Even in Beer Heaven There is Conflict

by Billy Broas

conflictAs home to 168 breweries, the Great American Beer Festival, and some of the best craft beer in the country, you wouldn’t think there would be much for Colorado beer drinkers to be unhappy about. However, we are once again having the annual debate about the “Grocery Bill” which would allow full strength beer to be sold where you buy your food. A quick primer if you’re not familiar with it…

Colorado grocery stores and convenience stores cannot sell beer that is higher than 3.2% alcohol by volume. To get “full strength beer”, you must go to the liquor store.

I moved to Colorado from Virginia in mid-2010 and was unaware of this law. A friend nearly dove in front of me to block me from buying beer at King Soopers. I had no idea it was 3.2% beer.

Here’s one of the arguments from craft brewers and others who oppose the bill: Small liquor stores (aka “Mom and Pop” stores: see below) make most of their money selling full strength beer. If grocery stores are allowed to sell full strength beer, shoppers will start buying their beer while picking up dinner instead of visiting the liquor store. The small liquor stores will go out of business. Because it’s unlikely that grocery stores will stock the more limited and high-end craft beers, consumers will have reduced access to these products.

To be upfront about where I stand, I don’t buy many of these arguments and fully support the sale of full strength beer in grocery stores.

Supporters of the bill are quick to point to other states that don’t have a grocery store restriction where craft beer is thriving – California, Washington, and Oregon being the prime examples.

The Myth of the “Mom and Pop” Liquor Store

The main argument of those who oppose the grocery bill is that it would put mom and pop liquor stores out of business.

Let me tell you about these establishments…

'Mom and Pop' doesn't always mean a good selection


The name makes you think of a small, cozy shop where you walk in to a warm welcome from a friendly old couple that resemble grandma and grandpa.

How can we put pappy out of business?

While these places do exist, the reality is that most liquor stores are nothing like this and frankly they are horrible from a beer perspective. Walk down my street and you’ll see three within three blocks.

They are dirty, have bars on the windows, and vagrants are drinking vodka outside. The beer selection? Amidst the Bud and Coors are a couple of shelves of Fat Tire and Avalanche. Be careful though, they’re usually past their expiration date. The owners barely speak English and know nothing about their products or beer. I once made the mistake of asking for a beer made in Belgium and was pointed to Fat Tire.

These are many of the “Mom and Pop” liquor stores that we’ll lose with the grocery bill, and I won’t shed a tear when they’re gone (note: I don’t believe as many will go out of business as people predict, but that’s another issue).

Not that it matters who the owner is, but the value they offer the customer does matter. If you can’t compete on selection, customer service, or price, then why should you remain in business? It shouldn’t be because of government protection.

Will We Really Lose Access to High-End Craft Beer?

The notion that we won’t go out of our way to purchase specialty beers is preposterous. Do wine and cigar enthusiasts simply accept whatever the grocery store has to offer? No, they go to specialty shops for them.

That’s what will happen with craft beer. I would love to be able to pick up a six-pack of Odell IPA at the supermarket, and when I am in the mood for Crooked Stave I will make the drive to the bottle shop.

For me, it’s all about consumer choice. As long as there is demand for high-end craft beer (and there is), there will be a merchant there to provide it.

That may mean some small liquor stores who don’t provide much value anyways close their doors. It may mean that grocery stores carry a good but not great selection of craft beer. It may mean we have less liquor stores overall but more that specialize in high-end craft beer. That is all fine by me.

Overall things are pretty damn good here. I can’t complain much, but I hope for a day when obscure, outdated alcohol laws are a thing of the past. Not just in Colorado, but across the country.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Ian January 10, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Right on. I find it hard to believe that an otherwise progressive state is hanging onto a law that is typical of the Bible Belt. I suspect this has little to do with anything other than a strong independent liquor store lobby in Colorado…

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Billy Broas January 10, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Agreed. Another issue you don’t often hear about is small, independent grocery stores. I’m sure we would see more open and existing ones strengthen if they were allowed to sell full strength beer.

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Luis Tovar January 11, 2013 at 7:21 am

Here in Las Vegas, Whole Foods is one of the better places to buy craft beer. Just because a grocery store is allowed to sell beer doesn’t mean that there will be limited access to good beer.

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Billy Broas January 11, 2013 at 9:38 am

Whole Foods is known for their great beer selection and it kills me that I have three WF stores within a few miles of me and none of them sell beer.

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Sonia Vining January 12, 2013 at 5:31 am

Michigan isn’t exactly a slouch in the craft beer world — Bell’s and Founders, to name a couple of nationally known brewers — and we have real beer in our grocery stores. However, up until a couple of years ago, you were hard pressed to find anything worthwhile in the groceries. Not until the real mainstream interest in craft beer started ramping up did we seeing the “good stuff” in the same place we buy our Cheerios. We have many, many, MANY small liquor stores, and I can’t ever recall seeing one go out of business. I buy mostly from my favorite liquor stores who know their beer, but it is nice to be able to pick up a local beer on a whim while grocery shopping.

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Billy Broas January 13, 2013 at 4:39 pm

If we ever changed our laws I’m sure I would do what you mentioned in that last sentence – go the liquor store for their selection and expertise, but get good beer at the grocery store when it’s convenient. It would be nice to have more options.

