Legislature faces latest brew battle

Efforts by convenience stores in Colorado to allow them the exclusive franchise to sell low-alcohol beer fell flat this week when the Senate Local Government and Energy Committee voted 4-1 to approve Senate Bill 60. Sponsored by Sens. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood and Jean White, R-Hayden, the bill would allow restaurants, as well as all liquor-license holders, the ability to sell the low alcohol beer for consumption on their premises.

The legislation was favored by the Colorado Restaurant Association, which had lobbied committee members extensively. But lobbying against the bill, primarily by owners of convenience stores in the state, was equally as fierce. While restaurants argued that it seemed reasonable to allow them to continue selling the lower alcohol product, opponents pointed out that convenience stores are not allowed to sell full strength beer, and that regulations are already on the books disallowing restaurants to serve the lighter beer.

The battle over who can sell what strength beer in the state has been brewing for several years as legislators — at the behest of different interest groups — have tried to exert some control. But as Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs suggested, the battle really shouldn’t be positioned as convenience stores versus restaurants. He maintained, after listening to testimony, that the two entities really aren’t in competition with each other. Cadman said that there was little evidence presented that those wanting to order a low alcohol beer at a restaurant were somehow in competition with someone who wanted to pick up a pack of 3.2 beer at a 7-11 and drink it off premises.

But what really swung him over in favor of passage of SB 60, he said, was the argument that it seemed preferable to allow someone to consume a lower alcohol beer at a restaurant before they got behind the wheel and drove home. He voted for the measure, joined by fellow Sens. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Irene Aguilar, D-Denver. Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, was the lone vote against the bill, which now advances to the full senate.

Opponents of the bill, who have formed an umbrella organization called Coloradans for Convenience, point out that they have had to follow the liquor laws which prevent them from selling full strength beer. Legislative attempts to change that provision have been killed in past sessions.

If they have to operate under current laws, they want restaurants to also obey what’s on the books.

A new law passed last year — and which will be enforced in the coming weeks — calls for the labeling of light beer and the higher malt varieties and, what’s more, enforcement under the liquor code. This would, in turn, mean that a local pub or restaurant would be prohibited from selling the lower alcohol product, just as the convenience and grocery stores are prohibited from selling the higher alcohol by volume products.

Actually the law prohibiting restaurants from selling lower alcohol beer has always been on the books — but it hasn’t always been enforced. Now convenience stores want to make sure that if they’re precluded from selling higher alcohol brands, restaurants be prevented from selling the lower alcohol products.

Mary Alice Mandarich, a lobbyist for the convenience stores, predicts that there will be some kind of compromise legislation crafted during this session.

But what is truly needed, offered Sen. Foster, is some kind of resolution to these amped up beer battles which crop up almost annually. She suggested that Colorado’s new governor, with his background as a former brew pub owner, might just be a good arbiter on the subject.

Colorado’s antiquated liquor laws deserve to be modernized and the field somehow leveled. But whether Gov. Hickenlooper will venture into this war of suds won’t likely have much effect on this latest brew battle.