I'm hooked on an illegal substance. For the past few months, I've somehow managed to cajole my contacts into handing over icy-cold contraband, thinking that each fix could be my last. And at least in Colorado bars and restaurants, it very well could be: My beloved Corona Light is being held hostage.
In this craft-beer-crazy state, it's tough enough to stay loyal to a beverage that one sneering, grown-up beer drinker labels an "almost beer." But last year, the Colorado Legislature made it even tougher: In a measure that was supposed to clarify which alcohol can be sold in convenience and grocery stores (3.2 beer, and only 3.2 beer) and which can be sold in liquor stores (supposedly everything but 3.2 beer, from heavier brews to wine and spirits), restaurants and bars were thrown into the enforcement mix and, like liquor stores, prohibited from selling not just 3.2 beer — that loser legacy of Prohibition — but any malt beverage below 4 percent alcohol by volume and 3.2 percent by weight. Which means Corona Light, Heineken Light — maybe even Guinness, depending on who's doing the measuring.
The restaurants and bars — and my Corona Light — were collateral damage in the ongoing fight between liquor stores and craft brewers on one side, grocery and convenience stores on the other, a fight that's been waged in earnest for the past four years but stretches back to 1933, when 3.2 beer was officially created as a way to get liquor quicker. While the amendment that would ultimately repeal Prohibition was sent to the states for ratification, a process that would take months, Congress redefined the term "intoxicating liquors" to mean any beverage with an alcohol content higher than 3.2 percent by weight. So Colorado and eighteen other states quickly passed bills allowing their breweries to begin delivering "nonintoxicating" beer at the exact moment this new law went into effect: April 7, 1933. That day, half a million bottles of Colorado-produced beer were consumed in this state.
And even after Prohibition was officially repealed, breweries continued to make 3.2 beer. Under the Colorado Liquor Code of 1935 — designed to protect the "health, peace and morals" of the people — liquor stores couldn't sell food and grocery stores couldn't sell alcohol, except for one compromise: that "nonintoxicating" 3.2 beer. You had to be 21 to purchase real alcohol, but eighteen-year-olds could buy 3.2 beer. Likewise, "alcohol" couldn't be sold on Sundays, but 3.2 beer could be. And with very few exceptions, those laws still hold sway today. In 1987, in order to keep federal highway funds, the legal drinking age was raised to 21 — killing off 3.2 bars, but not 3.2 beer. And in 2008, the ban on Sunday liquor-store sales ended — but 3.2 beer remained. (Today, only five states still require 3.2 beer for specific store sales.)
And at the same time that Colorado's liquor laws have remained largely unchanged, some developments unimaginable eighty years ago have emerged. Convenience stores on seemingly every corner, for example. Craft beers as a major force in this state. And people who want light beer not for its low-alcohol content, but its taste.
Last year, when the legislature approved a measure requiring that places selling liquor make sure their products tested for a high-enough alcohol content, restaurants and bars were thrown into the mix. "We did not see it as a big deal; we didn't even oppose the amendment," says Pete Meersman, head of the Colorado Restaurant Association. "It's just as illegal for a distributor to sell us the low-strength beer as it is for us to sell it to the customers, so we assumed that all the products we had were in compliance with the law." But when watering holes suddenly realized they could be held liable for selling beer that tested close to water, they talked to Senator Betty Boyd about sponsoring legislation that would close that loophole. Before that bill could be considered, though, liquor lobbyists started foaming over a John Hickenlooper-proposed rule change that would spare craft-beer makers from having to test every batch of beer for alcohol content.
And so, once again, grocery stores are pushing for the right to sell full-strength beer — "love for all," says spokesman Sean Duffy, although that love does not stretch to convenience stores — with a hearing of Representative Larry Liston's bill set for this Thursday.
The brewhaha may not be settled this session. But even so, it's past time to issue a last call for the archaic contrivance of 3.2 beer. Let there be light.