Why Does Wisconsin Have (Ridiculously) More Bars Than Grocery Stores

The answer actually might lie in a lobbying group: The Tavern League of Wisconsin.
Why Does Wisconsin Have (Ridiculously) More Bars Than Grocery Stores

Quick! What do you associate the second you see or hear "Wisconsin?"

- Cheese!
- Drinking!
- Dairy!
- Beer!
- Uh, kind of mitten-shaped? (Wait, that's Michigan …)
- Drinking!

Now check out this image:

Whoa! America's Dairyland does like drinking! The stereotype is true; how about that? Wisconsin is literally the only state clearly outlined on this chart, and it is almost alone in how many more bars than grocery stores it has.

Now, if you're like me, you're gonna ask, "Why? Why is this the case?" Is it the fact that the immigrants settling in Wisconsin were mostly from Germany, Scandinavia, and Switzerland, places famous for their drinking cultures? Maybe … but Wisconsin isn't unique in that demographic profile. (Oh, and I shouldn't forget to mention all the Dutch and Irish that came to Wisconsin, too. They probably enjoy a beer or 10, right?)

beer glasses

Thais Do Rio

We asked each group who's the best drinker. A fight broke out. There were no survivors.  

The answer actually might lie in a lobbying group. The Tavern League of Wisconsin is the largest trade association of alcohol sellers/merriment purveyors/beer-belly creators in the US, with about 5,000 members from across the state. What do they do? Spend money so their member bars, taverns, and restaurants can make more money. Lobbying, the cornerstone of American lawmaking.

So what has this band of bar-thers done that may have helped shape that map? Well, first of all, they spend a pretty good amount of money on lobbying – between 2011 and 2020, they spent about $1.3 million on official lobbying expenses. Sure, small potatoes next to organizations like the NRA, which spent substantially more on just one election cycle. But, the NRA lobbies federally and country-wide, while the TLW focuses on just the state level, where even just a few thousand dollars can substantially impact a local race or legislative effort.


Matt Brett/Unsplash

A few grand gets them so drunk, they CAN'T vote against you. 

The Tavern League has been around for decades, having been founded in 1935, back in the good ol' days of a rather noteworthy depression of the American psyche (and also the economy, I suppose), and what's one way to combat depression? Drink it away, of course. Since then, the TLW has consistently opposed any laws which they thought were cut into their members' profits.

In recent years, what sorts of things have they been opposing? Well, maybe the most obvious example is that lettuce harvested from the Devil's own fields. The majority of Wisconsinites would like to toke legally, but the state hasn't legalized it. States that have legalized it have seen on average about a 15% drop in alcohol sales and consumption. Wisconsin's alcohol industry generates about $10 billion a year, so 15% would be … uh … carry the two … divide by pi … raise to lamda … about $1.5 billion in losses.


Wesley Gibbs/Unsplash

No idea why math seems so hard all of a sudden. None at all. 

That ain't nuthin, so it's understandable that the TLW might be lobbying, officially or otherwise, against any potential legalization efforts. But, as the previously linked article states, the drinking culture in Wisconsin is so strong that more likely than not, the effect of legalization on alcohol sales and bar attendance would be slim to none (sort of the opposite of the average Wisconsin waist size).

Other than fighting extremely popular opinion, what else has the Tavern League done? Well, they've helped ensure that Wisconsin's drunk driving laws are among the laxest in the nation. In fact, Wisconsin is just about the only state where your first DUI is a traffic violation rather than a criminal offense (New Jersey has similar laws). The TLW wants butts in bars, and they want those butts to go stumbling home as late as possible, which leads to lobbying against punishments when instead of stumbling, they end up swerving. They also really don't like any of those pesky breathalyzers that get put in repeat offender's cars, you know these? Those are a no-go; keeping chronic drunk drivers from being able to both drink and drive cuts into too much revenue.

car crash

KJ Styles/Unsplash

Also preserves the customer base long-term, from dying, but never mind that.

Now, in their defense, they have put money into a safe ride home program. However, one can't help wondering if, as it says on their site, their top priority is to keep their patrons safe, why they might oppose things that might actually help do that? For instance, maybe, restricting capacity during a pandemic?

In October 2020, Governor Tony Evers said, "Hey, maybe in the face of all these rising infection and death rates, we should temporarily limit bar and restaurant capacity." To which the Tavern League and others promptly said, "Eat our shorts, Grandpa." The emergency order limited capacity to 25%, and it was immediately sued and overturned, with the TLW leading the way. Even in the midst of one of the most upheaving events in recent American history, the League, when it decided to flex those carbohydrate pouches they have for muscles, was extremely powerful.

crowded bar


Looking at those COVID stats, 140 drunk driving deaths a year suddenly looks like no big deal. 

However, they don't always win their legal battles. In 2009, the League lost its protracted battle against the bar smoking ban, another measure aimed at helping public health. Whether or not you agree with the ban is not the issue because the Tavern League's power, even in failure, was on full display in this fight. Not only was Wisconsin one of the very last states to make the ban law, but the League successfully negotiated a one-year grace period before smoking was gone altogether.

And finally, two little things showcase their ability to get what they want in the Badger-filled state (Wisconsin is just covered in Badgers, right? Like some states have lots of birds, but they just have Badgers everywhere?). First, they consistently lobby against the school year starting before Labor Day,t as it does in most other places. Why would they do this? Well, they need labor for the busy holiday week and weekend! Through as much of the summer as possible. And who are the servers in all these bars and restaurants? Kids, high school and college kids, who aren't gonna have free hours for work once school starts.

The other little thing, which is much more inconvenient than needing underage labor, is trying to buy alcohol, not from a bar, after 9 pm. Because it's not possible unless you are fortunate enough to live in a municipality where the ordinances allow for it. Otherwise, no buying a six-pack on your way home from work. Can't have competition for the bars in the evenings, right? You wanna drink, go spend extra for the experience at the local watering hole (or holes, because seeing as there are 2.7 bars per grocery store, it is more than likely you've got options even in your town of 500 people).

Abandoned liquor store on Colfax and Peoria

Andrew Coop/Unsplash

There are many reasons for this ban, all of which are lies. 

The point of all of this isn't to shame drinking or people who like to drink, because guess what: I like to drink too! I even like the drinking culture of Wisconsin; I grew up in it! It's fun when it's fun! The problem is, sometimes that fun gets out of hand, and the responsible thing to do is to set boundaries. In the United States, that job is up to the government. But when setting those boundaries get repeatedly thrown off course by the very people those boundaries are trying to rein in, well, that seems like a problem. 

If Reddit is any indication (let's be honest, it's not totally), local opinions seem to match this article. And as additional evidence, here's a couple of editorials and articles arguing the same things. The Tavern League has an inordinate amount of influence on local, state-level politics. You can't fault them for looking out for their members, but you can fault them for doing that at the expense of both public safety and for stifling competition in a separate industry (legal weed for those not following through the haze of their legal hotboxes).

Top Image: Gonzalo Remy/Unsplash

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