BREWHAHA: ‘Three-two’ and Colorado’s historic alcohol laws

When my father came to visit me last spring, he had an interesting question after stopping by the grocery store: How is that you can buy weed in a store in Colorado but you can’t get regular beer or wine at the grocery store? In essence, he exposed the irony of the clash between our state’s modern marijuana laws and outdated liquor laws.

Have you ever tried to buy beer at King Soopers or 7-11 and asked yourself why Colorado grocery and convenience stores only sell ‘three-two’ beer? Whether you have or have not, I’m here to tell you.

Colorado’s beer laws are antiquated. The laws were implemented as part of a new set of alcohol related laws upon the repeal of Prohibition in the early 1930s. The main feature of the law makes it so that any chain retail store in Colorado must choose only one store location in which they can sell full strength, alcohol, beer, and wine. The chain’s other locations can only sell ‘three-two’ beer.


If we want to get technical, ‘three-two’ beer is not actually 3.2 percent ABV, but rather 4.0 percent ABV. The Colorado Beer Code states that beer sold in grocery and convenience stores must contain “not less than one-half of one percent alcohol by volume and not more than three and two-tenths percent alcohol by weight or four percent alcohol by volume”. Thus, the beer is 3.2 percent ABW, but not 3.2 percent ABV.

Beer is 20% lower in alcohol content when measured by weight instead of by volume. Most states stopped using ABW a long time ago when they repealed all or part of laws put in place after the end of Prohibition. In this sense, Colorado’s liquor laws are stuck in time, you’re practically celebrating history when you buy ‘three-two’.

After reading how antiquated these laws are, I couldn’t help but wonder how they’ve stayed in place all these years. One reason is that 3.2 percent beer sells. Who buys it consistently? Companies are okay with selling their beer at 3.2 percent ABW because it’s cheaper to produce and they won’t argue with a higher profit margin.

Another reason the law is still in place is from a surprisingly successful lobbying effort by local liquor stores in Colorado. Historically, they’ve come together and led a large pushback every time the law has any chance of being changed.

I believe the law needs to be changed in the interest of convenience for the consumer. If you want to get two-buck chuck (Trader Joe’s signature wines, which are now actually $3) from Trader Joe’s, you have to go all the way to their flagship store in Denver. It seems to me that best scenario would be for chain stores to be allowed to sell full strength wine and beer but not liquor. This way, you could keep liquor stores happy by still giving them a monopoly on their namesake as most other states have.

Noah Stewart

Noah Stewart

Noah Stewart

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