Legal Drinking Ages

Someone asked me at an event about legal drinking ages, so here’s the word…

The Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Information website says this:

“All states prohibit providing alcohol to persons under 21, although states may have limited exceptions relating to lawful employment, religious activities, or consent by a parent, guardian, or spouse. Among states that have an exception related to such family member consent, that exception often is limited to specific locations (such as private locations, private residences, or in the parent or guardian’s home.) No state has an exception that permits anyone other than a family member to provide alcohol to a minor on private property. In addition, many states have laws that provide that “social hosts” are responsible for underage drinking events on property they own, lease, or otherwise control, whether or not the social host actually provides the alcohol.”

First of all, our events are in public places, though it may not feel like it in a quiet park or indoor hall. At events we obey the law – the law of the city/county, state, and nation we’re in.  We don’t have “discreetly damp” sites, they’re either wet or dry, by agreement with the owner. We really can’t afford to lose great event sites, or suffer the hit to our reputation when it comes to renting a site. I’ve seen more than one group thrown permanently off a site over alcohol.

The Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, establishing 21 as the minimum legal consumption and/or purchase age.  It’s enforced by state and local authorities, since states stand to lose 10% of their Federal highway funding if they don’t.


Some states allow consumption when a family member consents and/or is present. Presumably, the family member is over 21. States often define exactly which relatives my consent and in which circumstances the exception applies.

Some States allow an exception for consumption on private property. Our events are rarely if ever on private property. In addition to that, some states specify what kind of private property can be exempted – private residences only, the home of a parent or guardian only, etc.  In some jurisdictions, the parent, legal guardian, or legal-age spouse (yikes) must be present.

Some States also allow exceptions for educational purposes (e.g., students in culinary schools), religious purposes (e.g., sacramental use of alcoholic beverages), or medical purposes. This gave me a moment of hope – education is, if not the heart of the Brewers Guild, then the pericardium surrounding and supporting the heart. But no, the law gets into definitions of what “educational purposes” are, and the SCA doesn’t quite pass muster.

So ignore for a moment that Georgia does not limit consumption by the under-age. Virginia and Maryland require both the location and the presence of a supervising relative to be in force. The Carolinas and the District of Columbia make no exceptions at all to the Federal drinking age. SCA events don’t qualify even where exemptions exist, and Federal law trumps all anyway.

Besides, we’d be setting up our young’uns for a fall. Some U.S. states have legislation that make providing to and possession of alcohol by persons under twenty-one a gross misdemeanor with a potential of a $5,000 fine and a year or more in jail.  All it would take is one unhappy park ranger or local policeman.

So card your drinkers, people. Sometimes you can get Troll to do it, and mark people’s hands or persons, preferably in a period way. Don’t leave a tapped keg unattended – have a keg sentinel who cards everyone who comes for a tasty beverage. That person can even stand guard with a spear if they want (as long as they’re not drinking). Carding makes me feel pretty self-conscious, but I’ve never had anyone give me trouble over it.

True story: we were running a big demo at the National Geographic building for the Staffordshire Hoard display. We had something like 750 people come through that day; it was enormous fun. I was staffing a mead/hard cider station, and we carded everyone who came for a sample. I had just carded the man who had the earliest birthdate we saw that day – 1933! This gentleman laughed, and his friend started to josh us about it. We grinned and affirmed we had to. For some reason, I added that you just never know who might be an undercover or off-duty cop. The woman next in line said, “As a matter of fact…I am.” We carded her too.