When bottles of Elevation Beer Company's new Engel Weisse hit shelves in late July, the German-style brew will have the lowest alcohol content of any Colorado beer sold in a liquor store -- 4 percent ABV, or 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.
And it would have been much lower, between 2.5 and 3.4 percent ABV, if Elevation hadn't received a couple of reminders about a controversial rule that forbids liquor stores from selling low-alcohol beers, those that weigh in at under 4 percent ABV.
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"We took a deeper look into the law and talked to some of our distributors and some retail outlets...and decided to change the recipe a little bit," says Elevation spokesman Xandy Bustamante. "The difference in taste is very, very minimal."
The beer is a traditional German-style Berliner weisse, meaning it has crisp, sour notes that make it good for hot-weather drinking. Elevation aged its version in second-use whiskey barrels that have been washed so that they impart more of the oak flavors.
In Germany, these unfiltered wheat-based beers are served with sweet syrups, like raspberry and woodruff; Elevation will do the same in its Poncha Springs taproom.
"We wanted to do something sour for a long time, and we decided that we specifically wanted to make a Berliner weisse because it's an everyday sour, and one that you can have a couple of because it's low in alcohol," Bustamante says.
Originally, Elevation planned to brew the beer at 2.5 percent ABV, which would have made it around the same alcohol content as similar beers in Germany, and then it moved it up to 3.4 percent. The brewery even made a batch of Engel Weisse at that ABV -- before realizing that the alcohol content was still too low to be legally sold in liquor stores.
"We were disappointed when we had to change it," Bustamante says. "But since draft accounts and liquor stores are 100 percent of our business, we adjusted the recipe."
The change was forced by a Colorado Department of Revenue rule that received a lot of attention in 2010 and 2011 amid the ongoing political and legislative dispute between grocery/convenience stores and liquor stores and craft brewers.
Because of Colorado's arcane Prohibition-era laws, the chains aren't allowed to sell beer above 4 percent ABV (or 3.2 percent by weight) at more than one location. Liquor stores and craft brewers like it that way because they believe the existing rules make it easier for these independent, locally-owned businesses to thrive.
The chains try to change the laws every year, however, and in 2010, as part of the sometimes heated political debate, they demanded that the state enforce an often-overlooked rule that forbade restaurants, bars and liquor stores from selling low-alcohol beers.
Although the rule doesn't bother liquor stores, it would have been hard on bars and restaurants that serve low-alcohol standards like Corona Light and Murphy's Irish Stout. So the restaurant industry fought back, passing Senate Bill 60 in the spring of 2011, which gave them the right to serve low-alcohol beers.
There are currently no efforts under way to pass a similar law benefiting liquor stores, says Steve Kurowski, spokesman for the Colorado Brewers Guild, which represents the majority of the state's craft brewers in the legislature.
"We will see how breweries navigate these rules as the session beer trend evolves," he adds. "These are different than anything else they brew in regards to how they are sold."
The lowest-alcohol Colorado craft beers for sale on liquor store shelves right now are Agave Wheat from Breckenridge Brewery and Mexican Logger, from Ska Brewing, which both weigh in at 4.2 percent ABV. Crabtree's Berlinerweiss, Prost's Weissbier, and Dry Dock's Hefeweizen all come in at around 4.3 percent ABV.
Avery and Odell are also experimenting with lines of low-alcohol beers, but how that turns out and how they will be sold remains to be seen.
Elevation will sell its first batch of Engel Weisse, which is around 3.4 percent ABV, to bars and restaurants (and out of its tap room, which is legal). The second batch, at 4 percent ABV, will be bottled for sale in liquor stores.
"It would have been more fun to make an uber-traditional Berliner weisse with an ABV more accurate for that beer, but it still tastes fantastic," Bustamante says. "And as much as I don't like the rule, I'd still rather have liquor stores selling our beers than grocery stores."
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