On Brooklyn Brewery’s website, if you enter that you were born after October 1997 you’re redirected to the “Got Milk?” website. Click that “No,” you’re not “of legal drinking age,” on Castle Island Brewing’s site and you’re sent to the nonsensical “official homepage” of the Salmon of Capistrano. Do likewise on Other Half Brewing’s page and you’re sent to some strange kazoo video.
Age gates: Meant to prove the person behind the keyboard or touchscreen is actually of legal drinking age. A minor pain in the butt for someone simply trying to figure out what kinds of beers a brewery offers, they’re the bane of existence for any one like, say, beer writers who spend a lot of their time visiting brewery websites. The breweries themselves hardly seem to respect them either as shown by the cavalier attitude above.
So why do they continue to exist?
Let’s start with the history of beer advertising
Beer advertisements have existed pretty much since beer has existed. The first official print ads for beer most likely came from Guinness, as early as 1794. Post-prohibition, with the advent of television, beer commercials started appearing—St. Louis’s Hyde Park Brewery is often cited as being the first brewery to sponsor a TV show, which they did in 1947. By the 1950s, Carling Black Label Beer commercials had become a bit of a sensation and the 1960s and 1970s would see a massive boom in beer commercials. From the get-go, these beer commercials only ran late at night, never on Sundays and, due to morality concerns, actors were rarely shown drinking.
But there was no law per se controlling any of this.
In light of the First Amendment, the Federal Trade Commission “has long encouraged the alcohol industry to adopt and comply with self-regulatory standards to reduce the extent to which alcohol advertising targets teens, whether by placement or content.” This has mostly meant that alcohol companies have self-complied with three regulations of their own creation, the most notable being that their advertising and marketing should only be placed in media where at least 71.6% of the audience is expected to be of legal drinking age. According to the FTC, over 99% of beer advertising complies with that.
Things would change when the free-for-all, wild west of the internet arrived.
When did age gates arise?
Since the world wide web hasn’t been around that long—only since around the late-1990s when Al Gore invented it (that’s a lame joke for you older readers)—obviously age verification systems haven’t been around that long either. It would seem the earliest appeared at the end of the 1990s, but most didn’t appear until well into the aughts.
The Internet Wayback Machine (which captures websites as they appeared on certain past dates) finds a Budweiser website existing as early as October of 1996—and boy is it ugly—but it lacked an age gate. In fact, it encouraged visitors to enter a pumpkin carving contest. By 1998, a basic month/date/year age gate, with the phrase “What is your born on date?” hovering above it, had appeared to guard Bud’s now slightly less gross website.
Was this the online beer world’s first age gate? Hard to say, but as of 1998 there were only around 1500 craft breweries in America, so it’s certainly possible the King of Beers was also the King of Annoying Age Verifications. Spot-checking the other big breweries of the era and their then-websites I find: Yuengling didn’t offer an age gate until 2002. Sierra Nevada’s arrived in 2005. Stone in 2011. Sam Adams in 2013!
Believe it or not—and we’ll get back to this in a sec—many breweries still don’t have them. And that’s because...
Are they government mandated?
A 2008 report, Self-Regulation in the Alcohol Industry: Report of the Federal Trade Commission, which is 86 pages, all of which I (mostly) skimmed, offers some hilarious suggested regulations, such as: “Suppliers who operate websites to promote their brands should use neutral age-entry screens, complemented by tracking tools to prevent minors from back-clicking to change their birth date once they realize that they have been blocked from an alcohol company website based on their age.”
They have some other completely unrealistic, Big Brother ideas as well, recommending “systems that instantly compare the consumer’s personal information to electronic databases of government and commercial information, to verify that the identified consumer is 21 or older.”
OK… but the only passage that really matters is one on page 16 that notes: “It also recommended that sites featuring content likely to have strong appeal to minors, or that permit alcohol purchases online, consider use of age-verification technologies.”
How breweries responded
Even if many of those aforementioned suggestions were totally farcical, adding age gates wasn’t that big of deal to most breweries and by the late aughts most company’s websites had them.
