The End Is Near For 3.2 Beer | KBIA

The End Is Near For 3.2 Beer

Apr 5, 2019
Originally published on April 9, 2019 6:32 am

For many decades now, the only beer you could buy in Kansas grocery and convenience stores was limited to 3.2 percent alcohol.

But on Monday, that 3.2 beer became a thing of the past.

"It's a big step for the groceries and the state of Kansas," says Dennis Toney, an executive with Ball's Food Stores. "We've all wanted this for quite some time."

Kansas is one of the last states to do away with this Depression-era alcohol, which looks likely to soon die out altogether.

The "long shadow of Prohibition"

To understand where 3.2 beer came from, you have to go back 86 years to 1933. Nine months before Prohibition was completely repealed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act, fulfilling a campaign promise.

The compromise ended up being 3.2 and it frankly, it's an arbitrary number. There's nothing magical about it. - Maureen Ogle, beer historian

Because Prohibition was still officially the law, there had to be a limit on the amount of alcohol allowed in beer. Hearings were held and the political process worked out a standard that could gather the necessary votes — 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.

"The compromise ended up being 3.2 and it frankly, it's an arbitrary number. There's nothing magical about it," says Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.

Ogle says that after the federal government legalized all liquor, the 3.2 percent alcohol by weight standard took hold in many states as a middle course between allowing alcohol and not — a sort of temperance light.

"I just call it the 'long shadow of Prohibition,' " Ogle says.

Regulators set 3.2 beer apart from other drinks. An influential study in the 1930s labeled it a non-intoxicating beverage.

After Prohibition, states established a crazy quilt of alcohol regulations. Many, including Kansas, made special provisions for 3.2 beer. In some states, it was the only drink allowed. Other states made it easier to buy than stronger beer, wine and spirits.

Teen consumption fueled 3.2 sales

Sales of 3.2 were big about 40 years ago, in the 1970s, says Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association. This was fueled, in part, by teen consumption. "That's a time when a lot of states had rules that differentiated consumption for 18- to 21-year-olds," Watson says.

In other words, 18-year-olds could legally drink, in many states, as long as they were drinking 3.2 beer. Younger kids found it easy to get, too.

American teen drinking peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, the country adopted a uniform minimum drinking age of 21. Watson says that one by one, states scrapped special rules for 3.2 beer.

"So the types of carve-outs that said grocery stores, convenience stores, chain retailers can only sell 3.2 started to slowly go away," says Watson. "Generally this kind of category of 3.2 has been slowly regulated out of existence."

Oklahoma and Colorado changed their laws last year.

The new standard in Kansas, which took effect on Monday, lifts the cap on beer alcohol levels, but only to a degree. The new maximum is 6 percent alcohol by volume.
Frank Morris / KCUR

The new standard in Kansas, which took effect on Monday, lifts the cap on beer alcohol levels, but only to a degree. The new maximum is 6 percent alcohol by volume. That will allow for a wide selection of beers but will exclude many high-end craft brews, some of which come in at more than twice the strength the new Kansas limit allows.

Still, brewers are also happy to see the end of the 3.2 percent alcohol by weight standard.

Jeff Krum, president of Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, talks with distaste about decades of making 3.2 beer for Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado grocery stores.

"It was just a pain in the posterior, you know, for everyone," says Krum. "We're ... very excited to get out of the 3.2 business."

Other brewers have abandoned the segment as well because the market for 3.2 is drying up.

Utah brewers will ditch the 3.2 standard on Nov. 1. That will leave just one state, Minnesota, selling 3.2 beer.

And Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association, says store owners are already beginning to have a hard time finding the stuff.

"It does feel lonely and it's frustrating because nobody wants to be last," says Pfuhl.

Copyright 2019 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There is no shortage of beer, but say goodbye to low alcohol 3.2 beer in all states but one. In case you're wondering, beer with 3.2 percent alcohol by weight has been around since Prohibition. But as Frank Morris from member station KCUR reports, the end may be near for that kind of beer.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: To understand 3.2 beer, you have to go back to March 1933.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME A PIGFOOT (AND A BOTTLE OF BEER)")

BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) Give me a pig foot and a bottle of beer.

MORRIS: Nine months before the end of Prohibition, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Beer and Wine Revenue Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Beer is back and will soon be flowing again throughout the country.

MORRIS: While the constitutional prohibition on intoxicating liquors was still in effect, historian Maureen Ogle says lawmakers found a workaround.

MAUREEN OGLE: The compromise ended up being 3.2, and it - frankly, it's an arbitrary number; there's nothing magical about it.

MORRIS: But it was backed by an influential study that called beer a nonintoxicating beverage, as long as it had no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight; that's just slightly weaker than a typical light beer is now. But after Prohibition, the 3.2 standard took hold in lots of states as a sort of temperance light.

OGLE: I just call it the long shadow of Prohibition.

MORRIS: Since 3.2 beer was viewed as not quite liquor, some states let it be sold in food stores to 18-year-olds. Bart Watson is chief economist at the Brewers Association.

BART WATSON: My guess would be that we see 3.2 peak in the '70s; that's a time when, you know, a lot of states had rules that differentiated consumption for 18- to 21-year-olds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOT DOWN IN FLAMES")

AC/DC: (Singing) Woo. One, two.

MORRIS: And where 18-year-olds could buy beer, they could also buy it for their younger friends and siblings. American teen drinking peaked in the late '70s. By the mid '80s, most states adopted 21 as a minimum drinking age and, one by one, scrapped special laws for 3.2

WATSON: So the types of carve-outs that said grocery stores, convenience stores, chain retailers can only sell 3.2 started to slowly go away. Generally, this kind of category of 3.2 has been slowly regulated out of existence.

MORRIS: Oklahoma and Colorado dropped 3.2 restrictions last year; now Kansas has.

DENNIS TONEY: It's a big step for the grocers in the state of Kansas. We've all wanted this for quite some time now.

MORRIS: Grocery store executive Dennis Toney stands proudly in front of a brand-new cooler full of craft beer and full-strength standards. He's expecting a bump in sales. Brewers are happy, too. At Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, President Jeff Krum grimaces remembering decades of brewing low-alcohol variants to supply regional grocery stores and gas stations.

JEFF KRUM: And it was just a pain in the posterior, you know, for everyone, and our brewers were very excited to get out of the 3.2 business.

MORRIS: Utah is easing its 3.2 standard November 1, which will leave just one state enforcing a 3.2 percent alcohol by weight limit on grocery store beer. And Jamie Pfuhl with the Minnesota Grocers Association says store owners there are already having a hard time finding the stuff.

Does it feel kind of lonely there in...

JAMIE PFUHL: (Laughter) Yes. That's not funny, but it does feel lonely, and it's frustrating, you know, because nobody wants to be last.

MORRIS: At least when it comes to upholding an arbitrary, 86-year-old standard preserving a largely unloved class of beer. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSING TIME")

SEMISONIC: (Singing) Closing time - one last call for alcohol, so finish your whiskey or beer. Closing time - you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here. I know who I want to take me home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.