Colorado To Make Session Beers Illegal In Bars & Restaurants

This should give anyone who loves session beers or groups trying to keep people from getting blotto a case of apoplexy. A new law in Colorado, actually a bill amended last spring, “now requires the state to enforce license restrictions to a T.”

The law requires to-the-letter enforcement of the state’s existing beer regulations. Bars, restaurants and liquor stores can sell only beer that is above 4 percent alcohol by volume. Grocery and convenience stores are allowed to sell only alcohol with less than 4 percent alcohol by volume.

So this is coming from the C-stores and groceries trying to protect their turf of low-alcohol beer. But the consequences are absurd, and will make it essentially illegal for any restaurant or bar to serve patrons beer that’s below 4% a.b.v. According to the Denver Post’s report, Stout Opposition to Looming Limits on Selling Lower-Alcohol Beer in Taverns, Restaurants, “[t]echnically, bars, restaurants and liquor stores in Colorado should never have sold the lower-alcohol beers in the first place, though no one ever paid much attention. Their licenses allow them to sell spirits, wine and beers that fall into the ‘malt liquor’ category.”

The original purpose of the law stems from the post-prohibition period when many laws enacted to regulate alcohol tried to limit access to it. Though Prohibition was a rousing failure, temperance groups merely shifted tactics and locally many of those early laws were an attempt to make it more difficult for alcohol to flow freely again as it had prior to 1920. Colorado’s answer was to enact laws that strictly specified which products could be sold where and that’s why modern Colorado has its peculiar alcohol landscape. But until now, the law restricting beers below 4% a.b.v. in bars and restaurants was not enforced. Increasingly, convenience and grocery stores saw that as a threat to their exclusive right to sell low-alcohol beer but were blocked time and time again from doing anything about it … until now, that is.

As is often the case, following the money does lead us to the answer. It’s about business, of course. I love this quote from Jason Hopfer, a C-store lobbyist. “Either stop selling the product we sell, or let’s stop having this false delineation on beer. Let’s let beer be beer.”

Yes, let’s let beer be beer, by all means. That is the obvious solution. To do that, we’d have to do away with Colorado’s ridiculous division that brands “beer” as anything under 4% a.b.v. and anything over it as “malt liquor.” That would be best for society as a whole, for the brewers and anyone who believes drinking lower alcohol beer while out in public is a safer idea. But as you might expect, the businesses that have benefited from these state-mandated monopolies for over 75 years are loathe to level the playing field. I think it’s simply an unknown. It doesn’t appear certain who would benefit or be hurt the most if all Colorado businesses could sell any strength beer. But it would change things considerably. And change is scary.

As the Denver Post story makes clear, nobody in the effected trade groups seem particularly concerned because they believe that when the next session of Colorado’s state legislature begins in early January, that the obvious absurdity of what this law would create will be addressed and fixed. Maybe, I’ve never followed Colorado’s state politics too closely so it’s hard to know how reasonable that belief is. But surely some of the politicians who supported this amendment with the language it currently uses had to know what the actual consequences would be. That’s perhaps the scariest thing of all, that they could accept the business argument in this case, ignoring the all too obvious negative repercussions. Save the Session Beers!


  1. says

    I don’t think this will change much in Colorado as this is really the way it has always been. Either way it is a silly law which should have been repealed not re-enacted…

    On another note I’m still wondering how this past weekend in Denver, CO. I saw a Target store selling wine and vodka on the isle shelves… I’ve never seen that before and I’m pretty sure its illegal…

    • says

      One “big box” store per brand is allowed to have booze. So there’s one Target, one Whole Foods, etc.

      That distinction allows places like Total Bev and Bubbles to exist.

  2. says

    Jason, I remember reading something about that. The only logic I can quite see is that craft brewers are worried people would do all their beer shopping at grocery stores, where they would trade down to the mega-brands most likely to be stocked there, instead of going to friendlier retailers (like liquor stores) where craft beers might have their best chance for success.

