March 17, 2010

Mug Shots: Free at last, free at last

In Indiana, amid the usual crazed politicking of the general assembly, something unexpected has happened. I half expect to awaken from a dream and find my fridge stocked with cheap American beer, because narrow rays of liberal sense and intelligibility have somehow evaded the scrutiny of society’s persistent naysayers — the Prohibitionists, the health fascists and the do-gooders forever banding together to pick at the carrion of over-regulated adult pleasures — and Senate Bill 75 has landed on the desk of Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is expected to sign it into law.

As we await the Danielsian pen stroke, it’s beginning to dawn on me that given Indiana’s traditionally Neanderthal sociopolitical proclivities, it just might be the most progressive piece of legislation in the state since civil rights statutes belatedly bubbled to the surface in the 1960s.

SB 75 manages not one, not two, but three long overdue feats of rationality.

1) Starting July 1, Indiana’s 30-plus craft breweries finally will achieve equality with the state’s small wineries by being allowed to sell carry-out beer on Sunday, both in growlers (draft jugs) and bottles (or cans). The beer must be brewed on site, and there is a limit on the total number of ounces that can be sold.

2) Statewide alcoholic-beverage-serving hours on Sunday are to be rationalized for all license holders. Soon we can begin at 7 a.m. and end at 3 a.m. Monday.

3) The prohibition against Election Day alcohol sales is set to disappear into the voluminous American trash heap of theocratic blue laws.

The Brewers of Indiana Guild worked hard to lobby for Sunday growler sales, but we took no position on the other legislative planks. Help came from other quarters. The city of Indianapolis actively pressed for expanded Sunday hours, pointing to sporting events that end so late in the evening that bars and restaurants have already given last call. Meanwhile, Indiana’s Alcohol and Tobacco Commission sought clarification of the election rules, asking whether it must enforce them when (for example) a town elects a sewer board or dogcatcher on non-traditional balloting days.

I expected greater opposition to SB 75 from groups comprising the Axis of Buzzkill, but it never really materialized. The well-funded lobby devoted to curbing underage drinking actually seemed to grasp that little if any of this pertains to maintaining the drinking age at 21 under the rationale that we must protect young developing brains, even once they are old enough to join the military and fight overseas, be shot at and sometimes die, at the tender age of 18.

But it didn’t stop the group’s spokesperson from asking that language be added to the bill prohibiting under-21s from working as brewers, which struck me as plain bizarre, since Indiana currently allows 19- and 20-year-olds to handle alcoholic beverages at a bar or in a grocery.

Much brewery work takes place prior to fermentation. Furthermore, how exactly do we define “brewer”? Knowledge and ability, not a license, is all that is required. Why shouldn’t a trained, professional, 40-year-old brewer hire a hormonal teenager to work off sexual frustration by doing the mundane tasks associated with commercial brewing? After all, emptying spent grain from a mash tun, mopping or cleaning kegs for filling puts one nowhere near the cold side where fermentation takes place.

That said, the gist of Sunday growler sales from a craft brewery and carry-out bottles of wine from a winery are one and the same. Both help promote a leisurely Sunday outing in the sense of regional tourism and make it possible to take drinks home rather than enforcing a situation where on-premise consumption is the only option.

The eternal problem is that Sunday carry-out sales are so perfectly logical, both from the standpoint of lost tax revenue to neighboring states and advocacy of impaired driving enforcement, that universal application (all vendors, not just breweries and wineries) is impossible.

Politics do not exist to acknowledge obvious truth. Rather, the purpose is to gaze upon a finely marbled beefsteak and plot ways to render it into hash.

How SB 75 avoided this fate is a mystery — and a miracle.

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany.