If full-strength beer and wine came to grocery store shelves in Colorado, it would change the craft-beer market.
Local brewers and the liquor store owners say changing the law could hurt a system that has nurtured about 300 craft breweries in the state and six in Durango. But proponents of the change, with the Your Choice Colorado Campaign, argue the change could spur economic growth, boost sales of craft beer and bring down the price of beer and wine.
The campaign, supported by grocers, is refining a ballot question that could include the sale of spirits in grocery stores, said campaign manager Georgie Aguirre-Sacasa.
“Right now, we’re here to talk to Coloradans about what they want for our state,” she said in an email.
They can’t collect signatures required to put the question to Colorado voters until the question is finalized. But they are aiming to put it on the November ballot.
Efforts to change the law in the Colorado Legislature and allow beer and wine sales in grocery stores have failed at least four times in recent years, and a previous effort to get the issue before voters was dropped.
Currently in Colorado, craft brewers can bring their product to liquor stores and negotiate sales directly. No one can own more than one liquor store in the state and that has given rise to about 1,650 liquor stores, according to a 2012 estimate. That direct access to many retail outlets has helped some brewers grow, local business owners said.
“The smaller, independent, locally owned liquor stores ... They have been the accounts that have supported us and allowed us to be here for 20 years,” said Dave Thibodeau, Ska Brewing’s co-founder and president.
Losing the sales of popular domestic beers such as Budweiser and MillerCoors beers to grocery stores could put liquor stores out of business and limit opportunity for brewers, opponents of the law say.
“We’ll see our top sellers drop off dramatically,” said Stan Crapo, owner of Star Liquors on Florida Road.
He expects the change in the law especially to hurt liquor stores sharing a parking lot with a grocery store.
“I think we will survive. We will survive in a very weakened state,” he said of Star Liquors.
He believes the ballot measure will pass because grocery stores have more money to fund their campaign.
Proponents of the change argue that craft brewers will have more opportunities to sell their product, not less.
“The current system substantially hurts craft beer sales and profits,” Aguirre-Sacasa said.
Grocery store sales could generate an additional $125 million in the sale of craft beer, according to a study by a University of Denver professor funded by grocery stores.
Ska sells beer in some grocery stores outside the state, Thibodeau said, and it is likely he could see strong sales of a few varieties of beer in Colorado.
But grocery stores likely couldn’t carry 12 different Ska beers. It is even more unlikely grocers could carry beer from every small brewer, he said.
“It’s going to limit choice for consumers in the long run,” he said.
It also puts independent brewers who rely on wholesale distribution, such as Ska, in a vulnerable position, he said.
Micro-brewers that produce specifically for a taproom or restaurant could be more insulated.
However, Aguirre-Sacasa argues that 42 states allow full-strength beer and wine sales in grocery stores and Colorado’s system is antiquated.
In Oregon and Washington state, two grocery store chains sell well over $100 million in local craft beer, she said.
But it’s the law that is responsible for the number of Colorado’s breweries and level of production, Thibodeau said.
“We’re special because we’re not everybody else,” he said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the pronouns referencing Georgie Aguirre-Sacasa.