Happy New Year’s Eve, everyone! Tonight as we ring in a new year, we’ll also be bidding farewell to an 85-year Colorado tradition – 3.2 beer. Beginning January 1, 2019 retailers across the state who previously only sold 3.2 beer will be stocking the full-strength stuff.
Today we’re going to look back at how we got here, and look ahead at what this change means for independent liquor stores and craft beer makers.
Whoa… Colorado Sells 3.2 Beer?
In case you’re not from these parts we’ll back up & explain. Yes, you can still only buy 3.2 beer at many Colorado grocery and convenience stores. Yes, we agree that it seems odd that the state that dubs itself “The State of Craft Beer” would have such antiquated beer laws, yet here we are.
Colorado first made 3.2 beer legal in the 1930s at the end of prohibition. Since then, the laws that regulate who can sell alcohol in Colorado have been pretty slow to change with the times. Heck, you only had to be 18 to buy 3.2 beer in Colorado until 1987. And until 2008 the only alcohol you could purchase on Sunday was 3.2 beer – nothing else.
It’s not that retailers couldn’t get liquor licenses to sell full-strength beer & booze in our state, its just that they were limited to one license to sell liquor for off-premises consumption, for only one location in the state. So while our Colorado grocery store chain King Soopers could have 180+ stores in Colorado, until recently only one of those stores could sell full-strength beer, wine & liquor. What did the rest sell? You guessed it… 3.2 beer & malt beverages.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it was for a lot of retailers. Take Trader Joe’s, for example. It took a long time for TJ’s to come to Colorado. When we finally got the much-anticipated retailer in the state, it was bittersweet to realize that you could still only buy their 2-Buck Chuck in a single location. As you can imagine, that sucked.
While this law was certainly a bummer for anyone who wanted to grab their beer from their favorite grocery store, convenience store, or big-box retailer, it wasn’t bad for everyone. Colorado has a plethora of great independent liquor stores, all who flourished because of this weird licensing rule. Wherever you’d find a grocery store there was usually an independent liquor store nearby.
3.2 Beer Confusion
For a state that still sells 3.2 beer, there’s still some confusion about what that actually means. While a lot of folks commonly think it stands for 3.2% ABV (alcohol by volume) it actually means 3.2 ABW (alcohol by weight). Most of the 3.2 beers are actually around 4% ABV, which in today’s session-beer friendly environment isn’t totally ridiculous.
However, the confusion doesn’t stop there. Retailers selling 3.2 beer don’t go out of their way to advertise the lower-alcohol distinction, so consumers unfamiliar with our state laws may not know they’re buying a lower-alcohol version of their favorite beer unless you took notice of the fine print on the beer packaging.
3.2 beer was like an inside joke that all us Coloradans would play on the tourists and newcomers. As locals, we knew not to pick up our sixers at the grocery and convenience stores. We knew that you had to go to the liquor store for the “real stuff.” However, ask any transplant and we guarantee they learned this lesson the hard way, only after buying “near beer” without knowing any better.
The Demise of 3.2 Beer
It’s been a long journey to expand the retail beer offerings in Colorado. We saw the first sweeping changes in 2016 when the Colorado General Assembly passed SB16-197. This paved the way for increased liquor licenses for retailers. That bill also stipulated that 3.2 beer licenses would need to be phased out by January 1, 2019.
To meet that earlier established requirement the state legislature passed SB18-198 in 2018, eliminating the licenses for 3.2 beer and outlining how retailers could convert their licenses to sell full-strength beer and malt beverages. This is the law that is allowing most retailers who sell “near beer” today to start selling the full-strength stuff tomorrow, on January 1. In fact, shelves of 3.2 beer are already pretty bare (or filled with water and soda) as retailers sell off the old 3.2 beer stock in preparation for the big change.
The change in 3.2 beer laws has meant other laws had to be updated, too. Clerks at grocery, convenience and liquor stores now only have to be 18 years of age to sell full-strength beer, wine or spirits; previously they had to be 21. Colorado parks will also be changing their
Colorado is currently only one of four states that still sells 3.2 beer. One of the remaining states, Kansas, has already passed a law to sell stronger beer effective April 1, 2019. That will leave just Utah and Minnesota as the only states still hanging on to this prohibition-era 3.2 beer law.
What About Wine & Spirits?
Wine and alcohol are still covered under a different license, so you’ll still need to get
That being said, the 2016 law has allowed a gradual year-over-year increase in the number of full-strength liquor licenses available to retailers. There is a growing number of grocery stores and big-box stores that now sell full-strength beer, wine
So This is a Good Thing, Right
Well, like many other topics in 2019, whether this change is good or bad all depends on who you ask. In short, it’s complicated.
Obviously, consumers will likely be happy with the convenience of one-stop shopping for food and brews. Tourists and transplants can now be free of the ridicule of buying 3.2 beer by accident. Plus, many beer companies are no doubt thrilled to have their full-strength products on a whole new set of retail shelves.
However, independently-owned liquor store owners are understandably concerned and will no-doubt be impacted most by this change. Will their long-time customers choose convenience over familiarity? Will the big-box retailers undercut their prices? Only time will tell how much they are impacted. Personally, we strongly encourage supporting the small businesses that support craft beer and we’ll keep shopping at our local independent liquor stores. But who knows how many others feel the same way.
Another big question is how will this change affect the craft beer industry in Colorado. The impact that this change has on craft beer sales in the state is a big unknown. We can assume that not all these new full-strength beer retailers will have a robust craft beer selection. Even for those who commit to offering local craft beer, like King Soopers, we doubt they’ll offer the same breadth and depth of choices that you can find at your craft-friendly independent liquor store. At best, it seems like the larger craft brands may benefit from the change, while the smaller breweries who rely on retail sales may face an uphill battle.
What are your thoughts on this change?
Will you keep going to your favorite liquor store for beer in 2019, or will you just pick up whatever your nearby grocery store has to offer? Do you think this change will help or hurt our Colorado beer industry in the long run? Will you secretly miss crushing back a bunch of those low-alcohol 3.2 beers?
Let us know your thoughts on these latest Colorado liquor law changes in the comments below or on our Bottle Makes Three Facebook Page. We’d love to hear your point of view.
Cheers and Happy New Year!