Happy Kansas Real Beer in Grocery Stores Day!

April 9, 2020

Today, the state of Kansas makes history. On April 1, 2019, for the first time ever, you are able to purchase real beer in Kansas grocery and convenience stores. I have christened this day “Kansas Real Beer in Grocery Stores Day.” Seriously, it should be a statewide holiday. If you’ve ever lived in Kansas, or even visited for any length of time, you most certainly understand why.

Out of all the states I’ve been to, Kansas has the most archaic and restrictive liquor laws. Part of the madness is this strange formulation known as “3.2 beer.” Sometimes called “near beer”, 3.2 is basically beer that has been watered down to lower the alcohol content. Maximum potency is 3.2% alcohol by weight, or 4.0% by volume. Now WHY would anyone want to do this, you ask? From what I understand, it goes back to the days immediately after Prohibition. Kansas wasn’t ready to legalize booze on the state level. As a compromise, “Cereal Malt Beverage” was introduced. This is the legal term for 3.2 brew in Kansas, abbreviated as CMB. I’ve never heard it used anywhere else. Basically, it created a loophole in the law. Because, you see, it wasn’t really beer. It was Cereal Malt Beverage.

Since 3.2 isn’t legally “beer”, it’s subject to different, more lenient laws vs those which apply to other alcoholic beverages. Before July 1, 1985, 18-year-olds were allowed to purchase and consume CMB. The drinking age for all other forms of liquor was and is 21. Arriving in Kansas as a 20-year-old in 1984, this was somewhat confusing to me. Legally, I couldn’t walk into a liquor store and buy a 6 pack of Coors. Yet, I could walk into the convenience store across the street and do so. Upon asking the locals “why?”, I was told that grocery and convenience stores only sell “weak beer” so that 18-20 year olds can buy it. But how much weaker? “Regular” beers produced by the majors (Bud, Coors, Miller) run around 5.0% alcohol content by volume. Sounds quite a bit stronger than 3.2, right? Ah, but remember, that’s 3.2% by weight. Measured by volume, that becomes 4.0%. Quick math told me that five 3.2 beers equals four “regular” beers. So, I’d just drink one or two more. Problem solved!

The other big difference that no longer exists was that only 3.2 bars were open to the public. Anything stronger required a private club membership. You see, Kansas never passed liquor by the drink after Prohibition. “Open saloons” were strictly prohibited. This relic of a law was finally repealed by voters in 1986. Private clubs could stay open until 3AM whereas 3.2 taverns had to close at midnight. You can guess what happened at midnight: after drinking CMB all evening, those who were 21+ would drive to a private club to imbibe in more potent spirits. Instead of driving drunk just once to get home, they would do it twice. Brilliant!

The one remaining vestige of the Kansas 3.2 beer laws was the prohibition on grocery or convenience store sales. Only liquor stores could sell “strong beer” for off-premises consumption. This all changed on Monday, April 1st. Any retail establishment with a CMB license is now allowed to sell beer up to 6% alcohol content by volume. Kansas becomes the third state in the past year to do away with 3.2 brew. Colorado and Oklahoma changed their laws last year. The only 2 remaining states are Minnesota and Utah. Efforts have been underway in both of those states, but I’m not holding my breath. Having grown up in Minnesota, I know they are notoriously slow to change liquor laws. Just last year, they made it legal for liquor stores to open on Sunday. As for Utah, I really wouldn’t hold my breath.

While gas station owners and grocers are ecstatic, liquor store owners are concerned about the impact this will have on their bottom line. Time will tell. My personal opinion is that this change is WAY overdue. It should have been part of the 1985 law, in order to compensate grocery and convenience stores who would no longer be able to sell beer to 18-20 year olds. In any case, I’m glad Kansas is finally (albeit slowly) modernizing their liquor laws, making them similar to surrounding states. You still can’t buy wine with your steak. You still can’t buy beer on Sunday in many parts of the state. I’m guessing those issues will be taken up in future legislative sessions. In the meantime, Happy Real Beer in Grocery Stores Day, Kansas!