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Posted: March 01, 2010

State of the state: Legislation

When consumer convenience means culture crush: the battle over beer

Jay Dedrick

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For Colorado craft brewers, the January gathering of state lawmakers at the Capitol has come to signal an annual battle to maintain their livelihood, not to mention the Centennial State's status as center of the beer universe.

Once again, state representatives have introduced legislation that would allow grocery and/or convenience stores to sell full-strength beer, not just the 3.2 product they currently stock. The past two years, such measures never made it past committee deliberation. What's different this year is that separate bills - one representing grocery stores, the other convenience stores - have been set into motion.

Small breweries and mom-and-pop liquor stores fear the two-pronged approach might prove more difficult to fight than past efforts.

What's the problem? As a consumer, I sure would appreciate more retail availability of one of the state's finest resources. But the folks who brew the stuff don't like the idea. Never have.
And when they explain it, you understand why.

"One of the reasons the state has such a great beer culture is that, as a brewer, you have easy access to the retail decision makers who carry your beer," says Marty Jones of Denver's Wynkoop Brewery, Colorado‘s original brewpub. "To do that with a major grocery store chain is impossible. Small brewers like us won't have access to the shelves."

Jones almost always has a smile on his face, but as he speaks about this issue, his expression is serious, almost grim - despite the glass of the Wynkoop's pumpkin ale in front of him. "For those of us who make a beer that's exotic ... this beer is not going to show up on the Safeway shelf. No offense to Safeway."

Bryan Baltzell of Great Divide Brewing in Denver also credits proximity and personal relationships with fostering the state's beer culture, and laments the potential loss.

"We can go down to Joe's Liquors, meet Joe, invite him to Great Divide and show him what a great product we make," Baltzell says. "The chain stores are more bottom-line driven. If we're not known to a chain store, if we don't advertise on the Super Bowl, we're not known. We're not welcome in their stores."

Fast-forward to a future Colorado where you can buy full-strength beer at grocery and convenience stores. Can you find Great Divide's Denver Pale Ale? One would hope so. How about Hoss, or some Hibernation for the holidays? Maybe. Maybe not. Picture the current shelf space reserved for 3.2 beer split up among the 100 brewers in Colorado, not to mention all the out-of-staters.
So you could head back to Joe's, right? Well, not if enough beer drinkers settle for the selection at the nearby food store. Then fewer people have been patronizing Joe's, and Joe has had enough.

"The concern is, not only will Joe's Liquors close, but the variety that is a proud staple of the Colorado beer market will begin to disappear as small stores close and large chain stores replace them," Baltzell says.

Is that the extent of the damage in Colorado? Probably not. For example, Great Divide buys malt from Colorado farmers, buys its glass bottles from a Colorado company, hires a Colorado designer to design its labels. "You'd begin to whittle away at that," Baltzell says.

Colorado is in the minority among states when it comes to disallowing sales of full-strength beer at grocery and convenience stores. Jones hails from the Southeast, where small brewers managed to make their way in a world where full-strength beer was sold at small, independent stores and large chain stores alike. So it's not as if he's shouting, "This could never work!" But the jarring implementation of a new retail reality is what he and his peers are working to avoid.

"To change it overnight would lead to severe hardships for some of the most important small businesses in the state - at a time when holding onto a job is especially important," Jones says.
"For decades, the law has been set up where, if you own a liquor store, you can own only one. Overnight, we'd have large national and international chains with the ability to have dozens and dozens of liquor licenses. That doesn't seem at all fair to the people who made our industry possible."

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Readers Respond

The current law limiting beer sales is wrong, and should be overturned. It's not about consumers alone, it's not about craft brewers, and it's not about vendors. It's about the fact that nobody has the moral right to prevent someone from selling or buying a product at a given store. It means that liquor stores have been profiting unjustly for years and it must stop. The notion that free trade is a threat to anyone and will hurt the markets is invalid, like it always is with all forms of protectionism. When someone complains about a business being bottom line driven, what they are really saying is they don't want consumers and vendors to have what they want and engage in trade; instead, they want to kneecap their potential competitors and customers using the laws of Colorado. Nobody has a moral right to do that. It's wrong, period. If the problem is other laws that restrict distribution for example, or laws that give grocers an unfair advantage, then oppose those laws, but stop opposing freedom. If the problem is the proposed law is worse than the existing law, then make another proposal. However, restricting beer sales per se is wrong and must stop. Speaking of bottom line, I boycott brewers who oppose loosening the law. By Jeff Montgomery on 2010 03 10

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