Washington Park beer ban decision expected soon -- but why do we even have 3.2 beer?

April is here, and Denver's parks are abuzz -- but not because of daffodils, robins and honeybees. Rather, it's our First World right to get buzzed -- whether it's with booze or with pot -- in these public places that has people springing into action. And while the 4/20 Rally in Civic Center has its own set of issues, a major booze battle could reach its peak today or tomorrow in Washington Park, where City Councilman Chris Nevitt wants to ban beer for six months after complaints from neighbors about boozy behavior reached the point of overflow.

While those neighbors have mobilized in force, a strong anti-ban contingent has also turned out, with more than 10,000 people signing a petition in opposition to the proposed interdiction; a city decision is expected this week. If the ban is enacted, it would likely begin around Memorial Day, just before the summer season.

"We contend that there has been gross negligence of investigation, as well as an exaggeration, on the accusations that alcohol is the root cause and driver of the following behaviors: unruly citizens, lewd behavior, public intoxication, public indecency, public defecation, parking violations, etc.," the pro-beer folks declare in their beer-stained petition. "Under current regulations and laws, these behaviors can and should be ticketed. The lack of current enforcement due to an underestimation of the popularity and use of public parks does not warrant additional regulation."

But sadly, we're not even talking about real beer here, since the only liquor that is allowed in any and all Denver parks -- and then only in cans and kegs -- is beer that weighs in at less than 4.0 percent alcohol by volume, or 3.2 percent alcohol by the weight. (The only exception: harder stuff can be sold if an event gets a special permit.)

And 3.2 beer is that weak, mostly mass-market stuff you can find in the refrigerated aisle at any supermarket. The rules preclude almost every beer made by this state's 232 craft breweries.

Why the distinction? Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Minnesota are the only states left that still have outdated laws concerning 3.2 percent beer -- a legacy of the end of Prohibition that dates back to 1933.

While the amendment that eventually repealed Prohibition was sent to the states for ratification, which took months, Congress redefined the term "intoxicating liquors" to mean any beverage with an alcohol content higher than 3.2 percent by weight.

In order to get at least some form of liquor quicker, Colorado and eighteen other states quickly passed bills allowing their breweries to begin delivering "nonintoxicating" beer on the day the new law went into effect: April 7, 1933. Half a million bottles of Colorado-produced beer were consumed in this state that day (roughly the same amount that is consumed by a single Wash Park kickball team on an average summer Saturday).

But what seemed like a good thing at the time has turned into a regulatory and political nightmare in the decades since Prohibition. During those years, Colorado's grocery stores and convenience stores were allowed to sell 3.2 beer -- and 3.2 beer only. But they could sell it to people eighteen and up (until 1987, when Colorado's drinking age was changed in order to hold on to federal highway funds), and sell it seven days a week -- a big advantage until 2008, when liquor stores were allowed to open on Sunday.

Periodically, convenience and grocery stores have tried to expand the range of alcohol they can sell -- and liquor stores and craft brewers have fought back, hard. The battles have been particularly intense over the last half-decade.

And although the subject didn't come up in the 2014 legislative session, we haven't heard the last of 3.2 beer -- despite what many residents of Washington Park would like to think.

More from our Environment archive: "Stapleton officials can't figure out if they can accept parks lover's cash offer."

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes

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