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Big Three want booze monopoly

City Sage



There are 1,595 independent liquor stores in Colorado. Thanks to our state's distinctive regulatory regime, only such stores can sell wine, liquor and full-strength beer to the public. State law further restricts each licensee to a single location, thereby effectively closing the market to big-box stores such as King Soopers, Safeway and Walmart.

The regulations have created a statewide community of small, locally owned businesses. Each proprietor decides what brands to stock, what spirits to feature, what wine to showcase, what beer to put in the coolers. That network of liquor stores ranges from quiet mom-and-pop stores such as Queen Liquor (my neighborhood fave) and Weber Street Liquor to superstores such as Cheers, Powers Liquor Mart and Denver's Argonaut Liquors.

Independent stores carry Coors Light, Sam Adams, Stella Artois and the like — but they're always open to suggestions.

Thinking of opening a little brewery? Just make the rounds of liquor stores, meet the proprietors and make your pitch. That's what Mike and Amanda Bristol did when they started Bristol Brewing in 1994. Storeowners took one taste of Laughing Lab, loved it, presented it to their customers and helped the company grow.

That process was replicated throughout the state as breweries popped up in cities large and small. At last count there were 287 craft breweries in Colorado, with more opening every week.

"When we started two years ago there were seven breweries in Colorado Springs," said Todd Baldwin of Red Leg Brewery. "Now there are 19, and more on the way."

Craft distilleries (75) and Colorado vintners (65) have benefited as well. Thanks to our quirky, small-business-friendly liquor laws, we trail only California and Oregon in number of breweries.

What's not to like about the status quo? Plenty, if you're a company that owns thousands of big-box stores nationally, and you'd like to take over a profitable retail sector in Colorado. The Big Three don't care whether craft breweries thrive or disappear, even less about the fate of liquor stores large and small. They want the market, and if they can get laws changed, they'll seize it. Independent stores would meet the fate of independent grocers, hardware stores and other Main Street merchants, crushed by giants.

To their credit, Colorado legislators of both parties have refused to bow to the Big Three, who now have begun to organize and fund a 2016 ballot initiative to change state liquor laws. An organization calling itself Colorado Consumers for Choice is proudly parroting the Big Box line. It might be more accurately titled "Lobbyists for Lots of Lucre." Spokesman Chris Howes is a contract lobbyist whose biggest client is the Colorado Retail Council, composed of Safeway, Kroger and (to a lesser degree) Walmart.

They need 98,492 legitimate signatures to make the ballot — not much of a task when you have deep pockets and multiple locations where paid signature collectors can solicit the public. If they prevail, the behemoths might see a slight uptick in bottom lines and consumers might pay a little less for a six-pack of Bud Light. But losses would far outweigh the gains. Many small independent liquor stores would close and the market for Colorado craft brewers, distillers and vintners would inevitably shrink.

Keep Colorado Local, an organization formed to fight the proposed initiative, has been trying to figure out how to counter the immense financial clout of the boxers. They'll have their work cut out for them — independent polls show that young male Democrats are inclined to support it.

Consumer education is tough, especially when moneyed manipulators can outspend you 10 to 1. Store owners are understandably worried.

"I can't sleep at night," said Queen Liquor's owner Kit Abrams.

The boxers already are flexing their muscles, making it clear to bigger breweries that they'll lose access to out-of-state markets if they join the Keep Local coalition.

It's worth pointing out that the Big Three aren't Colorado-based companies. Kroger is headquartered in California, Walmart in Arkansas and Safeway/Albertsons in New York City.

The latter, the most aggressive member of the coalition, is owned by a private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management.

In Greek mythology, Cerberus is a three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hell. He has a serpent's tail, a mane of snakes and lion's claws — and he wants to close your liquor store and put your brewery out of business.

We love our animals in Colorado — but we draw the line at hellhounds!

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