Locals and tourists carp about Utah wuss beer all the time, but we don’t really know the score. Utah law measures alcohol content by weight (ABW), says Uinta Brewing production manager Kevin Ely, who explains that this “was the method of measuring percents of mixed dilutions, alcohol in particular, during the Prohibition Era. A lot has changed in chemistry methodology and food-science practices.”
Utah is renowned for its 3.2 percent ABW beer. But if Utah beers were
measured in the same fashion as most other beers (by volume), it’s
really 4.0 percent ABV beer. This percentage is just slightly less than
the average alcohol content of most mainstream beers. Alcohol by weight
(ABW) is 80 percent of the amount by volume (ABV).
When you measure by weight, Ely says, you’ll find 3.2 grams of
alcohol in every 100 grams of beer. But since beer is a liquid, it makes
more sense to measure it volumetrically (ABV). “So, in 100 milliliters
of beer, there are 4 milliliters of alcohol. Internationally, that’s how
alcohol is measured.”
So when putting Utah beer up against so-called “high-point beer” in other states (excepting Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, where grocery stores only sell 3.2 beer), the difference isn’t enough to cry about. Common, big-name brews like Budweiser and Coors are only .4-.5 percent stronger, and most light beers only have about .2 percent more kick than our supposedly daintier beers. And get this: “Around the world, [weaker] beers are what people drink day in and day out,” Ely says. “If you go into a Scottish pub, there are a lot of beers that are way below 4 percent alcohol.”
English ales are commonly around 3 to 3.5 percent ABW or 3.7 to 4.4 percent ABV. In fact, the milder the beer, the more refreshing and satisfying it can be. Guinness Original/Extra Stout is 4.2 or 4.3 percent ABV in Ireland, and is adjusted to 5 percent for Americans.
Guess what else? Utah’s 3.2 limitation only applies to beer sold in bars and grocery stores. Our state liquor stores stock beer and barley wines as high as 9 percent ABW (Chimay Grand Réserve). And among Utah microbreweries, Uinta’s Labyrinth Black Ale—part of its Crooked Line catalog—registers at 13.2 percent ABV, and Epic’s Brainless on Cherries clocks in at 10.7 percent ABV. “And in a couple of months,” says Epic brewmaster Kevin Crompton, “we’ll have something even stronger.” It’s exciting because, as Crompton notes, “a few years ago, we only had a handful of breweries brewing strong beers. Now, there is [Epic], Red Rock and Uinta doing it—and I know Shades of Pale plans some high-point beers.”
Ely says there’s something to be said for the weaker brews. “We have so many 4 percent beers that are so well-brewed and so tasty,” says Ely. “All the [local] breweries do a great job. I’m really an advocate of 4 percent beers because that’s the beer you can drink the most of and still be a functioning member of society.”
Maybe someday the saying will be, “Eat, drink and be merry—you’re in Utah.”