Colorado grocery stores brewing up efforts to change liquor law

Photo: Sipping beer
Ryen Harris of Boulder drinks a sip of beer from Short's Brewing Company from Bellaire, Mich. at the Great American Beer Festival on Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014.

Grocery stores in Colorado are in the beginning stages of a new campaign to sell craft beer and wine, hoping to overturn current state law that restricts most grocery stores from selling full-strength alcohol.

Grocery chains can only sell full-strength beer and wine in one of their stores -- the Target in Glendale is the only location in the state with a liquor license, for example. Other locations are restricted to selling beer with just 3.2 percent alcohol by volume.

"Liquor laws here in Colorado are antiquated, silly, and just frankly out of date," said Chris Howes, with Colorado Consumers for Choice, a coalition of grocery stores.

Stores are measuring support for a future ballot initiative to change the law. Howes says 30,000 people have liked their Facebook page.

Craft brewers, however, oppose any changes to the law. They argue that independent, mom-and-pop liquor stores deserve a lot of the credit for the rich diversity of brands.

"The only reason you see our full lineup of beers in so many stores is because the liquor store owners are so dedicated to Colorado beer," Matt Fowler, founder of Upslope Brewing, told the Boulder Weekly. "We currently are in a few other states in large chain stores and it’s a battle to get them to carry more than two of our products; the beer cooler is tiny compared to what you see across Colorado."

Craft brewers have vowed another fierce defense of the current liquor laws. Previous attempts to change the law in the Legislature have failed.

But there's some evidence that the liquor stores' fears are unfounded. Grocery stores stocking and selling full-strength beer wouldn't lead to the widespread closing of independent liquor stores, a 2009 white paper to the Legislature found. It was prepared by Henry Sobanet, currently Gov. John Hickenlooper's budget director.

"Many states with more lenient liquor laws than Colorado's -- permitting grocery and convenience store sales of full-strength beer, wine and spirits -- have higher per-capita incidence of liquor stores," it noted.

The report also predicted that more competition would lead to lower prices for consumers.

CPR's Nathaniel Minor contributed to this report.