AURORA | A battle brewing between grocery store chains and the Colorado liquor industry could get ugly in the coming months as the two factions trade barbs over a possible 2016 ballot question.
At issue is whether grocery and convenience stores should be allowed to sell full-strength beer and liquor. Proponents of changing the law may take the fight to voters, rather than state lawmakers, as several attempts at changing the law have failed at the Capitol.
Currently, grocery stores in Colorado cannot sell beer that contains more than 3.2 percent alcohol by volume and franchise liquor licenses aren’t permitted for grocery and convenience stores. In some instances, franchises can have one liquor location in the state.
Proponents argue that the legislation is decades old and that consumers should have more of a choice in regards to where they can purchase full-strength booze. Opponents, largely made up of professionals in the brewing, distilling and liquor distribution industries, argue that changing the law will largely wipe out the state’s independent liquor stores, which would decimate Colorado’s craft beer industry.
Colorado currently boasts over 280 breweries, and ranks fourth in the country in terms of number of breweries per capita, according to the Brewer’s Association.
Kevin DeLange, owner of Dry Dock Brewing Company in Aurora, is helping to spearhead the charge against changing the current law. DeLange is managing Keep Colorado Local, a coalition opposed to changing current laws, which is supported by the Colorado Brewers Guild and the Colorado Licensed beverage Association. The coalition kicked off their opposition effort with a meeting at Argonaut Wine & Liquor in Denver on March 19.
DeLange said he would not have been able to grow Dry Dock to its current capacity — which topped 15,000 barrels for the first time in 2014 — were the liquor laws in Colorado any different. He added that if full-strength restrictions were to change, it would have a catastrophic effect for independent liquor stores across Aurora.
“Dry Dock would not be as big as it is now, not even close — and we definitely wouldn’t have our I-70 canning center,” he said. “But the biggest impact is going to be on liquor stores because all of that money is going to leave the state, and so many jobs will be lost. I think half to 70 percent of liquor stores in Aurora will close over the course of three years if chain stores take over.”
Dan Haley, the spokesman for Colorado Consumers for Choice, the group working on behalf of the grocery industry to get the issue to the ballot, disagreed with DeLange’s prognosis.
“I just don’t see how opening more markets up is bad for anyone,” he said.
Haley pointed to the Portland market, which boasts more breweries per capita than anywhere in the country, as one that operates smoothly despite grocers being able to sell full-strength beer.
Lee Earnhart, owner of Chambers Wine & Liquor on East Iliff Avenue and South Chambers Road, disagreed with Haley’s assessment saying that a change to current liquor laws would drain the state of spending dollars and stores like his would suffer.
“It would hurt us significantly,” Earnhart said. “The main issue in the whole thing is that it’s going to cost us jobs in Colorado.”
There were 1,650 independent liquor stores in Colorado that employed 7,500 people in 2010, according to an economic impact study compiled by Colorado Springs-based research firm Summit Economics. That employment number tops that of Denver International Airport, which was the fourth largest employer in the state in 2014, according to the data collection firm Infogroup.
On top of taking jobs and highly desired craft beer dollars out of the state, Earnhart fears that changing the current law could result in more alcohol falling into the hands of minors and that the personalization of independent liquor stores could be lost.
“I’ve had my same wine manager for 32 years and King Soopers is not going to have a wine manager in every store – they probably don’t know the difference between a Chardonnay and a Canadian whiskey,” he said. “And (grocers) have kids under 21 running registers, you think peer pressure is not going to be bad there?”
Haley scoffed at Earnhart’s thought that grocers being able to sell full-strength alcohol would lead to an uptick in underage consumption.
“The fact that liquor stores would make that claim is laughable,” he said.
Haley pointed to a study conducted by CCC, which reported that grocery and convenience stores were guilty of half as many “sale to a minor” violations between 2012 and 2013 as other liquor license-holding entities.
“The idea that a liquor store tucked in the dark corner of a strip mall is somehow a safer venue to sell beer and wine than your local grocery store, where check-out scanners literally lock down until a valid ID is verified, is complete fiction,” said Chris Howes, another spokesman for CCC who is also president of the Colorado Retail Council.
In order to make the ballot, CCC must file a petition with at least 98,492 signatures with the Colorado Secretary of State by August 8, 2016.