Saturday, January 17, 2009

3.2 Beer

During a visit to my neighborhood vintner, I noticed the newspaper clippings taped to his counter. "What's this?" I asked.

His customary smile faded. "They're trying to pass a bill allowing supermarkets to sell full-strength beer," he replied. "There are only six states left, including Colorado, that restrict supermarkets to selling 3.2 beer. Colorado law allows the minor exception of permitting a supermarket chain to license one single store location in the state. That's why you have one Target store in Colorado that sells beer, wine, and liquor. Anyway, big money from the supermarket chains is backing the bill. It's going to pass."

I went home and did some quick internet research. The vintner appeared to have his facts straight. The six states that still restrict supermarkets to selling only 3.2 beer are Colorado, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Kansas, Utah, and Montana. Even my beloved Iowa has joined the ranks of the booze grocers.

I learned that the history of 3.2 beer began in 1933 during the repeal of Prohibition. While the repeal amendment was being ratified, Congress gave a concession to the thirsty populace by redefining "intoxicating liquors" to only apply to drinks with an alcohol content greater than 3.2% by weight. Presto, beer with alcohol content of 3.2% or less was now "non-intoxicating," despite obvious contrary evidence, such as college student drunkenness. The subsequent Colorado Liquor Code of 1935 restricted the sale of this "non-intoxicating" 3.2 beer to grocery stores. In effect, 3.2 beer was treated as food, not alcohol.

Most 3.2 beer is made by watering down full-strength beer, although some full-strength beers have alcohol contents that barely exceed that of 3.2 beer. For instance, Coors Light and Bud Light in liquor stores have only about 3.4% alcohol by weight (and taste pretty watery themselves).

So, what does the future hold? I predict that Wal-Mart and its fellow national chains will carry the day. All 3.2 beer will disappear from the supermarket shelves and be replaced by full-strength beer. The mom-and-pop liquor stores, which rely on beer sales for a significant fraction of their profits, will suffer, as my vintner fears. And there will be reduced opportunities for small brewers unless they can make marketing deals with the big chains.

I am not much of a beer or wine aficionado, but I am annoyed that my choices will likely be determined by some Wal-Mart inventory manager in Arkansas.