For It’s 1, 2, 3.2 at the Old Ballgame

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Beer is high on price, low on alcohol content

Padres fans already know beer sold at Petco Park has a higher price tag than the same thing elsewhere. But they might be surprised to learn some of the beer also has lower alcohol content.

Three of the downtown ballpark’s domestic draft brands – Budweiser Select, Miller Lite and Miller Genuine Draft – contain 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.

Go to a bar and most regular domestic draft beer will have about 4 percent alcohol by weight. Most light beers run about 3.4 percent.

In other words, it’s not just the Padres’ batting lineup – producers of only six home runs so far this season – that’s weak.

“It’s kind of upsetting,” said Randall Brooks of Ventura, who was unknowingly drinking a 3.2 percent beer, a 20-ounce cup that set him back $8.50 at Wednesday’s Padres game. “I should get what I’d get anywhere else.”

By the numbers:
There are two ways to measure alcohol content in beer: by weight and by volume. For lower-alcohol beer, the 3.2 percentage refers to alcohol by weight. The strength of various beers, in comparison:

4.0% Budweiser
3.4% Budweiser Select
4.0% Coors
3.4% Coors Light
4.3% Stone Pale Ale
4.0% Heineken
3.7% Corona
3.7% Miller Genuine Draft
3.4% Miller Lite

The Padres aren’t required to divulge the alcohol content of the beer they sell. There’s no mention at the concessions, which are run by a vendor called Sportservice, that the three brands are any different.

Padres officials say lower-alcohol beer, like higher prices, is part of an “alcohol management plan,” meant to keep fans from overindulging. They also say it’s common practice in the sports industry and hardly limited to Petco.

It’s unknown how many professional teams’ vendors sell 3.2 percent beer at stadiums. Sportservice, a subsidiary of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Delaware North, runs concessions in as many as a dozen professional sports venues. Company officials didn’t return phone calls.

Centerplate, which runs the concessions for the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium, didn’t return calls, either.

“The Padres aren’t alone,” said Chris Bigelow, president of the Bigelow Companies, a consultant to sporting and entertainment venues on food service management.

He said the difference in the quality of the beer is difficult to tell, “especially after the first one.”

The decision on what kind of beer to buy rests with Sportservice, said Richard Andersen, executive vice president in charge of ballpark management for the Padres. The difference in alcohol isn’t that dramatic, he said.

The difference in cost is 32 percent. A keg of Budweiser Select goes for $76, according to California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control records. The 3.2 percent version of Bud Select runs $52.

“Wow, $8.50 for low-octane beer,” said Michael Shames, a consumer advocate who heads the Utility Consumers’ Action Network in San Diego. He compared the move to that of oil companies, which have been accused of reducing octane in gas.

Bars don’t peddle the lower-alcohol stuff, said Greg Anderson, owner of McGregor’s Grill and Ale House near Qualcomm Stadium. “It’s not a practice in the bar industry, as far as I know,” he said.

Stephen Zolezzi, executive vice president of the Food and Beverage Association of San Diego, said that to his knowledge, distributors don’t offer such beer to local bars.

Zolezzi said he thought sports venues were required by law to sell lower-alcohol beer, but the ABC said no such law exists.

Petco’s premium draft brands, such as Sam Adams, which contains 3.9 percent alcohol, are not lower-alcohol versions. The bottled beer is also the same you’d find anywhere.

Lower-alcohol beer has been sold at Padres games for years, according to the Padres organization. When the team moved from Qualcomm Stadium, the 3.2 beer – called “stadium beer” among some in the industry – made the ride to the downtown digs as well.

But today’s higher beer prices could make the lower alcohol content harder to swallow. In 1988, a beer at a Padres game was $2. When adjusted for inflation, that $2 beer would be $3.61 today. The cheapest beer at Petco now is a 16-ounce domestic draft for $6.50.

“It’s just another example of companies fleecing the public,” said Mark Reback, of Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog. Consumers are facing higher prices not only for necessities such as gasoline and food, but also while enjoying a simple baseball game, he said.

“Where does it end?” asked Reback, who recommended fans lodge complaints with any teams that sell weaker beer.

The 3.2 percent beer dates to Prohibition. Just before the booze ban was repealed in 1933, Congress allowed for 3.2 beer in an effort to jump-start the economy during the Depression and appease those clamoring for the right to imbibe.

After the repeal, beer makers started producing stronger beers, but several states kept the 3.2 standard. Today, six – Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah – continue to require that some retailers, such as grocery stores, sell the lower-content product.

Beer lovers in those states routinely complain about the quality of the beer.

Brewers basically add water to lower the alcohol content. Some critics maintain that brewers bring the content lower than 3.2, to make certain the beer passes muster in those states.

Anheuser-Busch – maker of Budweiser Select, among other brands – did not return calls.

Kathy and David Pence from Montrose, Colo., who were at the Wednesday Padres game, said they try to avoid 3.2 percent beer at home.

“We go to liquor stores to buy our beer,” said David Pence, because those outlets are allowed to sell the full-strength stuff.

The Pences weren’t aware that Petco sold 3.2 percent beer, and they didn’t understand the reasoning offered by the Padres. “If people want to get drunk, they’re going to get drunk,” Kathy Pence said.

Not everyone minds the less powerful beer.

“To me, it’s a minor thing,” said Rick Atwood, who was at the game drinking Miller Lite. “If they were doing so to a microbrew, that’s a different story.”
Michael Stetz: (619) 293-1720; [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
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