How Colorado Went From A Teetotal State To The ‘Napa Of Craft Beer’

January 2, 2019
Photo: Colorado State University Beer-In Protest 1968Courtesy of Thomas Cauvin
Colorado State University students participate in a "beer-in" in 1968, protesting Fort Collins' Prohibition-era laws.

The end of 3.2 beer in Colorado grocery stores this New Year's was the state's latest step in its journey from teetoler to craft beer capital.

The seeds for Colorado's brewery dominance to come were sown during the Gold Rush. When miners and German immigrants flocked to the state in the hopes of riches in the mid-1800s, their beer-loving traditions and techniques came with. (Among their ranks included a little-known guy, Adolph Coors.)

Part of the reason popular early Colorado drinks drifted toward lagers and pilsners was because of the founding brewers' German ancestry. In a way, today's near beer is the closest relative to the ales of the past.

"Actually not too far from the 3.2 beer we used to drink," said Thomas Cauvin, a Colorado State University professor who teaches courses on beer and brewing history. "People were drinking this near beer, this very local-alcohol beer."

When the United States ratified the 18th Amendment in 1919, Colorado was already ahead of the curve on prohibiting the sale and manufacture of alcohol. The state enacted Prohibition in 1916, and northern Coloradan cities such as Fort Collins went dry as early as 1896.

"Colorado has a very long history of prohibition and the limitation of alcohol," Cauvin said.

World War I, the popularity of the Women's Temperance Movement and the state's staunch conservatism and Christianity at the time all pushed Colorado into early Prohibition. Temperance activists even used the German ancestry of brewers and beer as a talking point as the U.S. fought Germany.

"There was this argument that drinking beer was not patriotic in 1917 and 1918," Cauvin said.

Even after the 18th Amendment was repealed, northern Colorado wanted to stay dry. Greeley, Boulder and Fort Collins kept Prohibition-era rules. Until the late 1960s, you could only buy 3.2 beer in the cities.

"When we think about Colorado today, it’s about craft, it’s about microbreweries. But until the late 1960s most of the Northern Colorado towns were dry," Cauvin said.

In 1968 Colorado State University students even held a "beer-in," drinking Coors in the student union, to protest Fort Collins' Prohibition laws.

Even as Prohibition faded away across Colorado, it would be another 20 years before the state's craft beer revolution began in the 1980s, and another 30 before 3.2 was bid adieu.