Thursday, April 18, 2013

Waxing Nostalgic

I'm not an overly sentimental sort, but once in a while I come across something that tug at my heart strings. It's usually the low string, those that play the "what was once is now gone" kind of tunes.

The T-Shoppe at 4154 Fremont Avenue, in Minneapolis
StarTribune/Tom Wallace
Ward does a fantastic job of telling the tales of the T-Shoppe—a neighborhood tavern in the Camden area of Minneapolis—one of just two 3.2 bars left in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.


3.2% alcohol by weight—the strongest beer sold in most of Minneapolis* from the end of the 19th- century to 1974. Way back in the 1880s, the city put a law on the books allowing for full strength beer and liquor to be sold in only two "liquor patrol areas." Even after the repeal of that law, low-strength beer bars flourished in town. While most states eliminated 3.2 blue-laws after Prohibition, according to the article, as late as 1997 there were 56 bars and taverns selling 3.2 in Minneapolis. Ten years later, in 2007, only 15 remained.

These hold-outs of an earlier time have faced some significant hindrances over the last few years—the least of which is the craft beer boom. The T-Shoppe's owners, Joe and Marion Abell, estimate that the smoking ban that went into effect in 2005, has cost the tavern around 30 percent of its business. The City's revision of zoning laws hasn't help the 3.2s, either.

Reading this article and seeing the photos, saddens me. Which is almost ridiculous. New York did away with "three-two" laws before my father stared drinking—so I have no real connection to it. Regardless, as much as American, non-craft beer is disparaged, it's still part of our history, and these little neighborhood haunts and dives—bastions of 3.2—are dying off like veterans of long forgotten wars. Are these hole-in-the-walls that different from those cozy little pubs across the pond? Those places have a whole, acronymed organization dedicate to preserving pub culture and its beer. 3.2 bars aren't about the beer, they're about the people who stop into the bar on the way from work; the silly conversations over half drank pints; or a juke box playing that one perfect tune.

As much as I love craft beer—be it a zingy IPA or a funky Saison—I sometimes think we might be a bit quick to divorce ourselves from the beery culture of our past—the beery culture of our father and grandfathers.

Sometimes, I suppose, beer isn't always about beer. 

*Actually, the Land of 1000 Lakes isn't alone in this idea. Four other states—Colorado, Utah, Kansas and Oklahoma also sell 3.2.


  1. All very true. I'll never forget when I sat with Michael Jackson in Magnan in Montreal (old-time local tavern) and ordered Molson Export Ale and said, hey it's not of a piece with the best craft stuff but I grew up with this beer, it has nostalgia value and this is part of my youth. He looked at me with his trademark lidded eyes and said with Yorkshire(and writerly) honesty, "it's sort of watery, isn't it?".

    Ah well, I guess he was right, but that was one of the few times I dissented from St. Michael's views. :)


  2. I'm pretty sure "3.2" beer refers to the alcohol by weight, not by volume. Therefore, it's more in the neighborhood of a nominal 4% by volume.

    When I was in college in Iowa 40 years ago, the beer sold in the supermarket was all 3.2 beer (including the several brands of Bock beer I enjoyed). We did however sometimes buy Stite (malt liquor) in the state run liquor stores. Not sure what the octane was on that, but it could have been somewhere between 5-6% (any historians out there who know the number?)