Last Call

Just before Prohibition, the Colorado Legislature gave us 3.2 beer. Now Blake Harrison wants to repeal the scourge.

Blake Harrison sips on an Odell 5 Barrel Pale Ale as he talks about his two lifelong passions: public policy and finding the perfect beer. The Odell 5 is not his favorite -- that place in his heart is reserved for Flying Dog Doggie Style Pale Ale -- but it's good and it's cold. Besides, today is not the problem. Today he can buy anything he likes. On Sundays, though, he's stuck with 3.2 beer. It's an inconvenience, by no means life or death, but sometimes Harrison just wants to sit at home with his favorite beer on a lazy Sunday afternoon. "I can't get a bottle of wine on Sunday because of this stupid law," he says. "The only reason I can't is because the government's telling me I can't, and if they're going to tell me I can't, they'd better give me a good reason. On this issue, I don't think they've provided a good reason."

Harrison was just twelve when he first began to think about the absurdity of Colorado's liquor laws. It was around the time of the 1982 election, he was growing up in Frisco, and a group calling itself Consumers for Convenient Shopping was campaigning to allow wine and full-strength beer to be sold in Colorado grocery stores. The opposition to the ballot initiative was fierce. The liquor stores, aligned with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told voters that teenage cashiers would steal booze or sell it to their friends. The dialogue was dominated by images of drunk grandmothers being pushed down supermarket liquor aisles by their grandkids, filling their carts with wine.

"When you get into campaign season, you see ads over and over again. And twelve years old isn't too young to be saying, ŒWhat does it mean? Will you explain it to me, Dad?'" Harrison says. His father did just that, and the future lawyer was horrified when the election results came in. In his mind, dirty politics had won.

Blake Harrison drinks up at the 3.2 beer taste test.
Mark Manger
Blake Harrison drinks up at the 3.2 beer taste test.

As Harrison got older, his interest in public policy -- and good beer -- grew. In high school, he and his best friend ran for class president and vice president with the slogan "Vote for Blake and Josh. They know where you live." As a University of Colorado student, he majored in political science. After graduating in 1993, he went to work in Washington D.C. -- a land where 3.2 beer does not exist and you can buy beer and wine on Sundays. He returned to Colorado three years later to get his law degree at the University of Denver, where his crusade for Sunday liquor sales began. In 2002, as a for-credit project, he tried to get an initiative on the ballot that would have allowed alcohol sales on Sundays. He failed, but the experience still thrilled him. "It gave me extreme confidence in the fairness of our system, of our democracy," Harrison says. "At no point in time did anyone from the secretary of state's office try to block me; the legislative counsel helped me to make sure I was doing it right.

"Sometimes you feel that the world is against you and you can't do anything about it, but it's refreshing to know that you can," he adds. "And we have enough freedom in this country to allow you to change the way things are if you can get people behind you. The reason it didn't pass wasn't because of the system. It was because I couldn't get any industry money to back me. That's fair."

Today Harrison's a little older, a little wiser, and as determined as ever to buy Flying Dog beer on Sundays and never show up to a dinner party empty-handed. He now understands the history and the politics of Colorado's liquor laws. He gets why no special interest, from the brewers to the grocers to the distributors and liquor stores, wanted to back his Sunday-sales campaign, and he's not about to make the same mistake twice. When he shoots for another ballot initiative in 2008, he'll expand the issue to allow grocery stores -- including chains -- to sell liquor for the first time, in order to attract their support. If successful, he stands to change the business of booze in Colorado as it's been since Prohibition. He could even rid the state of 3.2 beer.

Most Americans have never heard of 3.2 beer. Outside of Colorado, 3.2 exists only in Oklahoma, Utah, Minnesota, Kansas and Montana. In Colorado, it's the beer people buy because the liquor stores are closed on Sundays, or when they'd rather pick up a six-pack with their groceries instead of making an extra stop. Up until 1987, anyone over eighteen could drink 3.2 beer in Colorado, and many people assume the beverage was created to be a kind of training wheel for young drinkers. But those who enjoyed places like Thirsty's and others in the 3.2 bar scene were just enjoying a lucky coincidence: The history of 3.2 beer -- and the state's system for regulating alcohol -- dates back to the end of Prohibition.

Denverites never liked the idea of being told they couldn't drink. From the time state Prohibition began in 1916, they supported a litany of bootlegging gangsters and clogged the courts with drunkenness charges. By 1933, the entire country was in desperate need of relief from crime and joblessness. A depressed United States wanted its booze back. No more moonshine, bathtub gin or weak-ass, nonintoxicating "near beer" with its half-percent alcohol. Americans wanted it legal, and politicians wanted to tax the hell out of it. The repeal amendment was introduced in Congress on February 14, 1933, but it still had to pass both houses and be ratified by 36 states. That would take months, and the populace was getting antsy, so Congress redefined the term "intoxicating liquors" to mean any beverage with an alcohol content higher than 3.2 percent by weight. Thus, 3.2 beer was born.

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