Friday, July 15, 2005

Beer is not a race issue

Given my love for a finely crafted American microbrew or European ale, I was a little surprised when moving to North Carolina to learn that some of my favorite beers were not available here. Seems that an archaic law still sits on the books that forbids the manufacture and sale of beers containing greater than 6% alcohol by volume. So, while one can buy grain alcohol at the state ABC store, or a 14% alcohol chardonnay at the supermarket, you've gotta drive to Virginia to purchase Paulaner Salvator or Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine.

So, I've been a big supporter of Pop The Cap, an organization founded by Sean and All About Beer writer, Julie Bradford, to change North Carolina laws and bring beer civilization to the state. A great organization that garners my periodic financial support because they hired a lobbyist last year to get legislation drafted on the docket of the state legislature.

I certainly suspected some backlash since the state is home to a polarizing mix of political and religious leaders at each end of the spectrum. But never did I expect the racist rhetoric spewed on the State House floor last week by Sen. Jim Jacumin (R).

Thankfully, News & Observer columnist Barry Saunders put the episode in proper context in a way that my skin color precludes my license to do similarly, and with his usual sharp wit:
Beer is not a race issue
By BARRY SAUNDERS, Staff Writer

Say, here's an idea: If House Bill 392 passes, what say we go pop the cap on a 40, drive around blitzed out of our skulls and end the evening by pillaging?

That's not really going to happen, but alarmists who oppose the bill to allow stronger beers into the state are peddling just such a doomsday scenario. They are desperate to stop beers with an alcohol content higher than 6 percent from entering North Carolina. Proponents of House Bill 392 want to introduce beers with an alcohol level as high as 15 percent. Teresa Kostrzewa, a lobbyist who represents the bill's supporters, waxed downright artistic. Denying North Carolinians access to the full palette of the world's beers, she said, "is like telling Picasso you can paint, but you can't use certain colors -- like blue, green and yellow."

Some elected officials, including Sen. Jim Jacumin, paint a darker picture, one of an apocalyptic world in which college students and marauding bands of black and Hispanic youths, stoked by high-octane beers and malt liquors, commit assault, vandalism and suicide. Jacumin, a Republican representing Burke and Caldwell counties, said, "You're going to have a loosening of sexual inhibitions, more pregnancies and more abortions." From the House floor last week and in an interview with me Monday, Jacumin noted that the malt liquors whose content can be increased "250 percent" are marketed primarily to blacks. Ever mindful that we are incapable of rejecting the lure of malt liquor, he struck a pose of pure paternalism. "Let's not do this to our black brothers and sisters," he implored his colleagues.

Julie Bradford, editor of All About Beer magazine in Raleigh and a co-founder of the campaign to allow stronger beers, scoffed at what she labeled scare tactics and "cringe-worthy comments." The products most likely to be affected by the proposed bill, said Bradford, who also writes a column for The News & Observer, "are not an inviting alternative to people looking for a cheap high. The beers we're talking about are expensive and an acquired taste."

That, to me, means they won't go good with pickled pigs' feet. Darn.

I have on my desk four designer beers I got from Kostrzewa for research purposes. Alcohol content ranges from 6.5 percent to 11.4 percent. I paid for them, and I'm going to drink them -- yup, for research -- and let you know whether I suddenly develop an urge to pillage villages. Nobody can dispute that drugs such as alcohol have cut a destructive path through communities of young minorities. In many neighborhoods you can see aimless, blank-eyed young men holding a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor with one hand and their pants up with the other. Blecchhh.

Equally distasteful, though, is the cynicism of politicians who'd pimp a serious social ill for political gain. Kids injured by the too-easy access to alcohol absolutely need someone to lobby on their behalf. But they need someone who really cares and is not just feigning concern to strengthen their argument. If you want to oppose the boutique beer bill, fine. Just don't exploit young black people's misery to do it.

Want to buy Barry a beer? Or tell him what you think? Call him at 836-2811 or send him e-mail at barrys@newsobserver.com.

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