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FedoraDave January 12, 2013 at 7:42 pm

In New York State, where I live, you can buy beer at grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations…pretty much everywhere except a liquor store. There are both large and small liquor stores here, and apparently, they do okay.

The problem that I see with having beer sold in grocery stores is the corruption of the Three Tier Distribution System. Most of the brands carried in grocery stores aren’t craft beers. Sure, you can find Sam Adams, Brooklyn Brewery, Saranac, and some other craft brews represented, but the preponderance of macro brews overshadows them. If I want a good selection of craft beer, I still have to make a special trip to a beverage store and do a little exploring. I don’t mind that too much, but I imagine the same thing is likely to happen in Colorado.

Just as in food products, most grocery stores are going to cater to what their bottom line tells them “most people” want. And most people still want to buy the cheaper beer.

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Billy Broas January 13, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Good comment Dave. I agree that it will be the bigger crafts that would show up in the grocery stores. For us that would be New Belgium, Odell, and Oskar Blues. One of the reasons is certainly because they have wider audiences, but I think another is that the smaller breweries simply cannot supply enough product to these stores. So from that perspective, I don’t think the smaller breweries would even want to be in big grocery stores because of the demand it would put on them.

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Drink IPA January 16, 2013 at 11:52 am

I’m with you billy. Here in NYC and State you can buy full strength beer in the Grocery Store, Corner Store, and Bottle Shops. Liquor and Wine are sold together but you can’t sell Beer, Wine, and Liquor under the same roof unless you’re a bar.

Not all grocery stores are created equal some have a pretty good beer program. However, at most of them you’ll run into the same problems you have with the “liquor” stores in CO. Out of date beer, improper storage of beer (i.e. near a window, heat, even in direct sunlight), not a single person in the store has a clue about the selection… i could go on.

The point is, you’re right, and its a damn shame WF out there hasn’t pushed harder to change this law as our WF shop here on Bowery and 2nd Ave is one of the best beer stores in the city.

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Billy Broas January 16, 2013 at 4:38 pm

It’s really interesting to hear how different states do it. Each one has it’s own quirks.

Yea, I’m sure business at Whole Foods would go nuts if they could carry real beer. Another weird thing (see, a quirk) about Colorado is that each company only gets one liquor license, which means every grocery store in the state has exactly one location that sells liquor, wine, and full strength beer. The Whole Foods store that sells booze is in Boulder, and I hear the selection is excellent.

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Chris January 23, 2013 at 11:41 am

This is one area where Canada is far behind. All alcoholic beverages must be sold in designated liquor stores and there is no alcohol allowed in grocery stores. Does this produce mom and pop liquor stores? Absolutely not. Most are just as you described, bars behind the windows, sketchy costumers roaming around (stores become a massive target for robberies) and have a fairly sparse selection.
This law is operated under the assumption that by not exposing minors to liquor (you cant even enter a liquor store unless your 18) it can reduce underage drinking. Speaking as someone who went to a Canadian middle and high school, I can tell you that does not work. I believe placing liquor in the grocery store lets children know that alcohol is okay, it just needs to be consumed in limited quantities. Placing liquor in a closed off shop makes it seems like an adult video store, off limits and tempting…

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Billy Broas January 23, 2013 at 2:26 pm

I didn’t know that about Canada. Thanks for sharing. There is a similar argument to be made in Colorado and I don’t hear it raised often enough. I remember reading about a mother in CO who does most of her shopping with her young children. She wants to buy craft beer, but doesn’t want to bring her children into the liquor store. When she does, she gets dirty looks. There is a stigma associated with it. Those shouldn’t be her only options.

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Cal February 28, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Indiana is going through the same thing, only dealing with Sunday sales. We can’t buy beer unless it’s a growler from a brewpub on Sunday. The mom and pop shops think they will lose all their profits they make during the week because they will have to work and keep the lights on on a Sunday instead of taking the day off. I don’t mind, other than during football season, that we can’t buy on Sundays, and that’s mainly because it’s not hard to find a great selection in most grocery stores. Finding 3 Floyds or a Bells in a Kroger can be done if you know the right ones. So I will say, next time somebody complains that they can’t buy beer on a Sunday, I’ll let them know Colorado has it worse… Then again, you do have mountains…

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Jeff H March 10, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Agreed with your post, Billy. I recently heard of this Colorado law and scratched my head. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, really. And by the way, at least here in northern California, I find a much larger list of craft beers at grocery stores than liquor stores (which may be a result that we don’t have such a law in CA), and liquor stores aren’t going anywhere. Across the street from my apartments isn’t one but two – side by side- liquor stores that have been there for years and both have a ton of business. And like most of these joints, they’re not exactly “nice.” Certainly not a place I’d look for craft beer. Liquor and grocery are simply different kinds of stores, and I don’t buy the arguments that one greatly affects the other. And neither are my go-to for finding craft beer, anyway. I leave that to the specialty beverage stores.

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Billy Broas March 11, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Yea despite all of the examples of other states that don’t have this law people from Colorado are vehemently to changing things. They tried to pass a bill this year that would only allow craft beers in grocery stores but even that got killed.

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