    If so, that still strikes me as being a bit anti-competitive and anti-choice on the craft brewers’ parts. Basically the current law forces people who want to buy, say, Stella to go to a liquor store where they might be persuaded to pick up a microbrew. And the craft brewers are saying, if you can buy your Stella at a grocery store instead, that store might not be willing to stock small brewers’ products and so they’ll miss out on sales.

    Well, at the end of the day I say give people as many opportunities as possible to make their own autonomous purchasing decisions, and let the chips fall where they may. Retailers that don’t get hip to consumers’ demands will suffer for it. It may feel odd to write this, but if craft brewers have so far benefited disproportionately and unfairly from arbitrary laws, then I can no more be in favor of that in principle than I am of legal atmospheres that have a stifling effect on the growth of the craft beer industry.

    At any rate, like Jay points out this current issue is an obvious case of someone pushing a legislative agenda to tighten up their own industry’s protections, even when an outcome (like this one) so clearly flies in the face of common sense. Oh, but that’s how most of our alcohol laws operate anyway…

    • Mike says

      Brad, in general I agree but living in the south I’ve seen the results of main stream stores selling main stream beers, lack of choice.

  3. says

    That is some strange legislation, I really cant see anyone winning out of that one, certainly not the consumer. We had some taxes introduced in Australia to try and stop kids drinking premix drinks. The Alcopop tax pushed up the pre mix drink price so the kids switched to mixing their own. The tax eventually got booted out and everything went back the way it was. Still dosent make up for it being poor legislation in the first place. Vote the buggers out I say, that’s a sure fire way to change legislation!

    On the upside there are going to be some resturant dinners, “but officer I only had 2 beers!”

  4. says

    It seems all this focus on alcohol content is a bit besides the point. Here in France, you see the alcohol content listed as 12,5% but very few bottles are close to it; the number is an average.

    Plus if the point of this law is to restrict people from getting blotto, what are they doing about folks who drink twice as much to get an equivalent buzz? The law is more shoot first aim later. My guess it’s simply to satisfy folks outraged at teen alcoholism or something similar.

  5. Kyle in Denver says

    This is a silly, hopeless ploy by the convenience stores. Colorado’s governor-elect started the first brewpub in the state; he’s not going to let this go through.

  6. says

    I lived in Portland for a while and craft beer was allowed to be sold in grocery stores and in convenience stores. I thought it was brilliant because you could pair beer with the food you were buying right there. And at the local cornerstores, people who might never buy beer elsewhere were buying microbrews. Opening the industry seems like it would only help the industry. Things are booming in Portland, and I don’t think it’s reached a peak yet. Everyone sells beer and the interest just keeps growing like wild fire.

    I moved to Colorado not even 4 months ago and wow what a difference!

    I really think that the liquor store owners aren’t seeing this correctly. The interest in the industry would only be cultivated and they would likely sell more.

  7. Billy says

    Other than the non-alcohol beers that are 0.5%, how many beers are actually less than 4% ABV in the US? I only know of 3 or 4 beers under 4% here but I know they are much more common in the UK.

  8. Tom says

    It is my understanding from a friend who moved from Burbank to the Denver area that these silly laws are the reason that she will continue to have TRADER JOES there.
    Portland still has some archaic laws on alcohol (state controlled liquor). But, you can buy good beer everywhere ! And, the number of breweries keeps growing – over 30 in the city of Portland. Also, there is a rapidly growing distillery row in near Southeast Portland.
    Thankfully, we in Los Angeles can get good prices on beer, wine and alcohol, even at COSTCO !

  9. beerman49 says

    Am I missing something here? Consider ABV vs ABW difference (the laws as to which parameter is used vary by state). ABV= 1.267 X ABW; the converse – ABW = o.78927 X ABV.

    Macros are 4-5% ABV, so are they making “3.2” versions to sell in cans/bottles in grocery & convenience stores? If the law actually cites ABW instead of ABV, then the macros have to “goose” what they sell in kegs to bars & restaurants.

    Somebody clue me in, please! However, regardless of which way the stupid law reads, it certainly deserves a permanent 86-ing!


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