Can Oklahoma kill 3.2 beer?

By |2018-10-18T13:24:40+00:00October 15th, 2015|

 

In November 2016, Oklahoma voters will likely get the opportunity to change the 3.2 beer law in their state, which could affect the other four states with 3.2 beer laws – Utah, Colorado, Kansas and Minnesota.

“3.2 beer,” aka low-point beer, is 3.2% alcohol by weight (ABW), which is equal to about 4% alcohol by volume (ABV).  

Oklahomans are the largest consumers of 3.2 beer. According to an Oklahoma News9 article, 95% of all beers sold to Oklahoma consumers are 3.2 / low-point beers. So if 3.2 beer were eliminated in Oklahoma, it would likely create a ripple effect on the other four states. To add, Kansas is also moving forward on legislation to abolish its 3.2 beer laws.

Many of the major industrial brands plus some craft beer brands make special 3.2 versions of their beers solely for the 3.2 states. For example, in Utah, Squatters makes two versions of its Off Duty IPA – a bottled version that’s 6.5% ABV (to be sold in bars and government-run liquor stores) and a bottled/draft version that’s 4% ABV (to be sold on draft, or in bottles at grocery stores). Wasatch’s Polygamy Porter also comes in two versions, a thin and watery 4% version and a delicious 6% version. Budweiser, among many other macro brands, is dumbed down from its normal 5% ABV to 4% ABV.

If the 3.2 restriction in Oklahoma is eradicated, a game-changing snowball will begin to roll. First, it may no longer make economic sense for breweries (both big and small) to continue brewing separate, relatively small amounts of 3.2 beer for the remaining states. And if 3.2 beer is no longer available in sufficient quantities, it will be difficult for grocery stores and convenience stores to continue selling it. And if no one sells 3.2 beer, how can 3.2 beer laws be supported?

The 3.2 beer laws vary slightly in the five states, but the most common themes are:

  • grocery and convenience stores are only allowed to sell 3.2 beer (higher strength beer is sold in liquor stores, many of which are government-controlled stores with limited and inconvenient hours)
  • beer stronger than 3.2% ABW cannot be sold cold
  • the only alcohol you can buy on Sunday is 3.2 beer

In Oklahoma, breweries are not allowed to sell beer directly to the public, unless it’s 3.2 beer. Liquor stores can sell full-strength beer, but it cannot be kept cold.

Unrefrigerated, "heavy"/full-strength beer at a government-run liquor store in Utah.

Unrefrigerated, “heavy”/full-strength beer at a government-run liquor store in Utah.

Based on a variety of polls, most Oklahomans want the archaic law changed. Opponents of the change argue that it will lead to more alcoholism and more drunken driving, but neither claim is supported by data or common sense.

Coincidentally, over the last year or so, I have traveled to all five states that have 3.2 beer laws (Oklahoma, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, and Minnesota). As a visitor/tourist, I found the laws inconvenient, oppressive and annoying. All of the locals I spoke with seemed embarrassed by the antiquated laws.

As an aside, I’d like to point out that I’m not against low-alcohol beer. Some beer styles, such as Berliner Weisses, milds, light lagers and session ales, taste perfectly fine at 4% ABV or less. But, overwhelmingly, most styles of beer taste thin, vapid and watery at such a low level of alcohol, and they lack the rich flavors and body compared to their more stylistically accurate, normal-strength versions.

I’d also like to note that, hypothetically, even if all five states dropped their 3.2 laws tomorrow, breweries would still be free to continue brewing sub-4% ABV beer, if they wished to do so.

I realize that this is far from a black-and-white issue, and I imagine the death of 3.2 beer to be slow and complicated. Because these post-Prohibition laws have been in place for decades, businesses and infrastructures have literally been built around them. In 2008, for example, the Sunday law in Colorado was repealed to allow liquor stores to be open on Sundays. But that upset grocery store owners (who were and still are only able to sell 3.2 beer) because most of their beer sales occurred on Sundays (when liquor stores were not open). In response, grocery stores are now fighting to be able to sell full-strength beer just like liquor stores. But if they win that fight, the script will be flipped once again and it will hurt liquor store sales.