The Brewers Association Marketing and Advertising Code digital guidelines were also adopted in 2008, with the most recent amendment noting that: “Brewers should require disclosure of a viewer’s date of birth with a message indicating that brewers’ products are intended only for those of legal drinking age… at the entry to their websites.”
But why do some make you put your whole stupid birthday in?
Of course, since there are no laws, and no exacting legal requirements for age gates, every brewery locks the gates in a different way.
Hill Farmstead makes you click “Yes, I am 21 Years Old.”
Cigar City has a drop-down menu for each.
Several others makes you scroll to each of the date/month/year, which kinda feels like playing the slots… or cracking into your high school locker.
Blue Point has a pretty crazy one where you search for the month, day, and year amongst a screen of countless numbers floating in the air. It feels like A Beautiful Mind!
Heineken US allows you to just pass the gate via Facebook login. Now your friends and family will know you’re reading about Heinie for some weird reason.
And what happens if you click no?
Any number of things from the helpful to the annoying to the silly to the absurd.
Enter “No” on Threes Brewing’s site and you’ll be sent back to Google to, uh, maybe figure out a better way to bypass this lax system, genius.
Trillium just says “We’re sorry!” while Boulevard commends you for your honesty: “So you’re not old enough to drink AND you have an overwhelming sense of integrity that won’t allow you to lie, even to a website?”
Hardywood doesn’t even allow you to click that you’re “Not yet” 21, though it’s impossible to tell if that’s merely a coding error.
Arizona Wilderness gets super meta (or was it just lazy?) and sends you to Age Verify, a site that offers custom age gates you can add to your own brewery website.
America Solera redirects to PBS Kids.
Ommegang sends you to a preachy government-run site called The Cool Spot, which is not cool at all, and offers “The young teen’s place for info on alcohol and resisting peer pressure.”
While if you click “No” on Abita’s age gate you’ll be sent to their soft drink portfolio, which don’t look half bad. I need to try that King Cake one!
Who doesn’t lock the gates?
But, again, these are just guidelines. There’s nothing mandatory about age gates and, purely by my own tireless searching over the last week or so, it seems like around 15-20% of breweries don’t utilize them whatsoever. Those badasses include breweries big and small, notable and mostly unknown—Firestone Walker, Dogfish Head, Jester King, The Alchemist, The Ale Apothecary, Tree House and Surly to name a few.
They don’t have age gates and nothing seems to be wrong, business is still thriving, ATF agents aren’t breaking down the brewery doors with hatchets. The breweries in most cases manage to be respectable, responsible and even family friendly. Hell, Surly’s Minneapolis taproom even has an entire children’s play area within it.
If you assumed those aforementioned brewery absentmindedly forgot to add an age gate, or maybe don’t have a skilled enough coder to drop one in, you’d be wrong. Many of these breweries think age gates are just as dumb as most consumers do.
“The age gate is maybe the most useless thing on the internet, which is no mean feat in 2018,” notes Holly Manthei, Surly’s senior marketing manager. “It’s not legally required, even the most hormone-addled teen has the presence of mind to lie about their age, and it puts an unnecessary roadblock in front of adults trying to read about our beer. They’re useless, is what we’re saying.”
Want to be a little snitch?
But still, don’t be a cop.
Most importantly—do age gates actually work?
Define “work”... Again from Self-Regulation in the Alcohol Industry, though this report from 2014: “One company’s research indicated that the age gate at a popular brand website turned away about 38 percent of visitors. Research by another company revealed that 33 percent of visitors to a mobile brand page did not pass through the age gate.” Though even the report notes the folly of these numbers, revealing that half of teens lie about their age to bypass age gates.
But maybe not allowing America’s youth to read about beer before they ever drink it is ultimately harmful in the long run. Last year, internet law professor Marvin Cable told Food & Wine, “In looking at laws in various other countries around the world, we see that sometimes more access to and knowledge about drugs and alcohol has a better effect on harm reduction than less access and knowledge.”
So are age gates working or are they not? Who knows, but they probably aren’t leaving any time soon. As Josh Gold, head of corporate communications for Anheuser-Busch explains, “While not a perfect science, it helps convey the message that we’re committed to advertising responsibly and promoting our products only to those of legal drinking age.”
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo