Will legal weed take a pot shot at Colorado craft beer sales?

Colorado's legalization of marijuana may put it into competition with legal beer sales.
Colorado's legalization of marijuana may put it into competition with legal beer sales.Today

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By Jim Galligan

A new era in Colorado leisure activities began as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve and the sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes was made legal. Citizens are now free to purchase up to one ounce of pot to be enjoyed however they see fit, as long as it’s not in public and certainly not on federal property (that’ll net you a $5,000 fine and up to six months in jail).

While there are still some hurdles to widespread consumption across the state — over 100 localities have imposed a moratorium on the new law or banned dispensaries altogether — it still makes one wonder how this newly-legal way to relax after a long day’s work might interfere with the sale and consumption of Colorado’s other longstanding legal libation of choice: delicious craft beer. Will cannabis cannibalize craft beer sales in the state?

Marty Jones, a Denver-based beer evangelist, journalist and promoter of Colorado's booming small-batch brewing culture says no.

“I don't think it'll impact beer sales at all,” Jones told NBC News. “I don’t know of any brewers feeling nervous about it.”

“For the next few weeks I think there will be many ex-tokers and non-smokers visiting weed shops,” Jones noted. “Not to buy anything, but to enjoy the surreal experience of going into a store that sells something that's been illegal for your whole life…something illegal in the rest of the nation. It's like visiting a brewery during prohibition.”

William Breathes, a marijuana critic for Denver Westword and an editor of TokeoftheTown.com, agrees that the new law won’t necessarily change the way Coloradans spend their leisure dollars.

“Marijuana legalization didn’t instantly create hundreds of thousands of pot smokers in Colorado,” Breathes told NBC News. “Beer sales have been competing with cannabis sales on the black market for decades, and in that time Colorado has become arguably the beer capital of America.

“I think that a good number of craft beer drinkers already allocate a few of their recreational dollars towards pot each month,” Breathes added. “Also, by comparison, beer is much cheaper than recreational cannabis is currently: a six-pack of Avery’s Out of Bounds Stout is only a quarter of the price of a legal eighth of Sour Diesel.”

Breathes also noted that pot’s social stigma and its relegation to private use will inhibit it from taking a chunk out of craft beer’s bottom line.

“Beer and liquor in general will always have the leg-up as long as public cannabis bars are forbidden,” he said. “Pot may be legal, but it still doesn’t share the same level of social acceptance of beer. I mean, our governor and mayor will stand up for photo opportunities with new breweries but wouldn’t go near a pot shop on the opening day of cannabis sales.”

But that doesn’t mean the landscape in Colorado’s largest city isn’t changing — well, at least the smell of the landscape.

“These days the smell of brewing and hops going into the kettle can be joined by dank aromas from growhouses,” Marty Jones said of his experiences in Denver. “You drive through town in a few spots and aren't sure if you're smelling a hop addition from a nearby brewery or weed in the warehouse outside your car window...I think those aromas will become more prevalent here,” Jones added. “The era of Colorado pot connoisseurs can't be far off.”

It’s hard to say if Bruce Banner #3 will ever become a legitimate threat to sales of Dale’s Pale Ale, or if Bubba Kush will one day smoke Yeti Espresso Stout at the cash register, but Breathes sees a potential upside in less drinking and more smoking.

“Where I hope to see cannabis affect liquor and beer would be a decrease in the amount of alcohol-related deaths and alcohol-related violence in this state,” he said. “If legalizing pot means more young people might feel inclined to take a night off from heavy weekend shot-taking and boozing at local bars to have a spliff and a barbecue with a few beers more in moderation, I don’t see it as a bad thing.”

Jones agrees that there are big risks and big responsibilities that come with legalization: “It's crucial that just as folks do with fine beer, people will enjoy their now-legal weed in moderation, safely, and not put their lives or others at risk.”