Utah passed legislation to make 4% beer content by weight (or 5% by volume) available in grocery stores Nov. 1. This will give Utahns access to a wider variety of beer choices which will increase competition and spur creativity among local breweries, according to industry insiders and community members.
The bill SB0132 changed the state’s definition of “beer” to include 4% by weight beer which is a shift from the previous 3.2% by weight, and anything above 4.01% is now considered “heavy beer,” according to Jon Lee a Brewmaster and Co-Chief Operating Officer (COO) for Squatters and Wasatch Beers.
States such as Colorado and Oklahoma have recently changed their laws to include the sale of full-strength beer within their grocery stores, leaving Utah and Minnesota as the only two states left that were selling 3.2%, said Kate Bradshaw, the state director for the Responsible Beer Coalition in a commentary piece to the Salt Lake Tribune.
As Utah is a small populated state with an even smaller demand for beer, it has forced breweries to reevaluate the expense of brewing 3.2 beer. Some manufacturers don’t see the economic benefit to continue brewing 3.2% and are phasing it out of their production.
“The pressure finally came from outside and the state of Utah had to revise liquor laws to keep products on the shelves and available for local consumers,” said Will Deutschman, a biochemistry professor at Westminster College who brews his own beer. “Large scale breweries finally said it wasn’t worth it to brew 3.2 beer as they are a very specialized product for a very small number of places.”
Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors are two of the large companies which decided to stop brewing lighter beer for such a small market.
On tap beers and grocery stores will now be able to carry liquor licenses for 5% alcohol-by-weight beer, opening the door for a wider variety of beer to be placed on tap and in grocery stores. According to Jon Lee, this may change how liquor licenses are evaluated for draft beers.
Deutschman said before the new legislation local breweries were the only ones producing 3.2% beer and did not have to compete for space of grocery store shelves or on tap lines. However, the change to include all beers up to 4% by weight means Utah breweries will likely have to compete with out-of-state breweries.
“On one hand, I think our breweries are going to see more competition for tap lines,” Deutschman said. “On the other hand, it really frees our brewers up to really get creative juices going. Our local brewers are amazing, they’ve had to produce very flavorful beers at a lower alcohol content, that is something other brewers in the United States don’t have to do.”
Now that the local breweries will have more room to get creative in the flavor of their beers with the higher percentage by weight, Jon Lee said he is excited to see where they will go from here.
“This new percentage will allow us to make a more legitimate German pilsner, pale ale, or wheat beer,” Lee said. “We can now make a majority of our beers true to style.”
Deutschman said another positive about the percentage change is it will hopefully eliminate the out-of-state stigma of Utah beers and create a more normalized perception of Utah.
“I’ve heard people that are here on ski trips complain about Utah’s liquor laws,” Deutschman said. “I think that it might reduce some of that perception of Utah.”
Some students at Westminster said they were excited for the increase in the beer alcohol percentage as well.
Hayden Kjelleren, a Westminster student, said he is excited to have more “freedom” in his beer selection.
“Most students that I know, at least on this campus or in the Salt Lake County, are definitely for higher [percentage] beer,” Kjelleren said.
Paul Nasca, a Westminster College student, said he thought the change in liquor laws would also bring in more revenue for grocery stores since customers will have more options of beer products to choose from.
With the change to 4% beer-by-weight, there is hope to further decrease the severity of Utah’s liquor laws, according to Lee and Deutschman.
“If anything, it at least opens the door to start having those types of discussions,” Lee said.
Over the summer, Lee said the Wasatch Squatters breweries are creating a balanced panel to study the change of beer alcohol percentage, and that could also turn into the possibility of a push for adding wine to grocery stores as well.
“There will be a task force with a wide variety of officials,” Lee said. “From people in the beer industry such as myself, to government officials, and even those who would like to eliminate alcohol. We’re hoping for a balanced panel that will lean more conservative, which you can expect from Utah. We will be studying how it might affect the state as a whole, and if we can expand and push for more freedom.”
Deutschman agreed that this new legislation is an opportunity to further open up the liquor laws in Utah.
“Hopefully seeing that the raise to 5% [by volume] hasn’t increased DUI issues or health issues then maybe that can be used as a demonstration,” Deutschman said. “This isn’t as big of a deal as everyone thought it was going to be and maybe we can loosen the laws a little more.”
*A previous version of this article did not clarify that the measurement 4% alcohol by weight is the same as 5% alcohol by volume.