The market for 3.2 beer seems to be drying up – leaving some in the industry wondering if American breweries will keep making it.
Oklahoma became the latest to move away from low-alcohol beer this week when the state voted to let grocery stores sell full-strength beer and wine.
Here in Minnesota, liquor laws allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell only beer that's no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight. That compares to about 5 percent for a typical beer sold in a bar or liquor store, with some craft brews ranging up to 7 or 8 percent.
But with Colorado already phasing out 3.2 beer and Oklahoma now jumping off the wagon as well, Kansas and Utah will be the only other states left selling it.
Is Oklahoma's vote a tipping point for 3.2?
3.2 beer is already a small portion of the American market, but it's heading toward the microscopic range.
Before Tuesday's vote FOX 23 in Tulsa noted that Oklahomans now drink more than half of America's 3.2 beer. They consume 56 percent with Utah at 29 percent and Colorado, Minnesota, and Kansas all in the single digits, the station says.
The measure Oklahoma approved lets full-strength beer into grocery stores in 2018 and Colorado is doing it in 2019.
The president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association, Jim Olsen, tells the Salt Lake Tribune the loss of those states will move low-alcohol beer from 1.8 percent of the U.S. market to 0.7 percent. Olsen says it's getting less likely that big breweries will continue to make 3.2 beer for such a small market.
Anheuser-Busch, the biggest American beermaker, told the Salt Lake paper it will not abandon the 3.2 market. But the wholesalers group says even if the low-alcohol beer stays available, there may be a smaller selection and it might be brewed less often, affecting freshness.
A remnant of Prohibition
3.2 beer was first approved back in the days when full-strength beer was illegal. During Prohibition, supporters of 3.2 beer argued – without scientific support – that it should be legal because it's impossible to get drunk from such low-alcohol beer.
But when Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933 he pushed for its legalization, saying the brewery jobs and tax revenue would help the country pull out of the Great Depression.
Bars licensed to sell only 3.2 beer remained common after Prohibition was lifted. Just a few years ago the Star Tribune reported on their demise, saying the number in Minneapolis had fallen from 64 to two in two decades.
Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post's Wonkblog notes an analysis of the societal costs of heavy drinking – health problems, crime, early deaths linked to liquor – found the per capita costs are actually higher in the states that ban supermarket sales of full-strength beer.