Last Call

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

Colorado and eighteen other states passed booze bills so that their breweries could begin delivering at the exact moment the new federal 3.2 law went into effect: 12:01 a.m. on April 7, 1933. The Coors brewery in Golden and the Tivoli brewery in Denver had fleets of trucks loaded and lined up, ready to hit the road and supply not only Colorado, but much of Arizona and Montana. Beer drinkers in neighboring Wyoming, Nebraska, New Mexico and Kansas would have to journey to Colorado: Those states weren't as quick to legalize beer.

"DENVER BEER DRINKERS ON 3.2 SPREE WITH OLD-TIME SALOONS OPEN AGAIN," roared a front-page headline of the Denver Post. "The old-time beer saloon came back to Denver Friday, and thousands of devotees of beer drinking celebrated its return in a sudsy, sloppy inquisitive spree.

One and all, they were hunting for the kick in the new 3.2 percent nonintoxicating brew that became legal Friday morning. Saloons all over town did a large business, some of them obeying the Colorado beer law which prohibits beer being sold over a bar. Others openly violated this provision to satisfy the curiosity and the thirst of their crowds of patrons.

Lew Cady is a man who knows beer -- and he isn't 
afraid to buy 3.2.
Mark Manger
Lew Cady is a man who knows beer -- and he isn't afraid to buy 3.2.
Representative Paul Weissmann has tried to have 3.2 
beer abolished.
Mark Manger
Representative Paul Weissmann has tried to have 3.2 beer abolished.

The proprietors were unable to prevent patrons from standing in front of counters and downing beer. Waiters, scurrying between tables, bumped into foaming beer mugs, held aloft, and the mugs crashed to the floor. Mops were saturated with the new brew and it made skating rinks of some of the floors.

Women could be seen in many establishments where they seldom were seen before Friday. They sat at tables with the men and made no pretense at nibbling sandwiches. Instead, they lifted the foaming beverage for all to see and downed it with gusto.

One thing is a certainty, according to many who analyzed the situation. Women will not be heavy beer drinkers. Too much beer will make them fat, and no woman with a beautiful figure or one approaching beauty is desirous of losing it."

Across the country, one million barrels of beer were sold in the first 24 hours. Half a million bottles of Denver- and Golden-brewed beer were consumed in Colorado between 7 a.m. and 1 a.m. that day.

As full repeal approached, brewers advocated that beer continue to be defined as "nonintoxicating," with the tax unchanged, while more potent beverages would be taxed at a higher level. At the United States Brewers Association convention held in Chicago that September, American brewers said that even if Prohibition was repealed, they would keep making beer at 3.2 percent.

That sentiment didn't last. The Coors and Tivoli breweries already had 434,000 gallons of "high-powered" beer, also known as "repeal beer," ready for delivery on December 5, 1933, the end of Prohibition.

By the time that date arrived, Colorado voters had repealed the state's Prohibition and officials had stopped enforcing the anti-liquor laws. Shots and mixed drinks were being sold openly in Denver's 500 speakeasies, and first-class hotels were offering highballs in their dining rooms. In fact, the city's biggest repeal parties were planned for December 4, the night before Prohibition's death, because residents knew their free-for-all was ending: With repeal would come the state's new, enforceable liquor code.

The liquor laws passed in 1933 and the subsequent Liquor Code of 1935 both state that their purpose was to protect the "health, peace and morals" of the people. The 1933 law made it illegal to take a drink of hard liquor in public. Only beer and wine could be sold by the drink, and only in restaurants and hotels that served food or in private clubs. By 1935, restaurants, hotels and private clubs were allowed to sell hard liquor -- but only at "tables and lunch counters with stools securely fastened to the floor." The law also required that retailers selling 3.2 beer display a sign, in letters not smaller than ten inches each, stating "Only 3.2 beer sold here."

While some aspects of the law have been updated with the times, the nuts and bolts of how liquor and beer can be bought and sold in Colorado have stayed the same since 1935. The liquor code established the difference between liquor and "nonintoxicating" 3.2 beer that the state still abides by, even though it now considers 3.2 beer intoxicating. Liquor stores couldn't sell food, and grocery stores couldn't sell alcohol, except for one compromise: 3.2 beer. One had to be 21 to purchase alcohol, but eighteen-year-olds could buy 3.2 beer. Likewise, "alcohol" couldn't be sold on Christmas or Sundays, but 3.2 beer could. The code created the state's three-tier system of separate manufacturers, distributors and retailers, and also included a tiny clause that made chain liquor stores illegal.

In the 1980s, the federal government pressured states to raise their drinking ages or lose highway funding. Colorado held out until 1987 before taking away 3.2 beer privileges for those younger than 21. (Only Wyoming held out longer, caving a year later.) Today drinkers can still order a 3.2 beer at the nearly 200 Pizza Huts, bowling alleys, golf courses and country clubs that opted for a license to sell 3.2 -- and only 3.2 -- by the drink.

Despite public perception, 3.2 beer isn't as weak as it sounds. Whereas the alcohol content of most beer is measured by volume, 3.2 represents the alcohol content by weight. A beer that's 3.2 percent alcohol by weight is 4.0 percent alcohol by volume, and most mainstream light beers today are 3.4 alcohol by weight. "It wasn't as hard to get drunk on 3.2 as people thought," says Julie Bradford, editor of All About Beer Magazine (see chart).

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