Don’s Bar and 3.2 Beer

clay county histories

Markus Krueger | Program Director  HCSCC

Three-two beer almost went extinct in 2020. It once flooded our nation, but its habitat is now restricted to Minnesota. Sure, many beers are about the same potency – 3.2% alcohol by weight is equal to 4% alcohol by volume (the current way of measuring), which is Bud Lite strength. But 3.2 beer was forged from legal loopholes and only truly exists where restrictive alcohol laws make this strange brew useful.     

Three-two was invented to sidestep Prohibition. The 18th Amendment of 1920 made “intoxicating beverages” illegal, but it didn’t define what an intoxicating beverage was. The Volstead Act defined it as anything over 0.5% alcohol. Long story short, after 13 years of Prohibition, we changed our minds. In 1933, the New Deal congress redefined “intoxicating beverage” to legalize anything 3.2% or lower while they circulated a new amendment that would overturn the 18th Amendment entirely.

As you probably noticed, Prohibition was repealed, so why did 3.2 beer survive? Three-two had it’s own legal category between soft drinks and wine and liquor. Alcohol laws are complex and change from year to year and place to place. It can be very convenient to have a legally non-intoxicating drink that can still get you drunk. For instance, on Sundays in Moorhead in the 1940s. 

Don’s Bar was a Moorhead 3.2 bar from 1945-54. No ales, no martinis, just 3.2 beer. Don’s Bar was on the west side of 4th Street, just north of Main. Grey-haired punk rockers know the place as the stage room of Ralph’s Corner Bar, but before the bands played, it was Don and Bernice Paseka’s bar.

Don’s son, Gerry Paseka, told me about his parents’ bar. Gerry spent his career behind bars as well. After returning from Vietnam, he managed the Las Vegas Lounge at the Comstock Hotel, was part owner and general manager of La Casa where Vic’s Lounge is today, and spent the remainder of his career as general manager of the Fargo VFW and Moorhead Legion. But back to Don’s Bar.

Monday through Saturday, Don’s Bar was dead. Don wasn’t even there except on the weekends. Don worked as a bricklayer. His wife Bernice ran the place during the week while everybody in town went to bars with bigger menus. But Don’s Bar paid for itself on Sundays. For 12 hours starting at noon, there was a line out the door. All bars except 3.2 bars were closed by law on Sunday. 

Sunday sales paid the Paseka’s bills until local laws changed again and 3.2 bars were shuttered on the Sabbath. Without the Sunday loophole, there was no reason for a 3.2 bar to exist in Moorhead. Don rented the place out as an office. Don Wood, son of Ralph, turned it back into a bar about 1990. 

Three-two bars still exist in Minnesota where local laws offer them a niche. According to a Star Tribune article, there were, for some reason or another, 1,484 active 3.2 bar licenses in Minnesota as of July 10, 2020.

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