Food & Drink Week
3:23 pm
Mon November 25, 2013

Legal Showdown Brewing Over Indiana Beer Temperature Regulation

The state of Indiana is one the last places in the U.S. that regulates the retail sale of beer by temperature.

In the Hoosier State, only package liquor stores are permitted to sell cold, or to be more exact, “chilled” beer.    At convenience and grocery stores, the beer must be room temperature.

Some of those establishments are challenging the law in federal court, but Indiana’s liquor store industry isn’t staying quiet.

Most of these kinds of alcohol laws stem from the repeal of Prohibition in 1932, when states were given wider discretion to regulate alcoholic beverages.     At first, Indiana had no beer temperature restrictions,  but that eventually changed.   The current regulation has been on the books for 50 years.

“In a lot of alcohol laws in a lot of states coming out of Prohibition, everybody divided up a bit of turf.  And now here we are, 80-90 years from Prohibition, you have to go back and look at that, does this still make sense today,” said Scot Imus, executive director of the Indiana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, which filed the suit. 

Imus says not only does Indiana’s beer law make no sense, it’s unconstitutional.

“And not really based on public policy, but based on propping one group of businesses up and giving them advantage over another group of businesses.”

Convenience and grocery store owners took their argument to the General Assembly a few years ago, but lawmakers declined to change the rule.   Now some of them are making their case in federal court, arguing that the law violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.  

They’ve long complained that it’s costing them a lot of money and customers who want the convenience of picking up a cold six pack at their stores.

But liquor store owners say the privilege of selling cold beer comes with its own price, and if the convenience and grocery store owners want a piece of the action, they should have to put some skin in the game.

At The Keg Liquor Store in Clarksville, owner Todd Antz says package stores must follow a strict set of rules that don’t apply to the other retailers.   For example, no one under 21 is allowed to enter his store, and his employees must be trained and licensed.

“Any clerk in a grocery store can ring you up, without any permit to the state,” Antz said. 

Some liquor store owners want to intervene in the suit.   They say if the law is changed, then the same rules should apply to everyone.

Antz says beer makes up about 50 percent of sales at this and his other store in New Albany.  He sees no need to change the law.

“It’s a good, stable platform that we’re in right now.   We keep a lot more control over our products that you’ll see in the chains”

One of the chains that wants to sell cold beer in Indiana is Louisville-based Thornton’s. 

It’s a growing company and has about two dozen stores in Indiana.     But Thornton’s vice-president David Bridgers says they haven’t built one there since 2006, because of the beer law.

“We love Indiana, but you’ve got to go and invest where you get the best return for your stockholders, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Bridgers said. 

In the last Indiana General Assembly, grocery and convenience store owners failed to persuade lawmakers to change another state law, and allow beer sales on Sunday.   That was also opposed by liquor store owners, who said trying to compete with large chains for Sunday sales would put them out of business.

No date has been set for a decision on the federal lawsuit.

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This story is part of WFPL's Food & Drink Week. We'll be exploring dining and libations in the Louisville area ahead of Thanksgiving. You'll find new stories here everyday through the holiday.