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The man who directs the state's liquor enforcement freely admits that most beer is less than one half of 1 percent stronger than 3.2, and he doesn't try to offer a logical explanation for the cutoff. "I don't know if there is a point other than one is regulated to be sold out of grocery stores and one is not," says Matt Cook, director of the Colorado Division of Liquor/ Tobacco Enforcement. "I think it's more about perception than anything else. I guess you've got to draw the line somewhere."
Certainly, perception plays a part. Avid drinkers such as Modern Drunkard editor Frank Rich swear that what makes 3.2 beer so unattractive is how much more carbonated it is than its "repeal" sisters. Dave Thomas, a resident brewmaster for Coors, says that is a misconception. "It may taste more carbonated because there's less everything there: less alcohol and body in the beer," he says. "Some people may perceive it that way, but it's carbonated to the same amount."
So then, what is 3.2 beer? Do brewers just add water to the real thing? In short, yes. Thomas says most brewers that make 3.2 beer in addition to regular-strength beer blend the original formula with de-aerated water (meaning water that's had any air removed) before or after filtration. Water can also be added earlier, with a lower malt-to-water ratio in the mash, which is how Coors' Blue Moon is crafted.
Coors spokeswoman Aimee Valdez won't reveal how much 3.2 beer Coors produces or sells in a year, but the slightly higher production costs must be worth the revenues, since the company even makes a 3.2 version of the already-light Zima.
Breckenridge Brewery is one of the few microbreweries that makes 3.2, and it tries to honor the craft tradition even when producing Sunday beer. Instead of adding water, brewery operations manager Todd Usry replaces some of his base malt with a dummy malt from which the maltose, or sugar, has been removed. He says this allows him to put in the same flavor, with less of the fermentable sugar that yeast feeds on to make alcohol. Breckenridge started brewing 3.2 Avalanche Amber Ale and Proper Hefeweizen in 1997. Today, 3.2 beers represent 10 percent of the microbrewer's annual production. "It's actually a very good niche for us to be able to brew this product," says marketing director Steve Kurowski. "There's a demand for craft-brewed 3.2 beer. It's mostly domestics and a couple of imports. Colorado being the microbrew mecca, people wanted to get beer on Sunday -- and good beer, not just domestics."
Boulder Beer started making 3.2 beer in 1996 with Singletrack Copper Ale and Pass Time Pale Ale, and now that product accounts for 7 to 8 percent of the cases the company sells annually. The beer's regular alcohol content is just a fraction higher, at 3.6 percent by weight. "You would really have to have an extremely educated palate to be able to tell the difference between the 3.2 and 3.6 beer," says president Jeff Brown. "We like it. It's a different avenue in terms of being accessible to the marketplace."
And certainly state excise taxes show that enough people forget to hit the liquor store on Saturday to make a market: In 2005, $569,287 was collected in 3.2 beer excise taxes compared to $7.9 million for "repeal" beer.
On its website, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States keeps a list of the states that have "rolled back outdated Sunday sales prohibitions." The number is now up to 34 states, with twelve having joined the list in just the past three years. "These archaic laws make no sense in a 21st-century economy, where Sunday is now the second busiest shopping day of the week," the site explains.
The trade group that represents major liquor companies also tracks -- and supports -- efforts to get wine, liquor and full-strength beer into convenience and grocery stores. Today, 26 states and the District of Columbia allow liquor to be sold on the same premises as groceries. Even in those few other states where the issue is complicated by 3.2 beer, the battle keeps resurfacing.
Last year, Kansas gave its cities and counties the option to allow liquor sales on Sundays, but 3.2 beer is still the only booze that can be sold outside of liquor stores and bars. But if Kansas senator Pete Brungardt has his way, 3.2 beer -- known there as "cereal malt beverage" -- will soon disappear from his state's shelves. Brungardt wants to allow grocery and convenience stores to sell regular-strength beer, keeping the wine and distilled spirits at the liquor store. "I just thought [the law] was stupid," he says of his motives. "Beer is beer."
But Kansas, too, is made up of small liquor retailers that don't want the competition. "A lot of people feel warmly about the mom-and-pop liquor stores, and everybody else has got their own business interests staked out. Consumers don't have any lobbyists up here, and elected officials sometimes forget that's their role," Brungardt says.
The Minnesota Grocers' Association has been lobbying hard to get wine into food stores for the past five years. The bill that the MGA's Nancy Christensen is supporting, again, would simply allow large supermarkets to carry wine in addition to 3.2 beer; full-strength beer and liquor would remain limited to liquor stores. "In the public's mind in Minnesota, beer is associated with kids, and the public is a little leery of [beer in grocery stores.] We're not ever going to go to the legislature with a bill that isn't fully supported by public opinion. We haven't polled the public on beer in five years, but that was our initial poll, and we're sticking with it."