And the deeper you dive into these issues, the more complex it gets. Before the Sunday law was changed in Colorado, I was shocked to learn that liquor store owners were some of the biggest opponents of the change. Their main argument was that they didn’t want to have to staff their stores for an additional day every week, as they thought they’d just get the same sales over 7 days instead of 6.

But I digress. Sorry for the tangent.

The bottom line is this: Once 3.2 beer laws are eventually eliminated (and I believe they will be), there will be some unfortunate consequences. But, overall, I think it will be well worth it, as having the freedom of convenience, choice and selection will benefit both consumers and craft beer in general. Not to mention, when I visit those states again, I won’t have to hassle with their stupid, outdated laws.

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[If you want to read more about this issue, here’s a great article.]

Reasons why Oklahomans should vote yes on this issue:

  • Craft Beer is a perishable food item that requires refrigeration to maintain quality.
  • All states surrounding Oklahoma allow refrigeration; only Utah bans cold “strong” beer. This puts Oklahoma at a competitive disadvantage (not to mention it is embarrassing to explain to tourists).
  • Some out-of-state breweries refuse to distribute in Oklahoma due to the lack of refrigeration. New Belgium Brewing (Ft. Collins, CO), for instance, is a large and popular brewery that will not distribute here. Their beers pass through our state on the way to other states with more modern laws. This tax revenue passing through on I-35 is a lost opportunity. By voting YES on SB 383, brewers will be encouraged to distribute in Oklahoma, increasing taxable revenue in the state and increasing consumer choice.
  • Only five states have archaic “low point” 3.2% beer laws. Of those, Colorado allows an exception for one location per state for big box stores and is moving towards a ballot initiative next session. Kansas is moving forward on legislation this session that would abolish 3.2% laws. Without SB 383, Oklahoma will be further isolated as a business headache due to its archaic laws.
  • Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and New Mexico all allow for consumers to buy wine at grocery stores. These states are similar to Oklahoma in culture, and they have no issues with allowing the purchase of wine at grocery stores.
  • Putting wine in historically low-point outlets and moving towards single strength beer opens up Oklahoma to more points of sale, making Oklahoma a more attractive market for breweries and wineries and giving more options to Oklahoma consumers.
  • SB 383 could allow package stores to offer more than just alcohol products! Imagine buying a corkscrew, a bottle opener, or a mixer at the same place the beer/wine/liquor is.
  • Modernization of our laws helps retain young people to stay in the state and entice more to pick Oklahoma. “Brain drain” of talent young professionals is a real problem. To retain young talent, Oklahoma must provide an attractive quality of life. A facet of this is consumer choice in food and beverage. Having significantly limited options in their food in drink causes a credibility problem for our state.
  • There is no legal, moral or ethical reason that would preclude this bill from being passed.
  • The counterarguments you may hear are nothing more than established business looking to prevent economic competition at the expense of consumer choice.
  • Freedom of a store to refrigerate a legal food product is a basic liberty that Oklahomans don’t currently have.

About the Author:

Aubrey Laurence
Aubrey has been a craft beer fanatic since the mid '90s and he has written about beer for a wide variety of publications in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado for well over a decade. He has judged beer in multiple competitions, plus he has rated and taken notes on thousands of beers from all 50 states and 68 countries -- visiting 16 of those countries on 6 continents. He is also a Certified Beer Server with the Cicerone Certification Program, an avid homebrewer, and a hop grower. In 2013 & 2014, he spearheaded Bellingham Beer Week. When he’s not drinking beer, he’s probably climbing a mountain somewhere. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and three cats. Follow him on twitter @AubreyLaurence.