Last Call

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

That's not to say he anticipates an easy battle. Such a move would take away liquor stores' advantage over retail giants. Colorado only has one Argonaut, one Applejack and one liquor-selling Target, which is technically a liquor-licensed drugstore, a classification left over from the days when pharmacists prescribed medicinal whiskey. Other drugstore chains could choose to sell liquor, but Colorado law allows for only one store location in each organization to be licensed statewide. Harrison knows that the liquor-store lobby, religious conservatives -- and even the state's microbrewers -- will oppose him vehemently.

"Here's what we love about the beer market in Colorado," says Breckenridge Brewery's Kurowski. "We have 99 breweries and beer licenses. You can get any flavor of beer you want because we have so much here. There's such amazing access to the market here because of all the individual retail establishments -- i.e., the corner liquor stores. If 3.2 beer goes away, we strongly feel that this will become a very chain-driven market. People will do their beer shopping in a grocery store. We'll lose these independent establishments, and access will immediately be damaged. There's no way these chain stores will be able to support all these breweries in our state."

Applejack, in Wheat Ridge, is a massive, 25-aisle supermarket of booze. The craft-beer section alone includes the brews of New Belgium, Breckenridge, Boulder Beer, Great Divide, Flying Dog, Odell, Avery and Bristol Brewing Co., to name only a few. If you account for discrepancies in size and packaging of the same product, the store stocks 15,000 different items on its shelves.

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

"I don't think he's looking at what it all means," Applejack president Jim Shpall says about Harrison. "He started this as a grassroots effort. He didn't get what he wanted, for whatever reason. And now he's playing right into their hands." Shpall is referring to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and retail giants such as Wal-Mart, which he says are the forces behind any attempt to loosen liquor laws around the country. Even attempts to change the blue laws are a backhanded first step toward letting chains sell liquor. When liquor stores start opening on Sunday, the chain grocers will yell that they're losing their crucial Sunday 3.2 beer sales and should therefore be allowed to sell liquor, Shpall says.

If Harrison were to have his way, Shpall foresees two unintended consequences: higher prices and less selection. First, Wal-Mart and its cousins would drop their prices low enough to put the small liquor stores out of business. Then, once they control the market, they'll jack up prices and only carry their few hundred top sellers -- nothing new or hard to find. "They will be cheaper -- until they destroy the competition," he says.

Some would concede Shpall's point, considering Wal-Mart's track record in other areas, but Harrison doesn't think that independent stores, liquor or otherwise, should be protected at the expense of the free market and consumers. "The bottom line is, it's an unfair trade practice the way it is now," he says. "I would argue that society is harmed by paying artificially inflated prices for the protection of a small industry with a lot of power." His logic echoes that of Representative Weissmann and the free-market advocates at the Independence Institute, who claim that the concessions Colorado gives its liquor stores essentially restrict competition and drive up prices.

That argument doesn't settle well with Shpall, who runs full-page newspaper ads listing his low prices. "The law is only good for us because we've grown up with it. It's not good or bad. It is what it is. And in Colorado, it's very good for consumers," he says.

Lew Cady, adman and publisher of Central City's Little Kingdom Come, likes 3.2 beer. The alcohol content isn't much different than regular beer, but the price is often much lower. A few weeks ago, King Soopers had a sale on Bud Light: eighteen cans for $10.99. "I know people who won't buy 3.2 beer," he says. "They won't buy beer at King Soopers because it's 3.2, but these people are, I think, misguided. I have no aversion to buying it at the grocery store. I like to buy it cheap."

Cady isn't sure whether or not the state should let grocery stores sell booze and wine. On the one hand, he feels that all liquor laws -- minus those concerning drinking and driving -- are hard to justify. He doesn't like to be told when or where he can drink or purchase alcohol. On the other hand, he appreciates the city's variety of interesting, independent liquor stores. Cady would want to protect those stores from being taken over by the big corporations, and even protect their owners' and employees' weekends by letting them keep their Sundays.

One of those interesting, independent stores is Bonnie Brae Wine and Liquor Mart on University Avenue. When the store opened in 1978, Conrad J. Ziegler Jr. was hired on as its manager. He managed the store for 22 years before buying it six years ago. Ziegler looks personally insulted at the mention of changing the way liquor is sold in Colorado. "We're controlled by the state to the point that we can't sell a bag of potato chips or peanuts. [Harrison] wants to get rid of the backbone of the business so the Wal-Marts and Safeways of the world can take over. They already have an unfair advantage. They're already set up to be able to sell you everything from soup to nuts, and the reason they want to be able to sell alcohol is because they want to be able to sell it all. They want to be able to control the market and consumers' everything.

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