A new day arrived in Easton this October when Adrienne Burke received her license to sell beer along with her unique selection of specialty grocery items at Greiser’s Coffee & Market on Center Road. This marks the first time in many years that a retail establishment has met the state’s requirements to offer an alcoholic beverage for sale in town.
Some people think that Easton has always been a dry town. While it’s a misconception shared by many, it is simply not accurate. In fact, the sale of liquor has been legal in Easton for nearly the past fifty years. Ever since election day in November 1975 when the question of liquor sales was placed on the ballot, and it passed 923 to 788.
The first evidence of liquor being offered for retail sale in an Easton store came in a 1796 advertisement by Lockwood De Forest in the American Telegraph & Fairfield County Gazette. De Forest operated a dry goods and grocery store in the same location as today’s Greiser’s. In his ad, he offered rum, brandy, Geneva (gin), and wines along with his other inventory.
Alcoholic beverages had long been available at Easton’s earliest taverns. Distilled beverages were actually a safe alternative to some of the bacteria laden water that came from shallow wells contaminated by animal waste during that era. Alcohol was considered a regular staple at mealtime in almost every tavern as well as in many homes.
In colonial America there were very few farms that didn’t contain an apple orchard. Harvested apples provided a long-storing fruit and was also a source of cider. One would have been hard pressed to find a household that didn’t have an ample supply of hard cider heading into the winter months. Hard cider was both easy to make and it cost the hard-working farmer next to nothing to produce, In fact, damaged fruit made into cider meant little or no waste of the harvest.
The colonies were generally inefficient in creating many alcoholic beverages, so they often imported alcoholic drinks from abroad for domestic consumption. Alcohol became one of the first products the British began to tax. When the colonies did choose to distill their own libations, necessary ingredients not produced domestically – such as sugar – were also taxed.
Alcohol sales went mostly unregulated for about ten years after the American Revolution. It wasn’t until 1794 when congress established a rather steep tax on distilled beverages that many farmers and small distillers rebelled against the idea of taxing alcohol. Many businesses felt that the “whiskey tax” was too much of a burden on them and refused to pay. The tax was finally repealed after the government realized it was costing too much to enforce and collect.
States taxed some liquor, and all the taverns, bars, and distillers paid licensing fees. But hard cider remained the one alcoholic beverage that was almost impossible to regulate.
The 19th century temperance movement, especially in rural America, put a damper on liquor sales with many communities banning the sale of alcohol completely. Temperance societies were prevalent in most communities, including Easton, even when alcohol was still allowed. By 1856, a temperance hall was located above the west store at the corner of Center and Westport Roads (the west and east stores as they were known in the day were eventually combined and connected and now house the present day Greiser’s Coffee & Market).
Distilleries were scattered throughout the state during the 19th century. Towns as small as Easton housed local operations that mainly supplied local retailers and taverns with alcoholic beverages. In 1867, Edson Hayes ran a distillery on Judd Road near the Monroe town line that supplied taverns in that town with potent liquid libations.
The reimposition of taxes on distilled products put a damper on sales where alcohol was legal. In Connecticut, liquor taxes in the 1890’s had become an important source of revenue for the state after it had established a State Board of Education and was subsidizing town budgets to bring the state’s schools up to a level of uniformity whereby all the students could compete on an even playing field.
Even before the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, many Connecticut residents were evading paying liquor taxes by either making their own or buying it from bootleggers who were distilling whiskey in stills hidden in the woods or smuggling liquor in from Canada. Many local accounts of stills operating in the back woods of Easton were recounted in various newspaper reports during the early years of the 20th century. The 1903 establishment of the Connecticut State Police was solely to enforce the state’s liquor laws and stop the illegal production and sale of alcohol.
At the historical society, we have heard of more than a few illegal stills that were supposedly operated by the ancestors of both current and former residents of Easton. Some people have even discovered items made of copper that appear to be part of the mechanisms used by local moonshiners both before and during Prohibition. With no town police force prior to 1937, most went undisturbed.
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors…” Ratified in 1919, the ban took effect in January of 1920 and lasted until December of 1933 when it was repealed by the 21st Amendment. During Prohibition, the sale of any alcoholic beverage was banned, and while Easton would have seen its fair share of bootlegged liquor, there was no place in town where it was openly served and consumed.
