When Franklin Roosevelt took office in March 1933, Congress had already passed the Twenty-first Amendment repealing Prohibition. However, it would not be ratified by the States and take effect until the following December. As an emergency measure, to quench the national thirst, FDR got Congress to pass the Beer Act which redefined non-intoxicating “near beer” of 0.5% alcohol to 3.2% alcohol by weight. FDR is reported to have said, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” The Act went into effect on April 7, which has been celebrated as National Beer Day ever since.
The States had to enact their own laws to follow suit. Oklahoma, which had been dry since statehood, gave into the wet wave and legalized the 3.2 brew by popular vote in the Summer of 1933 by a wide margin. For two decades, until the repeal of prohibition in 1959, low point beer was the only legal alcohol consumable in Oklahoma. In 1957, the people defeated an attempt to limit beer sales to local option. In most of the nation, a person only had to be 18 to drink it, and college beer bars were a campus institution. In an ill-advised move, the Oklahoma Legislature choose to raise the drinking age for males to 21, which led to a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1976, Craig v. Boren, which held that such sex discrimination was unconstitutional. That lasted until 1987 which Congress raised the drinking age for everyone to 21, even for low point beer, as a condition for receiving federal highway funds. The days of 3.2 beer were numbered.
By 2016, only five States continued to treat 3.2 beer in a class by itself, allowing its sale in grocery and convenience stores where high point beer was banned. These States formed a Beer Belt from Utah, to Colorado, to Kansas, to Oklahoma, with Minnesota an outlier to the North. Consumers often complained about the inconvenience imposed, especially in Oklahoma, where liquor stores closed at 9:00 p.m., were closed on Sundays and holidays, and could only sell beer at room temperature. Grocery and convenience stores were more accessible and sold cold, but weaker beer. In Colorado, liquor stores could stay open on Sunday in 2008, making the beer aisles in grocery and convenience stores deserted except for flatlanders for whom the high altitude made up for the low alcohol content.
Imbibers in Oklahoma consumed more than half of the baby beer produced. It came as another shock to the anti-saloon system, when the Oklahoma voters once again liberalized their liquor laws at the 2016 general election and passed State Question 792 by a two-thirds majority. A lawsuit by the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma against it failed. The new law, which has just gone into effect, October 1, 2018, allows high point beer to be sold in grocery and convenience stores and allows liquor stores to sell cold beer and stay open till midnight. The stock of 3.2 beer dried up in the weeks leading up to the kickoff date and store coolers were often filled with Gatorade. It is safe to say that 3.2 beer is a relic of the bygone past in Oklahoma.
Colorado has also lifted its restrictions on strong beer sales in grocery and convenience stores, which will go into effect in 2019. The same is true of Kansas. That leaves Utah and Minnesota as the only holdouts. The consumption and sales of 3.2 beer had fallen by half from 2007 to 2015, even before these latest reforms. Low point beer sales have only accounted for 1.8 percent of all the beer brewed in the United States. When these state changes take place, that will again be halved. It may not be worth it for large companies such an Anheuser-Busch and Coors to brew low point beer for such a small market. The selection of labels may become limited, and companies may brew less often, with an adverse effect on availability and freshness.
What began as a stopgap measure to brew “nonintoxicating” beer pending the final repeal of prohibition, has long outlived its usefulness, and is about to die an ignominious death.
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