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In the US there are tons of rules about alcohol that vary widely from state to state and at the federal level. For example you can brew your own beer in most states but you have to have a license for liquor. Similarly, wine tastings are usually OK but beer tastings are illegal in many places.

I'm not asking about the specifics of how each law came to be, that would take an encyclopedia. Rather, I want to know if there was an overall philosophy that drove regulating beer differently from other alcohol. Did different companies or industry groups lobby for laws that benefited their product over other companies products? Was there an overall public sentiment that drove the differences?

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I'd be that it has something to do with the fact that beer is generally low ABV compared to most other alcoholic beverages. –  wax eagle Jan 31 at 20:37
    
@waxeagle I'm pretty sure that's it but I want to see if there's a better answer. –  crownjewel82 Jan 31 at 20:38
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5 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Part of it is philosophical

Why are airplane pilots regulated differently from car drivers? Because it's much easier to do damage with one vs the other. Likewise, it's a lot easier to get so drunk that you do something stupid (or just get alcohol poisoning) on liquor than beer. As such, they're treated differently.

Part of it is political

The companies that make beer are not generally the same ones that make liquor. Those two groups of companies also have different groups of lobbyists, who have pushed for laws at different times in different political climates.

Part of it is practical

Liquor and beer production face different logistical needs. For example:

  • Beer has much higher shipping costs per dollar worth of product, so shipping rules might need to be different.
  • Breweries have a need to keep their product cold at the point of sale, so it might make sense to have them sold in stores that already have coolers (like gas stations), whereas liquor companies wouldn't push as hard for that availability.
  • Liquor has no equivalent of the brewpub, so they don't really care much about sales at their production facility.
  • Beer has less consumer utility per unit of volume than liquor (ie, you need more of it to have the same amount of fun), so people generally need it closer to their houses. Since you don't need to buy liquor as often as you buy beer, it's more feasible to have centralized liquor stores

Part of it is "moral"

Especially on the US East coast, there are a lot of laws around booze with their origins in religious morality and the puritan aversion to alcohol. Beer, being seen as a "lesser evil", tends to have less opposition to laws that would increase its availability.

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In Australia, too, beer laws are pretty political. The working class culture was/is closely associated with the drinking culture. Many Australian politicians have, historically, played on this culture and given concessions to brewers. For example, beer isn't required to have all of its ingredients listed because apparently the only ingredient is beer. –  anthony-arnold Feb 1 at 1:02
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Part of the answer has to do with how the beverages survived prohibition. Winemakers were allowed to continue producing various grape products like grape juice, and even sold home wine kits with explicit instructions on how to avoid making wine from them. Very tongue-in-cheek. A lot of liquor distillers managed to survive somewhat on their liquors being considered "medicinal". Beer, however, basically got demolished. Especially considering their suffering during World War 1, which had just ended when prohibition began. Any businesses that survived prohibition that used to be breweries either became producers of other products like ice cream or made barely alcoholic barley-based beverages. Brewing in the US was at a huge disadvantage coming out of prohibition, and the few surviving large companies managed to successfully lobby to have the new distribution laws written to benefit them.

Also, as I mentioned wine and liquor sort of continued to be produced during Prohibition. This led to their presence in the speakeasies, and their inclusion in the invention of many new cocktails. People being used to them over the past few years, and the allure of being what was drank in speakeasies, acted as built in marketing. Which beer lacked.

Finally, beer was much less transportable than wine or liquor, especially liquor. While localized wineries managed to survive, most people's local brewery had folded. Liquor and wine became go-to drinks, and the only beer being promoted was from a few larger companies that needed to ramp up to reach everyone. They were basically able to write their own ticket.

We're sort of in the opposite place now where consumer demand is for beer instead of liquor and wine, and the demand is for beer that's coming from smaller and more regional breweries, which I imagine is how wine was back in the day.

I am not an historian, some of this is inference from known fact rather than referenced fact, but I think it makes sense and hopefully it helps you.

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In addition to the ground covered in other answers, some of it undoubtedly is historical in nature due to the fact that wine, beer, and other ales historically were consumed for hydration and energy. This slate article covers some of this; while it was probably a myth that people drank ales as a source of clean water, they did hydrate and gain energy from them. As such, beer and ale were associated with 'normal' consumption, much like soda would be today, and thus is treated somewhat differently from 'spirits', which have no real purpose other than getting one drunk, and even from wine, which was primarily associated with the nobility.

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It's complicated. I think you have to look at these laws as an intersection of the practical and the cultural.

Let's look at two different distinctions you make.

Home Production

In the US, you can usually make your own beer, mead, or wine, but cannot make hard liquor without a license from BATF, state licenses, tax payments, etc. Exact laws of course vary state by state, but the US tax code contains exemptions for home brewers and wine makers.

Part of the reason here is historical. Liquor is a major tax source, and black market liquor hasn't always been very safe. We hear stories about wood alcohol making people go blind, but the real problems were either accidental heavy metal poisoning or deliberate adulteration with relatively nasty chemicals. In practice methyl alcohol was not a major problem, particularly accidental inclusion of it, as in most concentrations primarily makes the hangover significantly worse (btw, red wine is known for harsh hangovers as are some fruit brandies because of methyl alcohol content). The adulterants have included (and do include in some parts of the world) things like battery acid, caustic soda, and the like.

A second problem of course is safety. In the distilling process, you are dealing the combination, usually, of heating elements or open flames and a liquid that is roughly as flammable as gasolene. While it is quite possible to distil safely, there are generally acknowledged gains health and safety-wise to pushing for a formal economy here.

Wine Tastings vs Beer Tastings

Here laws vary considerably between states. For example, the one part of the liquor code that is explicitly applied to home brewers is an exemption for home brewing competitions. So you can take your beer to a competition without losing the home brewing exemption.

Wine tastings have almost always had some acceptance on the theory that making fine wine has a level of cultural refinement and aesthetic nuance that beer does not (we may find this false but it an attitude --- if you don't believe me, compare reading a wine review with a beer review). The wine culture is different from the beer culture and so they make a different case.

Again laws here vary state by state. However, the argument, I think, is that wine tasting is essential to the sales process, while beer drinkers are less picky on average.

In essence these laws have a practical component particularly where hard liquor is concerned, and a cultural component.

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I think it has something to do with the thinking of Whiskey Rebellion, -- a tax was on spirts but not wine or beer. Whiskey was considered a luxury tax - yet it turns out a LOT of people were making and drinking Whiskey at the time

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Two issues here, the first beer is taxed pretty significantly most places, as is most other alcohol. Second, I'm not sure I follow what you're getting at re: the Whiskey rebellion, that was about 150 years before modern alcohol laws would have appeared since they would have almost all been enacted post prohibition –  wax eagle Feb 1 at 0:31
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