Ingrid Burke for the Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI)

International Brewers Day 2012 will be a bittersweet affair for many Russian beer fans. By this time next year, many of the ultra-lenient policies currently enjoyed by the nation’s beer venders and consumers will have been supplanted by more restrictive ones. Full implementation of the 2011 federal law on beer sale and consumption is set for January 2013. Thus next year’s International Brewers Day festivities will be marked by comparatively heavy-handed restrictions. Holiday devotees will have to shop between the hours of 8:00am and 11:00pm, will no longer have the benefit of patronizing street venders for their beer purchases, and will no longer enjoy the luxury of drinking in the streets or in public parks. If all goes according to plan, suffice it to say some major changes are in store.

In order to encourage our readers to enjoy this holiday, rather than spending it lamenting these impending changes, we have gathered information on liquor laws around the world. A look at some of the alternatives makes it clear that the new regulations imposed by the 2011 law could be a lot worse.

For context, it should be noted that in most jurisdictions worldwide, beer is legally classified as an alcoholic beverage, and thus receives the same legal treatment as such other beverages as wine and liquor. In fact, the 2011 beer law made international headlines due primarily to global intrigue over Russia’s former classification of beer as a food item, rather than an alcoholic beverage.

In imposing a total ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol, Saudi Arabia stands at one extreme end of the international alcohol policy spectrum. It is a well-known fact that Saudi Arabia strictly adheres to Islamic Shari'ah law. The nation has gained notoriety for its brutal enforcement of such laws. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that in a country where public beheadings are still commonplace, breaches of the prohibition can carry harrowing consequences. Indiscretions can lead to public floggings, steep fines, and prison sentences ranging from several months for consumption to several years for the sale of alcohol. 

Most countries without absolute prohibitions tend to limit the purchase and consumption of alcohol by minors under a legally prescribed age. The majority of countries around the world impose a minimum drinking age within the 18-21 range. There are, however, exceptions to this norm. Certain states in India prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol by anyone under the age of 25. Countries with fairly liberal attitudes toward liquor, such as Jamaica, Luxembourg, Italy, Georgia, and Portugal, have established 16 as the age of majority. Still more lenient countries have refrained from restricting the purchase and consumption of alcohol by minors of any age. According to the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP), the following countries impose no such restrictions on minors: Albania, Cambodia, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Kyrgyzstan, and Togo. As we will see below, however, this leniency doesn’t come without a price.

As a testament to the problems that tend to accompany ultra-liberal alcohol policies—including alcohol-related disease and violent crime—Albania’s Ministry of Health introduced a comprehensive action plan in 2010 aimed at preventing and minimizing alcohol abuse. Acknowledging the insufficiency of the current legislative framework, the Ministry of Health proposes stricter and more pervasive control over the consumption of alcohol by minors, the manufacturing of moonshine, the availability of liquor licenses, and taxation on alcohol. While these regulations seem fairly standard from an international perspective, the Ministry of Health has made clear its intention to go above and beyond global standards when it comes to alcohol-related crimes. The action plan includes a ban on the serving of alcohol, “in bars to former condemned persons for alcohol-related offences, for a period determined by the court.”

The US falls somewhere between Saudi Arabia and Albania on the international alcohol policy spectrum. Federal law effectively mandates 21 as the minimum age for the purchase of alcohol throughout the country. State and local law tend to govern all other aspects of liquor consumption, thus resulting in a broad patchwork of alcohol policies. On a basic level, this has resulted in the existence of varying minimum age requirements for the consumption of alcohol. On a more interesting level, this has led to the establishment of some truly odd liquor laws.

The majority of US jurisdictions impose “open container” laws, which prohibit the consumption of alcohol in the streets and other public areas. We know personally of a highly respectable Czech businessman who had a run-in with the law for this very reason in San Francisco, CA. While in town for a conference, the businessman walked from the bar to the entryway of his hotel with an open bottle of beer in hand. As he stood just outside the door attempting to flag down a taxi, he was seized, slammed up against a police car, and handcuffed due to some combination of his open bottle of beer and the language barrier. Even more odd than the extremeness of this situation itself is the fact that it occurred in San Francisco, a city known to be one of the most socially liberal in the country.

There are many other strange US alcohol laws where that came from. For instance, the sale of alcohol on Election Day is banned completely during polling hours in Kentucky and South Carolina, and with certain local exemptions in Alaska and Massachusetts as well. In Louisiana, a popular (and surprisingly legal) way to pick up a quick beverage is by driving through a frozen daiquiri stand. In Alaska, alcohol cannot be purchased between the hours of 5:00am and 8:00am. In Florida, the governor reserves the right to ban the sale of alcohol during a hurricane or other events likely to cause the declaration of a state of emergency. The US is speckled with “dry counties,” which impose prohibition-era bans on the sale and consumption of all liquor. Pennsylvanian laws make it difficult for resident beer fans to drink in moderation. If one wants to drink a beer at home in Pennsylvania, his only options are to purchase a case (containing 20-24 bottles or cans) from a state-run beer outlet, or to pay a steep mark-up fee for a 6-pack from a licensed restaurant or bar. The sale of alcohol is completely banned on Sundays in 13 states. These are just a few of the flourishes that define the US’ unique liquor law culture.

From this perspective, it seems that the rights of Russian beer fans to enjoy their favorite beverage will remain relatively intact. While retail hours and locations will be more limited than before, beer drinkers will still have 15 hours a day to make their purchases, even on Sundays and Election Days. Patrons won’t be required to prove their clean criminal backgrounds to servers or bartenders when ordering a round at a cafe. And last but certainly not least, beer fans in Russia have no reason to fear a public flogging.