On a recent afternoon, Jeff Blevins left Sopris Liquor and Wine in Carbondale with a bottle of vodka in a brown paper bag.
He doesn’t drink much beer; when he does, a six-pack of Heineken will do. He says he’s not picky.
“You know, if I’m shopping and getting food for the week, I’m going to get my beer at the grocery store,” Blevins said.
On Jan. 1, 2019, Coloradans gained the ability to buy full-strength beer in grocery stores and gas stations, which they haven’t done since the 1930s.
It's an option that's so convenient that, by some estimates, 500 liquor stores in Colorado could close in the next three years, according to Jeanne McEvoy, President of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, which advocates for locally-owned liquor stores.
McEvoy says her members will have a tough time competing against big, chain grocery stores, which don’t even need to profit on beer.
“It’s just something to get people in the door,” she said.
The liquor stores that’ll lose the most business are located near grocery stores and depend heavily on beer sales. McEvoy says they need to sharpen their business models to stay in the game. The service and the selection need to shine.
“I can’t imagine going into a grocery store and saying, ‘Can you tell me about the latest craft beer from ABC Brewery over in Palisade?’ Nobody is going to answer that because there’s nobody working in the beer department,” she said.
The owner of Sopris Liquor and Wine, Kiko Peña, says his goal has always been to impress customers with a diverse selection and knowledgeable employees to answer questions.
“When you’re in a convenience store, you’re on your own. There’s no specialist there. Here at Sopris Liquor, I have a wine specialist, a liquor specialist and a beer specialist,” he said.
Beer sales, however, account for a third of his business, and he now competes with a City Market and a 7-11 across the street. His January beer sales were down. There are two options, he says.
“Either hide in the corner and hope the big, bad wolf doesn’t come get you, or come out, be aggressive, make yourself better, so you can stand out,” he said.
He can’t let City Market beat him on prices; Sopris Liquor and Wine needs to sell a six-pack of Coors Light for the same price as across the street.
Domestic beers like Coors and Budweiser are what the majority of Coloradans drink; Peña calls these the “big boys.” He needs to buy a lot of the “big boys” at once to stay neck-and-neck with City Market. But he doesn't have infinite space in his store, or money.
“Am I going to put it in [domestic beer], then I don’t have it to do wine stuff, or liquor stuff, or craft beer stuff?” Peña said.
Another way he wants to stand out is by carrying the beer he thinks a chain grocery store would overlook: seasonal batches from small breweries, for example. The products that beer connoisseurs geek out about.
City Market is selling craft beer, though. In a statement, the grocery chain said nearly half of their sales in Colorado since Jan. 1 are craft beer.
Peña has to be careful not to get so invested in a game of tug-of-war over beer that he neglects liquor and wine, which is the majority of his business. He wants to bring in new, lesser-known products to see if they catch on with his customers.
After all, City Market isn’t in the liquor and wine game. In less than two decades, however, they will be.
Peña doesn’t think the new law is fair for liquor stores or for the communities they serve.
“A local liquor store might close because of this,” he said. “So we’ve lost those ten jobs, plus the money that puts back into the community, for nothing. For City Market to ship off the profits.”
It’s a little too early to tell just what the impact of the new law will be. The real test is the summer, which beer sellers refer to as “beer season.”