist, Abbey, and Strong Belgian Ales and How to Brew Them and I learned something interesting. There may be instances where you can find a beer that has a different labeled ABV% in the US versus other countries. One (delicious) example is the Trappist beer Orval, brewed by Orval Abbey in Belgium. It lists a 6.9% ABV in the US, but a 6.2% ABV in Belgium.

The devil? you say.

It has to do with laws regarding label accuracy. In the US, a beer has to be within 0.3% of its listed ABV, but in Belgium, it only has to be within 1%. Due to the way Orval is made and when it is consumed/tested, it may have an unusually varying ABV. It is bottled with Brettanomyces yeast, which is not exactly normal brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae – remember the Spanish word cerveza). The S. cerevisiae has eaten all of the sugars it cares to and so it has gone to secondary and tertiary metabolisms by this time (cleaning up diacetyl and other ‘off’ flavors). The Brettanomyces, however, has a slightly different diet, and will continue to ferment certain sugars into alcohol in the bottle. The additional time it takes to get the beer to the US may mean that it will have a higher ABV than the more recently brewed Orval sold in Belgium. The environment of the bottles may also affect the Brett fermentation, but it is very unlikely that the bottles will encounter extreme heat or cold to the point where it affects fermentation.

Brettanomyces is used as the primary brewer’s yeast in a couple of more esoteric styles – lambics (e.g. framboise), gueuze, kriek, and oud bruin (Flemish Old Brown Ale). The yeast produces a markedly different flavor profile compared to S. cerevisiae. It is noted for its sour fruity flavors due to the production of lactic acid by lactobacillus (bacteria often included with Brett for making these beers) and from Brett. And pediococcus species produce something or another as well. And if you remember the sense of taste, as the prototypical salty taste is sodium chloride, the prototypical sour taste is hydrochloric acid. In the very old days of chemistry, when they were identifying unknown compounds, they would actually dip a finger in and taste it (no joke!) and if it was sour, it was acidic.

So there you go. One beer. I found one beer that has different alcohol labeling. An answer to a yes-or-no question in under 1500 words.