Four things to know about the upcoming change in Utah’s beer laws
As Halloween approaches, a number of spooky sights are presenting themselves to Utah’s beer lovers.
Bright blue labels reading “discontinued” hover over empty shelves that once offered Sam Adams and Stella Artois. Back rooms once stacked to the ceiling with beer have been reduced to a few exposed pallets with little more than a six-pack of Uintas on top of them. State liquor store employees are preparing to dump gallons of beer down the drain after closing time on Oct. 31.
Much as in an expensive haunted house, though, beer drinkers are not in any actual danger: Beer hasn’t been outlawed in Utah.
On Thursday, when alcohol reforms adopted by the Utah Legislature earlier this year take effect, the grocery store stock rooms will fill once again with what sellers say will be more varieties of beer than ever, while state liquor stores will begin making up the difference in inventory.
Rush Hotchkiss, a Park City retailer, is glad that the change is coming before ski season.
“In the winter when the tourists come in, they’re going to be a lot happier,” the store manager of The Market at Park City said. “It should work out pretty well.”
Here’s a breakdown of what is and isn’t changing, how it’ll affect shoppers’ beer runs and why the change came about in the first place.
On Nov. 1, grocery stores, convenience stores, taps at drinking establishments and others will begin stocking beers up to 5% alcohol by volume, up from the 4% by volume (3.2% by weight) limit that has been in place in Utah for nearly a century. Conversely, the state liquor stores will no longer legally be able to sell beer under that percentage and must either move its inventory of such beer by closing time on Oct. 31 or destroy it by pouring it into pipes unknown.
Terry Wood, director of communications for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, said state liquor stores would begin heavily discounting any items that fit that bill at an average of 33% off in order to save them from the sink.
The event is set to be an overnight transformation as retailers hope to get their new beers on shelves by Thursday morning. Hotchkiss said that The Market at Park City, for instance, has purchased more than 20 new shelves to accommodate the new arrivals, which represent a variety he called “insane.”
In the meantime, stores aren’t stocking new 3.2% beverages, so stock rooms are uncharacteristically sparse.
The change only affects beer, so the legal standing of hard seltzers like White Claw remains unchanged.
How does this change beer runs?
Private retailers will offer a much wider variety of beer than they have previously. Hotchkiss estimated The Market at Park City will stock about 20% more kinds of beer, including some that are entirely new to Utah.
State liquor store shelves, meanwhile, will refill slowly but eventually offer a wider variety of high-point beers to make up for the empty shelves, according to Wood. The DABC takes requests for different beer varieties online.
Now that the sales of the sub-5% beers are at the discretion of private retailers, not all of the beers that disappear from state liquor stores will be available at all grocery stores and bars. A number of factors like geographic location, brewer size and transportation costs influence which out-of-state and imported beers are sold at state liquor stores, Wood said.
Why did Utah lawmakers show mercy?
When recent legislative repeals of Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma’s similar laws governing beer potency at certain retailers went into effect, national brewers indicated that 3.2% beers would go the way of the dodo. After significant debate and controversy over local brewers’ lobbying efforts to allow that to happen, the Legislature passed the law approving the increase to 5%, which was signed by Gov. Gary Herbert in March.
The controversy among Utah’s beer-making and beer-drinking community escalated into what The Salt Lake Tribune called a legislative “bar fight,” after a number of prominent Utah brewers like Wasatch, Squatters and Red Rock stated their opposition to the originally proposed bill, which would have led to fewer macro brews like Bud Light and Coors on shelves, because they could step in to “fill the gap.”
What else is changing?
While the ABV increase at grocery stores is a huge change, it’s important to remember that Utah remains Utah. The state, one of 17 in the country that controls alcohol sales, is still the only retailer that offers beer over 5%, wine, liquor and other libations. Bars and restaurants remain separate classifications. And, importantly, the DUI limit of 0.05 blood alcohol level, the strictest of any state, remains in effect.
Many Utah brewers are still producing their 4% brews for grocery stores, but they may begin changing their products as they see fit.
Wood said details like the law’s impact on DABC store revenue aren’t known at this time.
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