3.2 Beer, A Hangover From Prohibition Times, Is Slowly Disappearing The end of a Depression-era alcohol has brewers happy to see the stuff go. "It was just a pain in the posterior, you know, for everyone," says one brewer.
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The End Is Near For 3.2 Beer

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The End Is Near For 3.2 Beer

The End Is Near For 3.2 Beer

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There is no shortage of beer, but say goodbye to low alcohol 3.2 beer in all states but one. In case you're wondering, beer with 3.2 percent alcohol by weight has been around since Prohibition. But as Frank Morris from member station KCUR reports, the end may be near for that kind of beer.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: To understand 3.2 beer, you have to go back to March 1933.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME A PIGFOOT (AND A BOTTLE OF BEER)")

BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) Give me a pig foot and a bottle of beer.

MORRIS: Nine months before the end of Prohibition, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a Beer and Wine Revenue Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Beer is back and will soon be flowing again throughout the country.

MORRIS: While the constitutional prohibition on intoxicating liquors was still in effect, historian Maureen Ogle says lawmakers found a workaround.

MAUREEN OGLE: The compromise ended up being 3.2, and it - frankly, it's an arbitrary number; there's nothing magical about it.

MORRIS: But it was backed by an influential study that called beer a nonintoxicating beverage, as long as it had no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight; that's just slightly weaker than a typical light beer is now. But after Prohibition, the 3.2 standard took hold in lots of states as a sort of temperance light.

OGLE: I just call it the long shadow of Prohibition.

MORRIS: Since 3.2 beer was viewed as not quite liquor, some states let it be sold in food stores to 18-year-olds. Bart Watson is chief economist at the Brewers Association.

BART WATSON: My guess would be that we see 3.2 peak in the '70s; that's a time when, you know, a lot of states had rules that differentiated consumption for 18- to 21-year-olds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOT DOWN IN FLAMES")

AC/DC: (Singing) Woo. One, two.

MORRIS: And where 18-year-olds could buy beer, they could also buy it for their younger friends and siblings. American teen drinking peaked in the late '70s. By the mid '80s, most states adopted 21 as a minimum drinking age and, one by one, scrapped special laws for 3.2

WATSON: So the types of carve-outs that said grocery stores, convenience stores, chain retailers can only sell 3.2 started to slowly go away. Generally, this kind of category of 3.2 has been slowly regulated out of existence.

MORRIS: Oklahoma and Colorado dropped 3.2 restrictions last year; now Kansas has.

DENNIS TONEY: It's a big step for the grocers in the state of Kansas. We've all wanted this for quite some time now.

MORRIS: Grocery store executive Dennis Toney stands proudly in front of a brand-new cooler full of craft beer and full-strength standards. He's expecting a bump in sales. Brewers are happy, too. At Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, President Jeff Krum grimaces remembering decades of brewing low-alcohol variants to supply regional grocery stores and gas stations.

JEFF KRUM: And it was just a pain in the posterior, you know, for everyone, and our brewers were very excited to get out of the 3.2 business.

MORRIS: Utah is easing its 3.2 standard November 1, which will leave just one state enforcing a 3.2 percent alcohol by weight limit on grocery store beer. And Jamie Pfuhl with the Minnesota Grocers Association says store owners there are already having a hard time finding the stuff.

Does it feel kind of lonely there in...

JAMIE PFUHL: (Laughter) Yes. That's not funny, but it does feel lonely, and it's frustrating, you know, because nobody wants to be last.

MORRIS: At least when it comes to upholding an arbitrary, 86-year-old standard preserving a largely unloved class of beer. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSING TIME")

SEMISONIC: (Singing) Closing time - one last call for alcohol, so finish your whiskey or beer. Closing time - you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here. I know who I want to take me home.

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