- Derek Carilsle
Local and national beers are stacked in side-by-side alcoholic harmony at the Shell gas station on the corner of 2100 South and 500 East. Shelves are filled with cases of Bud Light and Wasatch Apricot Hefeweizen, but one section of the refrigerator is empty: the Park City session IPA is sold out. The missing brew makes sense to cashier Cynthia Stuckman, considering it's the most popular beer she sells.
"People get excited about it," Stuckman says. But one thing that does not get her customers particularly pumped is the alcohol content—3.2 alcohol by weight, the equivalent of 4 percent alcohol by volume—just shy of the 5-percent national standard. "They complain," Stuckman says of the weak brews. "So, I have to send them to the liquor store down on Highland."
Stuckman might not need to refer her thirstier patrons to the nearby Sugar House state store for much longer. If Gov. Gary Herbert signs Senate Bill 132, the state's definition of beer would change from 4 to 6 percent alcohol by volume. That means Utah drinkers could soon buy heavier beers in grocery and convenience stores, and swig stiffer brews on draft. The Senate has already passed the bill. If the House follows suit, the legislation soon will land on Herbert's desk. The guv has suggested he's open to signing it, despite opposition from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"We have to reflect the market. I think that will happen, whether it's this year or next year," Herbert said at his monthly news conference in February, indicating that the conversation is not tied entirely to this bill or legislative session. "We just need to make sure we are following a market demand of the public and the consumer, rather than somebody thinking this is a better way to make more profit on selling beer in Utah," he continued.
Besides Minnesota, Utah is the only state in the country that imposes such a strict cap on the beer sold in its grocery and convenience stores. Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, warned Fox 13 last October that major domestic brewers like Anheuser-Busch have indicated they could produce less of their beer for Utah stores. "Your favorite brand may disappear altogether," Davis said. Or it might be available only in limited packaging.
The shrinking market for low-point beer already has claimed a casualty at Murphy's Bar & Grill. The downtown pub stopped selling Killian's on draft more than a year ago, bartender Charles Reed says, because the brewer, MillerCoors, stopped making the Utah-approved version of its Killian's Irish Red. Save for a few questions from curious customers, the absence didn't change much at Reed's watering hole. "People are gonna drink no matter what we have. Having 3.2 [ABW] beer doesn't stop people from drinking draft beer," he says. "They just complain about it."
That's not how Brian Coleman sees it. The founder and president of 2 Row Brewing says some Utahns, tired of the weak beer on tap and for sale at grocery stores, have turned to whiskey and wine as their grogs of choice. SB132 could give brewers a chance to show drinkers what's possible when lawmakers give them a little more leeway. "I believe that we're going to bring customers back to beer ..." Coleman says. "I think we'll definitely get an increase in beer drinkers if the beer tastes more like beer and less like water."
To Coleman, the chance to serve 6-percent ABV beer on draft is an opportunity to give consumers a better product. "It's not about more alcohol for us, it's about the flavors that we can produce using more malt," Coleman says, pointing out it's difficult to inject much punch into low-point brews. "You can just go up to even 5 percent, they really start tasting like real beer, not just near-beer."
Going beyond 6-percent ABV would be even better, Coleman adds. "If we went higher, now we can be more environmentally friendly. Now we can package more in kegs, we can do less packaging, period, and that's just better on the environment," he says, since brewers could bottle less of their heavy beers and instead serve them on tap. He suggests doing away with an ABV constraint entirely and instead restricting pour sizes. That, he says, would entrust bartenders' and brewers' discretion, since they could monitor whether their patrons are over-served. It also still gives lawmakers a say and preserves some of their power. "These legislators, they feel they just have to limit something," he says.
Coleman is in the minority. Many local brewers are opposed to SB132. Nicole Dicou, executive director of the Utah Brewers Guild, says 25 of her organization's 29 members are against the measure. In Dicou's telling, the bill is tailored to the interests of big businesses like Walmart, and it would ensure the little guy is left in the shadow of the Budweisers and Coors Lights of the world. "It really favors the big distributors," Dicou says. National beer giants are in a lofty spot that allows them to turn on a dime. But local providers, Dicou explains, often invest in a years' worth of packaging, putting them in a tight position if they decide to change their products' alcohol content.
"Some people say, 'Any progress is progress,'" Dicou says, reflecting on the glacial pace of lawmakers to bring the state's booze laws a bit closer to the rest of civilization's. "I would argue that we have one shot at this per 100 years—why are we letting mega retailers and big beer dictate the exact parameters of what is feasible and doable here?"
If SB132 passes, Utah beer drinkers could be buying 6-percent ABV brews by the Fourth of July. "The implementation time for the bill is remarkably quick," Proper Brewing Co.'s head brewer Rio Connelly says, spelling bad news for whatever lower-strength beer is still sitting in kegs and on store shelves come the summer. "Once higher-point beer is available, sales for 4 percent beer will drop off very steeply," he predicts.
Connelly doesn't have an issue with the state tinkering with the ABV limit—he wants them to bump it even higher than 6 percent—but he's concerned that catering to big, out-of-state businesses will give Utah drinkers fewer options to feed their alcohol sweet tooths, since national brewers could flood shelves with their mass-produced hooch. "We're worried that this bill, and things like it, will continue to limit the choices of Utah drinkers by shutting smaller producers out of the market," he says. "We are 100 percent behind raising ABV. We're 100 percent behind normalizing the state's liquor laws. What we don't want to do is bend over backwards to give these large macrobrewers, these large out-of-state [interests,] what they want."
Dicou says sentiments like Connelly's are common among Utah brewers. Opposition to the bill aside, she sees the ongoing discussion as a chance to educate more Utahns on what makes a good craft beer. "I think at the end of the day, discussion about alcohol caps and content is healthy for us," Dicou says. "I would like to see them continue, and I would like to see that limit continue upward."
UPDATE 3/13: According to reporters on the Hill, lawmakers have struck a deal that would allow grocery and convenience stores to sell beer containing 4 percent alcohol by weight—not 4.8, as originally proposed—meaning regular-strength, mass-produced brews like Budweiser, Coors Light and Pabst Blue Ribbon could soon be available for purchase.