It didn’t happen in time for New Year’s Eve revelers, but after the clock struck midnight Tuesday, grocery stores in Durango and across Colorado began stocking shelves with full-strength beer.
Effective Jan. 1, grocery stores across the state are allowed to sell full-strength beer, doing away with a Prohibition-era law that restricted supermarkets and convenience stores to selling low-alcohol beer, 3.2 percent by volume.
Local City Market representatives referred all questions to the company’s offices in Denver. That office did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Joey Lash, assistant store director at Albertsons, said 3.2 beer was sold out by the second or third week of December, and the store didn’t bother to restock it. Instead, store managers put up a big banner that said full-strength beer was on its way in 2019.
“That caused quite a bit of hype,” Lash said. “People are excited about it.”
Lash didn’t have an exact number of beers Albertsons carries, but he said the store has made a point to carry the big brands, like Budweiser and Coors, along with the more local, craft companies, such as Ska Brewing Co.
“We even have a little section with a lot of local beer, and you can build your own six-pack,” he said.
The switch to full-strength beer is a result of a measure adopted by the Colorado General Assembly in early 2018, after years of politicians, big chain stores and concerned liquor store owners trying to find some common ground.
For the most part, liquor stores and even some brewers in the state opposed allowing grocery stores to carry full-strength beer, arguing it would push locally owned shops out of business and decrease opportunity for craft beer to thrive.
Those concerns, at least according to several liquor store owners and managers in Durango contacted just two days into the new law, have not abated.
“It’s the beginning of the end,” said Sherry Wertz, owner of Liquor World. “It makes me sad. I don’t want to see anyone go out of business, but it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen.”
Wertz said it’s just not possible for an independent liquor store to offer as low of prices as grocery stores, which can make up their margins through sales of other products. And she suspects these low prices won’t last forever.
“They’re going to give it away until they put all of us out,” she said.
Chris Hamilton, co-owner of W.J. Doyle, 509 East Eighth Ave., has similar concerns, estimating that about half of a liquor store’s total sales are beer.
Because major supermarkets sell so much product, beer distributors are restocking the stores multiple times a week. By contrast, Hamilton has to hire someone to stock the shelves at W.J. Doyle.
And state law doesn’t allow independent stores to ban together to help negotiate pricing and distributing.
“It really puts us in a position where by law we can’t compete with them,” Hamilton said. “And it’s going to hurt badly. Most folks are going to be legitimately worried of going out of business.”
Calls to Ska were not returned Wednesday.
Hamilton, however, said grocery stores are less inclined to sell craft or local beer, which could hurt the promotion of independent brewers.
“We’re all looking at this as a threat to our very existence,” he said. “People are highly likely to go under with this.”
Liquor stores were allowed to start selling other items, such as foods and snacks, to help diversify sales. But owners and managers interviewed for this story said those sales won’t be able to make up the losses.
And state law says non-alcoholic products can’t exceed 20 percent of a liquor store’s total gross sales, whereas there’s no cap on the amount of beer grocery stores can sell.
Instead, the local stores realize that to survive, they need to offer beers not found in supermarkets.
“I don’t need to carry five types of Bud like we used to,” said Jordan Dodd, night manager at Wagon Wheel Liquors. “We’ll have to become more of a specialty store.”
Hamilton said W.J. Doyle has been using that business model for years.
“We’re a very quirky store,” he said. “But we provide tremendous choice.”
For now, liquor stores are still the go-to spots for liquor and wine. But even that’s expected to change in 2036, when some grocery stores will earn the right to sell those libations.
“You can’t prepare for this, you can only hope for the best,” Wertz said. “I just worry about small ma-and-pa shops. It’s sad to see us go away, and that’s what they’re doing.”