When I moved from New Mexico to Denver in the summer of 2017, I thought it would be good form to arrive with a case of beer for my new roommates—both Colorado natives. So, like I’d done countless times before, I went to a nearby supermarket and picked up a 30-rack of Coors Light (I didn’t want to offend the locals by dropping what little money I had on the King of Beers).
I figured my two new friends would appreciate the gesture. They did not. When I came home bragging about the smoking-hot deal I’d just got, one of them asked what I figured was a meaningless question: “Where did you buy the beer?”
“Safeway,” I bragged.
He then explained that what I purchased was something less than “real” beer. It was 3.2 percent, because in Colorado you could only buy full-strength brews in liquor stores. I was floored by the concept. I grew up in New Hampshire, where the native folk “Live Free or Die” and buy booze (and maple syrup and bullets) at country stores. I spent my college years in Montana, where it was so easy to buy beer that even the mule deer were tipsy. And New Mexico? In the Land of Enchantment, whiskey shooters were sold at gas stations behind the counter, right next to Marlboro Reds.
This Colorado oddity—a lingering product of post-prohibition bureaucracy —was something I quickly learned to accept, vowing never to embarrass myself in such fashion again.
Little did I know that 3.2 beer was on its last leg. Before I even moved here, Senate Bill 197 (which passed in 2016) changed the law—meaning on January 1, 2019, grocery and convenience stores in Colorado can start selling “real” beer, and clueless transplants like me will have to embarrass themselves in other ways.
Part of me wants to celebrate the new law. But I also find myself a bit nostalgic, because 3.2 beer has a rich legacy in Colorado—one to which my dad, who grew up here, recently introduced me. Turns out, that same beer I accidentally bought at Safeway is what he drank in the late ’70s and early ’80s during his years at J.K. Mullen High School. Back then, 18- to 20-year-olds were allowed to purchase beer, so long as it was 3.2 percent alcohol by weight or 4 percent by volume. When I called him this week and told him about the new law, he laughed and was briefly sentimental. The next morning he followed up with an email that included this:
No more 3.2 beer? I suppose next you’re going to tell me that down vests, tear-drop-shaped glasses, Happy Days, and the Carter presidency are gone, too. A generation of us came of age on that almost legal watery libation that you could procure without shame on your 18th birthday by walking into a grocery store with a straight, acne-filled face and a freshly minted driver’s license. 3.2 beer was the first, second, and third grocery purchase many of us ever made. It was the exotic libation of backseats and parking lots, the gateway through adolescent awkwardness and towards the other vices and small victories by which we all somehow came of age.
Coors was the favorite, but in the late ’70s Olympia commercials boasted: “It’s the water and a lot more.” Those were possibly the truest words we had ever heard. And now you’ve come back from the future to tell me that weed is legal in Colorado and 3.2 beer is gone? Sheesh. Nostalgia sure ain’t what it used to be son. See ya on the flip side.
It’s the end of an era in Colorado, one that holds a special if not sarcastic place in my family’s shared heart. But if you’re among those mourning the loss of 3.2 beer and looking to cool your nostalgia—don’t fear. You’ll still be able to find it in select grocery stores and breweries in Colorado. And if you’re up for an adventure, head west to Utah, one of the only states left where 3.2 beer is still the standard.
For me, 3.2 beer was an accident. For my dad, it was a choice. For all the others who sipped on that watery alternative for the past eight decades, cheers to stiffer libations in 2019.