Next week, Oklahoma voters have the opportunity to cut off one of the last vestiges of Prohibition still lingering in but a small handful of states. A prevailing “Yes” vote on Question 792 would modernize outdated and onerous liquor laws by, among other things, allowing for the sale of high-strength beer at the state’s grocery and convenience stores. Currently, those off-premise retailers are only legally permitted to sell beer of 3.2% alcohol by weight—roughly 4% alcohol-by-volume—or less. But this particular issue means a whole lot more to the beer industry at large than it does merely to Oklahoma.
WHY IT MATTERS
Drinkers that came of age in our nation’s more enlightened liquor havens might have no idea what “3.2 beer” is, conceptually speaking. But in Oklahoma, as well as Colorado, Utah, Minnesota, and Kansas, the dispute over 3.2 beer has been a whole ordeal, even in The Golden Age of Craft Beer.
A very brief history lesson: In 1933, with public support for Prohibition waning, Congress passed the Cullen-Harrison Act, legalizing the sale of beer measuring 3.2% alcohol by weight. However, because so-called “3.2 beer” was made legal nine months before the official death of Prohibition, “its distribution and sale in some states was not initially regulated under the state laws established after repeal,” according to the Alcohol Policy Information System. Fast-forward to today, and that leaves us with the abovementioned states still operating with the same old “3.2 beer” laws that have outlasted their utility by eight decades.
But the tide is now changing. Earlier this summer, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law a bill that immediately allowed grocers and major retailers to sell “full-strength” beer, freeing them up in the process to more gradually expand sales of higher-octane suds to more locations in phases over 20 years.
It remains to be seen if Oklahoma will follow in Colorado’s footsteps, but if early polling is any indication, it seems likely, as 67% of voters either “strongly” or “somewhat” support the initiative, according to The Oklahoman. And should Oklahoma rid itself of the 3.2 beer laws, it’s clear Utah would probably follow suit. That’s because Oklahomans and Utahans consume 56% and 29% of all 3.2 beer respectively, according to the Utah Beer Wholesaler’s Association. That’s a shitload, especially when considering “3.2 beer” accounts for only 1.8% of all beer produced nationwide, per the same group.
Additionally, brewers that make 3.2 versions of preexisting beers would likely do away with their neutered libations, if a market like Oklahoma, which dominates the 3.2 beer game, did away with the law. New Belgium, for instance, makes a 3.2 version of Fat Tire for this very reason.
“If Utah and Oklahoma were to change their laws, we would have to revisit whether or not it makes sense to produce 3.2,” company spokesperson Bryan Simpson told The Coloradoan earlier this year.
And fear of that would be certain to spur change elsewhere, according to Utah Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne. “Why would they [continue to make 3.2 versions]? I think they won’t,” she told Salt Lake City’s Fox affiliate this week. “If they do, it’s their choice, but if not, then legislatively and policy-wise, we’ve got to make some decisions.”
Now, this is clearly projecting a bit, but should Oklahoma kill the law only to be followed by Utah, that would leave Kansas and Minnesota as the last holdouts, the final pair of nails needed to seal 3.2 beer’s coffin shut forever (barring a draconian revolution that resuscitates Prohibition). On that front, the StarTribune reported fresh blood at the Minnesota capitol was organizing to promote change last January. However, the Kansas senate rejected a plan of its own to free up stronger beer sales last May.
All of which is to say: it’s too early to write 3.2 beer’s obituary now. But it’s fair to say the antiquated legislation is on life support.
Utah braces for impact of Oklahoma’s 3.2 beer vote [Fox13]
Kansas Senate rejects stronger beer sales at grocery, convenience stores [The Wichita Eagle]
Political power shift fires up perennial advocates of Sunday liquor sales [StarTribune]
Polling shows Oklahoma state question support ahead of election [The Oklahoman]
3.2 Beer could disappear in Colorado [The Coloradoan]