How Low Will They Go?

I've always felt just as drunk after a day of drinking 3.2 as I do after a day of drinking any light beer. Yet friends and acquaintances claimed to despise 3.2. They'd go to great lengths to avoid it, even if they knew that 3.2 percent alcohol by weight is actually 4 percent alcohol by volume, just a fraction less than domestic light beers. They said it was watery, over-carbonated and entirely impossible to drink without retching.

The situation called for a blind taste test.

I called in the experts: State Representative Paul Weissmann, who tends bar on the weekends at the Blue Parrot in Louisville and who has introduced countless failed attempts at abolishing the state's blue laws; Blake Harrison, a Denver lawyer whose failed ballot initiative would have allowed real beer to be sold on Sunday; and Lew Cady, a beer lover, beer expert and one of the few Coloradans who readily admits to drinking 3.2 beer. The participants met at the Minturn Saloon on Broadway and were presented with six pairs of beer, each labeled with the brand and type, and asked to pick the 3.2 variety. We also threw in Guinness to set them off course, since all of that brew sold in this country is about 3.2.

The men took their task seriously. "Guinness makes a 3.2? I didn't know Guinness made a 3.2.," each one muttered suspiciously upon arrival.

Cady went first, starting with the domestics. He would swirl the beer around its plastic cup, take a whiff and a sip, hold it in his mouth. If he wasn't sure, he lifted both cups into the light to see which was darker. He'd often told friends who refused to buy 3.2 that there was no detectable difference, but he changed his mind mid-taste. "My new theory is it's very hard to tell the difference," he says.

Unlike Cady, both Weissmann and Harrison started with the darkest beers first. Harrison thought those would have the most noticeable difference; Weissmann wanted to get them over with since he doesn't normally drink anything darker than Bud or Coors. The men sipped and paused and hemmed and hawed, surprised at how hard it was to taste a difference. Harrison -- who doesn't like light beer -- took back his longstanding argument that there are no good 3.2 beers when he tried the Singletrack. Both samples were to his liking.

With the results tallied, the tasting should have shown the pairs with the highest regular alcohol content were easiest to match correctly. Avalanche is the strongest normally, with 4.3 percent alcohol by weight. Bud and Coors are each 4 percent; Singletrack is 3.6; and the light beers are 3.4. All agreed that it was nearly impossible to accurately detect the 3.2 interloper, though Weissmann was certain of his ability to single out the 3.2 Coors Light, commenting that it tasted "slightly more watery than even regular Coors Light!" Still, he wasn't planning to run to King Soopers for beer anytime soon: He finds that a thirty-pack of Natural Light at the liquor store is always the best deal.

"If there is no perceptible difference in taste between 3.2 and regular, I prefer to drink the lower-alcohol variety," Cady says, "and here's why: When I drink 3.2, I can enjoy six beers instead of five -- and get the same amount of alcohol. That works for me because of the reason I drink: Not for the C2H5OH, but for the wonderful taste of beer and for the good times that people who drink beer together have -- in bars, at ballgames, at parties or just sitting on the front porch."

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Jessica Centers