Becca Peterson of MillerCoors stocks the cooler at Safeway
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Becca Peterson of MillerCoors stocks the cooler at the Safeway on South Nevada Avenue with full-strength beer Jan. 1 as Colorado grocery stores transition from 3.2 percent beer to full-strength beer.

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On the sleepy, arctic, first day of the new year, long-anticipated change was afoot at one Safeway store.

Where once “near beer,” the much-maligned, but grudgingly accepted liquid refreshment with 3.2 percent alcohol by volume, resided on the cooler shelves, was now a colorful bevy of full-strength local and craft beers.

“I’m excited,” said Heather Halpape, Safeway’s public affairs manager. “It’s exciting for our employees and our customers. It’s the end of Prohibition laws in Colorado.”

While a swarm of beer distributor folks scurried to stock the shelves at the 1920 S. Nevada Ave. location with all flavors of IPAs, porters, wheats and classics such as Corona Light and Bud Light, the city’s intended audience remained scarce. Nobody showed up at the stroke of 8 a.m., the start of legal sales, to purchase a six-pack of Durango brewery Ska Brewing’s India pale ale Modus Mandarina from a grocery store in Colorado Springs for the first time.

“It would probably be better if it weren’t the day after a big drinking holiday,” said Halpape. Another Safeway employee said New Year’s Day is typically the day of the year with the lowest beer sales.

Farther north on South Nevada Avenue, there was zero commotion at 7-Eleven. The store’s first shipment of full-strength beer had yet to arrive but was expected to show up later in the week. Store manager Steve Woodrum didn’t expect too much product, only a couple of cooler doors worth. He and his customers hadn’t really discussed the momentous change, he said. Colorado has banned the sale of full-strength beer outside liquor stores, with a few exceptions, since Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

“It’s more work for me,” said Woodrum. “We have to condense the coolers and take product out. We have to cut stuff out to bring it in. We’re only so big inside here. It kind of cramps it.”

As one might imagine, small mom and pop liquor stores weren’t stoked about the change. One employee at a longtime downtown establishment, who didn’t want to be identified, said it’s going to be horrible for the little guys, and they expect up many people will lose their jobs. Liquor stores located in shopping centers near grocery stores will be especially hard hit because nobody wants to make two stops for groceries and beer. Beer accounts for half the profits in liquor stores, the employee said.

Crews at Safeway began stocking their products at 6 a.m. It was an end to more than a year of preparing to sell full-strength brews, after lawmakers finally approved sales in 2016, and guidelines were set in May.

“We want to offer convenience to our customers and support craft breweries,” said Safeway Spokesperson Andrew Fournier. Alcohol sales are only allowed between 8 a.m. and midnight.

Indeed, where “near beer” once filled 24 to 32 feet of cooler space, full-strength beer will now capture 60 to 100 feet — most of an entire aisle. Each store will be different, however. Safeway’s largest selection of beer will be at the 1121 N. Circle Drive location, Fournier said. More than half of the grocery store chain’s stock will be local or craft beers, with 50 indie breweries from Colorado representing 166 varieties.

While Anheuser-Busch Merchandiser George Gettinger has “seen a lot of guys come up with big smiles on their faces,” as he stocked beer at the Safeway on Circle Drive, a couple of other shoppers were mostly humdrum about the new offering.

Kevin Gunty lamented the lack of “near beer,” and hoped he could still find it around town. He likes to support small business, being a small business owner himself, but isn’t worried about the small liquor stores. He believes competition is good.

“If it’s convenient and I’m in a hurry,” said Gunty, “I’ll utilize it (the grocery store beer). It might be good for the local guys. It might expose more people to them.”

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