There were two establishments that used the “Blue Bird” moniker on Black Rock Turnpike during the 1930’s, but neither was a full-service restaurant that served dinner. The “Beacon House” sat just north of Silverman’s Farm, atop of Beacon Hill (now a private estate), and the “Yellow Bowl Tea Room” operated out of the historic Nathanial Seeley house further south on Sport Hill Road. Both were seasonal and neither would have served liquor prior to the town’s adoption of their zoning regulations. So, prior to WWII, there were no licensed establishments that served alcohol in Easton, and after 1941, the towns draconian zoning laws provided no allowances or exceptions for applying for a liquor license.
In 1949, the town held a vote on the question if Easton should be a ‘dry’ town or a ‘wet’ one. By a vote of 471 to 228 it was decided that the town would be ‘dry’, meaning that all liquor was prohibited, even in private homes! While prohibition within homes was never enforced, the ordinance did reenforce Easton’s already strict zoning laws that limited retail establishments to those already in place in 1941, when the town established its zoning rules. Among the original restrictions in those rules was the prohibition of liquor stores, taverns, and any issuance of liquor licenses to sell alcohol in restaurants.
By 1975, there were several private clubs and organizations that could benefit from the sale of liquor on their premises. A few that probably stood out the most, the Connecticut Golf Club on Black Rock Turnpike, the Exchange Club, the Easton Racquet Club, and the Easton Volunteer Fire Department, all of which would then be able to apply for a “club” permit to sell and serve alcoholic beverages within their own facilities.
According to the video describing the history of the Connecticut Golf Club shown on their website, the lack of a club permit to sell alcohol was never a real issue. Two of the club members were the CEOs of the two largest liquor distributors in the United States and they kept their lockers well stocked with enough alcoholic beverages to provide everyone in the club with liquid libations on any given day.
While the volunteer fire department wasn’t as well stocked as the golf club, it was a poorly kept secret that there were a couple of slots in the soda machine where two quarters would allow a can of beer to be dispensed. While the law was clear, many aspects of it weren’t being enforced.
Petitions were available for signing at both Greiser’s and Halzack’s, although no one organization took credit for the petition drive. The required number of signatures (330) was obtained and the choice to allow liquor in Easton was put on the ballot.
The measure passed that November with a vote of 923 for to 728 against, and Easton officially became a ‘wet’ town once more. With that, the town’s two grocery stores were also allowed to apply for a beer permit that would authorize sales along with their groceries. Since there had been no state option to sell beer in an ordinary grocery store back in 1941, the town hadn’t needed to add that restriction to its already extensive list of ineligible establishments.
Apparently neither Greiser’s nor Halzack’s was interested in applying for the limited Grocery Beer permit at that time. The most likely reason: the space that beer coolers would take up would have been prohibitive. No other retail establishment was eligible to apply, and without a change in Easton’s strict zoning regulations, no package stores could be built, or restaurant liquor licenses issued.
Since 1975, there have been several applications made by the previous proprietors of both Greiser’s and the Halzack store for licenses as full-service package stores. Those never made it past either the Planning & Zoning Commission or the Zoning Board of Appeals since package stores have always been specifically prohibited under Easton’s original zoning laws.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that both the owner of the Easton Village Store and Adrienne Burke from Gresier’s Coffee and Market decided to apply for the more limited Grocery Beer permit. That license allows for the sale of beer in closed containers in qualifying establishments that also sell groceries. As long as town zoning doesn’t specifically forbid such an arrangement, the State is free to consider the application and issue the permit providing all the other requirements are met.
Connecticut has several licenses available for selling and serving alcoholic beverages on site. But unlike many states, other than in package stores, Connecticut only allows beer for off-site consumption to be sold in qualifying grocery stores. Wine and all other distilled spirits are sold only in licensed package stores. Should anyone think that obtaining a Grocery Beer permit is an easy process, they only need to download the eleven-page application form to realize that it is not.
In early October of 2022, Greiser’s was issued its license to sell beer. No beer can be opened or consumed on the premises, but for the first time in well over seventy years, the good people of Easton don’t need to drive across town lines to purchase their beer. With the popularity of today’s specialty craft beers, this should be a perfect fit with the specialty grocery items Greiser’s has become known for offering. This writer will definitely drink to that – although, I promise, not on the premises!