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Will 3.2 Beer Finally Dry Up in Colorado?

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Last weekend I spotted a crew of visitors to Colorado who'd stocked up on beer at our neighborhood gas station/convenience store and were carting their booty back to their motel. These were clearly visitors to Colorado, because they had no idea they'd just loaded up on the training wheels of alcohol: 3.2 beer. (Fortunately for them, alcohol hits flatlanders harder at altitude.)

But now the anachronism of 3.2 beer is about to dry up.

The last-minute brewhaha at the Colorado Legislature was more heated than last call in LoDo as state senator Pat Steadman pushed through his complicated compromise to allow the introduction — the very slow introduction — of full-strength beer and wine in grocery stores. Until now, no company has been able to own more than one liquor license in the state; SB 16-197 will allow chains to buy up to twenty liquor licenses over a twenty-year period.

Since those retailers would first need to buy out liquor stores within 1,500 feet of a desired location, the compromise made mom-and-pop enterprises feel a little more secure — if the big retailers decide to pull their proposed ballot measure, that is. But there’s no guarantee that the Your Choice Colorado initiative, supported by Safeway and King Soopers, won’t still land on the ballot in November. If that proposal passes, those retailers would be able to sell full-strength beer and wine at all of their stores...as soon as they could snag liquor licenses.

But no matter how you feel about the compromise that Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law last Friday, one thing is certain: 3.2 beer will soon be a thing of the past. 

Which, actually, it's been for more than eighty years. A loser legacy of Prohibition, 3.2 beer was created back in 1933 because the country was eager to get back to drinking, and it was a way to get liquor quicker.

While the 21st Amendment that would ultimately repeal the Eighteenth Amendment 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, like eighteen other states, Colorado quickly passed a bill allowing its breweries to begin delivering “nonintoxicating” beer at the exact moment those new state laws went into effect: April 7, 1933. That day, half a million bottles of Colorado-produced beer were consumed in this state.

The 21st Amendment was not ratified until December 5, 1933.

As the state’s liquor laws evolved in the years after Prohibition, 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 Sundays. Liquor stores, meanwhile, could sell everything other than a fermented malt beverage with an alcohol content of 3.2 by weight (or 4 percent by volume).

Now, more than eight decades later, Colorado is one of the few states that still has official 3.2 beer (see the Your Choice Colorado video about that above) — and a tangle of regulations wrapped around it. Over the years, numerous efforts have been made in Colorado to allow liquor sales in grocery and convenience stores, making 3.2 beer an even more endangered species.

Your Choice Colorado would kill it immediately. Under Steadman’s compromise, grocers would end sales of 3.2 beer and move to full-strength beer slowly but surely — and on January 1, 2019, the limit on alcohol content of fermented malt beverages would itself be repealed. Which means 3.2 beer would dry up forever.

We’ll drink to that.

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