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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.
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.

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.

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.

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).

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."

Mothers Against Drunk Driving argues that it is not Minnesotans, but the supermarkets and their corporate lobbyists who want wine in grocery stores. "Creating more places where youth can easily get their hands on alcohol is a bad idea. We should be making it harder for them to get alcohol, not putting it next to the chocolate milk," reads the organization's website.

In Colorado, attempts to change the liquor code have been few and far between. In consultant Felicia Muftic's experience, trying to do it is so treacherous that one would never choose to go through it twice.

In 1982, the Rocky Mountain Food Dealers Association offered Muftic a job as the mouthpiece for their ballot initiative that would allow beer and wine with less than 14 percent alcohol by volume to be sold in grocery stores. It made sense to Muftic, who only drinks the occasional glass of wine. She accepted the job, convinced it would be an easy victory. Initial polls showed support at 60 percent -- but that was before the counter-campaign began. By election day, the public had been inundated with messages on teen drunkenness and wasted grandmas. Support dropped to 40 percent. "It was such a bad experience," says Muftic. "What a team the MADD mothers and the independent liquor stores made."

When state representative Paul Weissmann was a senator in the early 1990s, he tried to repeal the blue laws. But the Louisville Democrat -- and general manager and bartender at the Blue Parrot Restaurant -- found that lawmakers were too concerned about what change would do to business owners to hear his logic. "By law, we put the small liquor stores in business. The law says you can only own one. It prohibits how close they can be to each other. We give those protections by law, but there's probably no real rational reason to do that. Essentially, we're restricting competition and driving up prices. I think our liquor laws make very little sense."

In 1998, Representative Ron Tupa, a Boulder Democrat, introduced a bill that would have allowed eighteen-year-olds to buy $100 permits authorizing them to purchase and drink 3.2 beer. Colorado's State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee held a hearing on the bill in February 1998, at which more than a dozen witnesses testified. Included among them was Modern Drunkard Frank Rich, who frequented Colorado's 3.2 bars when he was a young soldier.

Rich, drunk as usual, went to the State Capitol and listened attentively as some kids and bar owners explained their positions. "The kids were like, ŒFuck you, we're going to drink anyway, so you might as well just let us have it.' The bar owners took a strange tack. They said 3.2 beer will protect kids from liquor and the eviler alcohols. It was hilarious."

Though Rich would never label any alcohol evil, the arguments aren't far from his own logic. Kids are going to drink anyway. A bar has sober, adult bartenders, servers and bouncers. It's a safe environment for teens to learn how to drink. "You can't chug a bottle of liquor at a bar and kill yourself like they do at parties and frat houses. If they learn how to drink in the basement of frat houses, there's no bouncer or bartender there to cut 'em off and say, ŒYou've had enough,' or ŒYou're acting like an asshole.'"

The committee voted 10-2 to kill Tupa's bill.

Blake Harrison closely followed each of these failed attempts and decided that the one constant problem was the Statehouse. Allowing Sunday liquor sales was the perfect issue to take directly to the people. Harrison needed 80,000 signatures to get his initiative on the ballot in 2002, but he quickly discovered that most campaigns have to employ paid signature-gatherers to hit that goal. He tried to raise money, but he couldn't get any industry support: The liquor-store owners didn't want to work on Sunday, and the grocery stores didn't want to lose the advantage Sunday 3.2 beer sales gave them. Harrison did put together $10,000 from individual contributors and high-end wine stores such as Mondo Vino, whose owners would rather the shop be open on Sunday and closed on Monday, but it wasn't enough. He couldn't make the ballot.

After the failure, Harrison brushed himself off and started looking for the angle that would garner industry support. He knew if he pushed for grocery stores -- including chains -- to sell liquor, that the major retailers would be enticed by all the money they could make in Colorado. "Basically, all I want is liquor stores to be open on Sundays, but I would expand that to include different interest groups to align them with me, because it's apparent that I don't have enough momentum on that single issue," Harrison says. "If you say grocery stores should be able to sell liquor, which I'm also in favor of, you bring them in and shake it up a little bit."

And unlike in 1982, Harrison's not going to let anyone get away with arguing that grocery-store clerks don't know how to card people. He plans to add a provision that requires a 21-year-old employee or manager to approve all liquor sales, a policy that stores like Target already follow.

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.

"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.

"With one do-gooder impulse that you can actually make fly, you could sweep away a whole industry and not have a clue what you're doing," he adds.


Today, Harrison is a busy man -- newly married and working as a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. He's the go-to guy for National Public Radio and other major media outlets when they need an expert on the nation's methamphetamine policies. It's work he takes seriously, and he keeps it completely separate from his liquor campaign. He knows people must think he's crazy for devoting so much of his own time to an issue as insignificant as the right to buy alcohol on Sunday, but he doesn't see it that way. "I want to make changes where I can," he says. "It's a responsibility everybody has. If you have the ability to make change, you have a responsibility to do it. And it's fun."

He did consider trying for a 2006 ballot initiative earlier this year, but realized he'd be stretched too thin. That was the mistake he made in 2002 -- trying to fundraise too late and then realizing he didn't have the support. His odds will be much better in 2008, he thinks, because he's planning ahead. Already, the Distilled Spirits Association of the United States, Target and Cost Plus have suggested that they will support him. He's started working on a draft of the new ballot initiative, which is primarily an update of the 1982 initiative.

Twelve-year-old Blake would have been proud: "Here I am, twenty years later, and it still hasn't been changed. And it may be another twenty years, but the arguments are very much the same."

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