Politics & Government

How strong is the new ‘strong’ beer in Kansas grocery stores? The answer may surprise you

As Kansas says goodbye to its 3.2 percent beer, don’t expect to get too much more of a buzz from the stronger brews on store shelves now — especially if you drink light beer.

You’ve seen the signs at grocery stores, gas stations and convenience marts touting “strong beer” for sale. That’s because last week, Kansas just got around to relaxing some rules that go almost all the way back to the days of Prohibition.

The change in the law comes just in time for Kansans to raise their glasses for National Beer Day, Sunday, April 7.

But when you get right down to it, there’s not much difference between the 3.2 beer that’s been a Kansas standard for 80-plus years and the supposedly strong beer that’s replacing it.

In fact, some “strong” beers actually have less alcohol than the 3.2 beer did.

It’s a matter of chemistry and physics.

The 3.2 that gives 3.2 beer its name is a measure of alcohol by weight, which is how they did things when the law creating it was passed in the 1930s. But in modern times, the alcohol content of beer is almost always measured by volume.

That actually makes a pretty big difference, because alcohol only weighs about 80 percent as much as water.

And that means a 3.2 beer measured by weight actually has as much alcohol in it as a 4 percent beer measured by volume, explained Chantel Fletchall, who handles brand registration for the Kansas Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Most of the popular light beers —Miller, Coors and Bud lights for example — are between 4.1 and 4.2 percent alcohol by volume.

Or to put it another way, a 12 ounce can of “strong” light beer would have approximately seven to 14 more drops of alcohol in it than the 3.2 variety.

Regular Budweiser, Miller and Coors brews have 5 percent alcohol by volume. That would be about three-quarters of a teaspoon more alcohol per 12-ounce can than 3.2 beer.

Beers targeting calorie-conscious consumers, including such offerings as Miller 64 and Bud Select 55, already have less alcohol in them than a 3.2 beer.

The state law that took effect last week allows grocery and convenience stores to sell beer containing up to 6 percent alcohol, and a few special varieties will get you close to that.

The beers that skirt the limit are mostly “ice” variants of major brands, which are produced through freezing some of the water out of the beer during the production process.

Some examples of ice beers that are 5.9 percent alcohol are Keystone Ice, a Coors product, and Natural Ice, a cousin to Budweiser.

Many specialty and craft beers exceed the 6 percent threshold, so the liquor stores remain the only stores that can sell those brews. It’s not unusual for a craft beer to have 8 to 12 percent alcohol by volume.

Still, getting rid of 3.2 beer helps the brewers, said Michael Uhrich, chief economist for the Beer Institute, a national industry group.

“When you operate a beer business across several states, it’s always easier if you can produce the same products for sale in every state,” he said.

“Raising the limit to 6 percent alcohol by volume won’t mean that every beer will be available in grocery stores, but popular brands will be there, and the brands that will be available will no longer have to be brewed exclusively for Kansas.”

The 3.2 beer had a long and colorful run in Kansas, starting in 1937.

After the repeal of national Prohibition on alcohol in 1933, Kansas remained a hotbed of the temperance movement and voted to stay dry.

Legislators with a thirst for change created a loophole by defining 3.2 beer as not really beer at all.

“It was initially described as ‘non-intoxicating cereal malt beverage,’ which was just a ruse to sell beer under another name,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita.

Carmichael was a member of the House Commerce Committee in 2017 when the bill passed to do away with 3.2 beer, after years of fierce fighting between the big chain stores and the owners of Kansas’ independent liquor stores.

The grand bargain that broke the impasse came when the chain stores, operating under the banner of Uncork Kansas, agreed that if they could sell stronger beer, they’d put a 10-year hold on their efforts to lobby for state approval to sell wine and liquor, Carmichael said.

It was also agreed that the liquor stores would be allowed to make up to 20 percent of their revenue selling non-alcoholic mixers and beverages, snacks, cigarettes, lottery tickets and other consumer products.

Previously, liquor stores weren’t allowed to sell anything but alcoholic beverages.

The law changing all that passed two years ago, but didn’t take effect until last Monday.

That was to give the liquor stores time to remodel and expand to sell other products when they lost their monopoly on strong beer, Carmichael said.

“I personally thought this was a bad bargain for the mom-and-pop liquor stores,” Carmichael said. “And what we have already seen is that a number of them have gone out of business in anticipation of the law which took effect earlier this week.”

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.