Jun Choi gazes sadly at his beer cooler in Cellar at Rockrimmon, the compact liquor store he’s owned for 15 years.
In 2018, he said, he sold “at least” 32 six-packs a week of Bud Light and Budweiser. Last week, he sold two. His overall beer sales have tumbled 30 percent in 2019.
“Big damages,” he says. “It’s going to be a battle.”
His opponent? Corporate grocery stores that started selling full-strength beer Jan. 1.
Six-packs of popular New Belgium beer, brewed in Fort Collins, were on sale last week for $7.99 at King Soopers. Choi says he pays $7.30 wholesale for the six-packs. He won’t profit, or even keep his lights and heat running, by selling six-packs at a markup of 69 cents.
For decades, a trip to grocery stores in neighboring states surprised Colorado residents.
A trip to, say, a New Mexico supermarket revealed a vast array of vodka, whiskey, tequila and — most amazing — full-strength beer, all shelved neatly a few feet from asparagus in one direction and shampoo in the other.
In Colorado, grocery shoppers trudged past small collections of 3.2 beer, purchased primarily by tourists unaware of the brew’s weakness. To show up at a party in Colorado with 3.2 beer was to risk being despised and rejected.
Liquor stores blossomed in the 3.2 atmosphere, though, sprouting all over Colorado Springs. Standing at, say, Lexington Drive and Research Parkway, eight liquor stores beckon within 2.5 miles. In Colorado, you drove to the grocery store to buy milk and Wheaties and to stroll past the weak beer. You drove to the liquor store to buy booze, including full-strength beer.
For more than 80 years, 3.2 beer at grocery stores fueled the health of Colorado liquor stores.
Senate Bills 197 and 243 ended the fun for those merchants. The bills allow grocery and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer to a state full of beer-loving residents, though the law leaves the hard stuff and wine in liquor stores for now.
Most of us shrugged. But liquor store owners braced for catastrophe.
Our state long has had a bizarre relationship with alcohol. Colorado passed Prohibition — ending the legal sale of alcohol — in 1916, three years before the nation embraced an idealistic but flawed law that was awful for casual drinkers and wonderful for ruthless crime syndicates.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, 3.2 beer appeared. It was everywhere, though it never was popular. In Colorado, drinkers under 21 could legally buy 3.2 beer, but — wink, wink — were prohibited from consuming anything stronger.
In the summer of 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a law that essentially forced states to embrace the national minimum drinking age of 21. He did the forcing by coupling highway aid with compliance. Colorado’s wild 3.2 bars, filled with 18- and 19-year-olds, vanished.
Still, 3.2 beer, like a vampire, refused to die.
SB Bills 197 and 243 served as the stake in the 3.2 heart. Oh, 3.2 beer still can be found if you’re motivated enough, but good luck. A Colorado mainstay has been reduced to a rarity.
Wreckage is coming for what Choi calls “mom and pop stores.” How much wreckage remains tough to predict, but profit margins at liquor stores large and small are under siege. Get a jug of milk or gas up the car and grab a six-pack of real beer. It’s the new normal.
Of course, virtually everyone roots for the little guy. We want small businesses to thrive, but will we make the extra trip to help the little guy?
In late December, Choi laid off one of his two workers, a man who had labored alongside him for six years. He told the employee that grocery and convenience stores were destined to cut deeply into store profits. The worker, Choi says, accepted the bad news with grace.
That man won’t be the last to lose a job because of the arrival of real beer where we shop most.
“I think,” Choi says, “it’s going to get worse and worse.”