It used to be that the federal government prohibited brewers from listing the percentage of alcohol on the labels of beers to discourage people from choosing their beverages based on alcohol content. But that’s not true anymore.
In 1935, two years after the repeal of Prohibition, the Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA) Act prohibited the labeling of beers’ alcohol potencies for fear of “strength wars” breaking out among competitive brewers.
Ironically, some sixty years later when light beers and low-alcohol beers were becoming popular, brewers wanted the right to brag about how little alcohol their products contained, and they challenged the “no tell” law. In 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the labeling ban violated the First Amendment by interfering with the brewers’ right to free speech.
I hereby quote from the April 1, 2000, revision of The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27 (Alcohol, Tobacco Products and Firearms), Chapter 1 (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Department of the Treasury), Part 7 (Labeling and Advertising of Malt Beverages), Subpart C (Labeling Requirements for Malt Beverages), Section 7.71 (Alcoholic content), Subsection (a):
“Alcoholic content, may be stated on a label unless prohibited by State law.”
Individual states are therefore explicitly allowed to trump federal law if they wish, which is not the case with wine or distilled spirits, over which federal law rules supreme. As you can imagine, state beer-labeling laws now vary all over the lot.
From The Beer Institute I obtained information published in the Modern Brewery Age Blue Book, which summarizes the crazy quilt of labeling laws in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
By my count, about twenty-seven states still prohibit the labeling of alcohol content, four states require the labeling of beers containing less than 3.2 percent alcohol, and the rest either don’t seem to care or have laws that are so complex as to raise questions about the alcoholic content of the legislators.
Minnesota laws win the prize for complexity. Alaska, as far as I can tell, both prohibits and requires strength labeling.