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State Rules 'Polygamy Porter' Unsuitable for Sale

North Carolina is one of 17 "control states," where government agencies regulate the sale of spirits at the wholesale level.

North Carolina is one of 17 "control states," where government agencies regulate the sale of spirits at the wholesale level. Shutterstock

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North Carolina's alcohol board refused to allow the beer to be sold in the state because its label depicts polygamy, an illegal act.

The state of North Carolina won't allow a Utah brewery to sell the company’s Polygamy Porter in the state because the beer’s name and its label art promote an unlawful act.

“Polygamy is illegal,” reads a June letter from the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission to the Utah Brewers Cooperative, which produces and sells beers for Wasatch Brewery, the company behind Polygamy Porter. “Therefore these products will not be approved.”

North Carolina is one of 17 control states, which operate under a model where government agencies regulate the sale of spirits, wine and beer at the wholesale level. Sellers must seek approval from the state ABC board for any product they wish to sell to consumers in North Carolina, which may be approved or rejected for a number of reasons outlined in state regulations. Roughly 19,000 products were approved last year, according to Kat Haney, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Wasatch’s application was denied due to its label art, which depicts a bearded man with three women in various states of undress. State statute directs ABC officials to deny applications if a product “depicts the use of alcoholic beverages in a scene that is determined by the Commission to be undignified, immodest, or in bad taste.”

(Courtesy of Wasatch Brewery)

Jon Lee, Wasatch’s brewmaster and co-chief operating officer, appealed the decision. In a hearing Wednesday, the board once again rejected the application based on the same criteria.

"The NC ABC always gives thoughtful consideration to each label and uses the criteria outlined in the statutes as the basis for every rejection or approval,” Haney said.

Lee was not immediately available for comment. Following the denial, he told the Salt Lake Tribune that the state’s policy was arbitrary and lacked consistency based on other products that received approval from the commission, including Santa’s Butt winter porter and Pimp brown ale. 

Legal action to appeal the decision is an option, Lee said, and attorneys had advised him that it was a “winnable case.” That opinion was largely based on a 2015 court decision that the state of Michigan had violated Flying Dog Brewery’s First Amendment rights by refusing to allow its Raging Bitch ale to be sold in the state on the ground that the beer’s label “which includes the brand name ‘Raging Bitch’ contains such language deemed detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the general public." 

The brewery sued the state and individual members of its Liquor Control Commission for violating its right to freedom of speech. A federal appeals court ruled in 2015 that past cases had made it clear that “banning a beer label based on its content would violate the First Amendment.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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