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How Colorado’s New Liquor Law Will Affect the Craft Beer Industry

As of January 1, full-strength beer became available in grocery stores across the state. Here’s what that could mean for our craft brewers.

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On January 1, the state of Colorado implemented the biggest change to its liquor laws in more than 80 years: Senate Bill 197 removed a Prohibition-era clause that previously limited the sale of full-strength beer to independent liquor stores. The new law permits existing grocery and convenience stores throughout the state to sell full-strength beer, in addition to the 3.2 percent ABV “low-strength” brews retail stores were already allowed to sell. In other words, the number of Centennial State stores permitted to sell full-strength beer effectively doubled this week, from roughly 1,600 to around 3,400.

While the new change means that picking up a six-pack just got a bit easier, not everyone is thrilled about the shift. “It creates a lot of uncertainty for the landscape that we’ve had for the past 80-plus years,” says Steve Kurowski, marketing director at the Colorado Brewers Guild. “We’re not exactly sure what’s going to happen to small to mid-size breweries and to independent liquor stores.”

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The Guild is actively working to forge connections between Colorado craft breweries and retail stores in the hopes of giving brewers equal footing in securing shelf space. “Selling beer to chain grocery stores is a very different process than selling beer to an individual liquor store,” Kurowski says, noting that smaller and mid-size breweries may not be able to meet the volume demands of selling to chains.

The full effects of the new law will take time to be revealed, but the Guild is already preparing for some potential negative outcomes. The implementation of Senate Bill 197 could eventually lead to fewer small breweries choosing to package their products (opting instead to focus on tap room sales), less diversity and selection for consumers, diminished business for independent liquor shops, and fewer opportunities for smaller breweries to snag shelf space.

That said, more than forty of Colorado’s craft breweries have already been granted the “fermented malt beverage” license needed to sell product in grocery and convenience stores, including Fort Collins-based Funkwerks, Denver Beer Company, and Lafayette’s Odd13 Brewing. As of New Year’s Day, Colorado’s larger breweries—Oskar Blues Brewery, Odell Brewing Co., and New Belgium Brewing Company—have all secured space in grocery store chains, such as King Soopers and Safeway. “It’s going to be up to the consumer to make the decision if they want to support local independent liquor stores, or if convenience is going to be what drives their buying decision,” Kurowski says.

One potential plus that could come from the new law? Local governments and the Colorado Division of Wildlife now have the opportunity to change their current policies on the consumption of beer in public parks. Currently, only 3.2 brews are allowed in those outdoor spaces, but Coloradans may be able to tote full-strength brews to their picnics if those changes are made.

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