Beer drinkers could find more options in their grocery stores after this legislative session, thanks to a new bill that some Utah brewers and the LDS Church oppose.
Right now, the only beer you can buy in a Utah grocery store or convenience store is 3.2 beer, meaning the beer contains 3.2 percent alcohol content by weight. For a long time, four other states also limited sales to 3.2, but three of those–Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas—recently voted to do away with the restriction, leaving Utah and Minnesota as the only states that require it.
So, national distributors such as Anheuser-Busch are phasing out production of low-point beer due to lack of demand. That’s why Sen. Jerry Stevenson, a Republican from Layton, said he introduced Senate Bill 132. The bill allows for the more commonly produced beer, which has more alcohol—4.8 percent by weight—to be sold outside state-owned liquor stores. Stevenson says it’s a matter of consumer choice.
“I don’t want to see mom-and-pop c-stores out in the hinterlands of the state go out of business because they can’t get product,” Stevenson said.
Utah’s brewing community seems to have mixed feelings about the bill. The Utah Brewers Guild opposes the bill because it says SB 132 will benefit large, national breweries more than local ones. Wasatch Brewery brewmaster and co-chief operating officer Jon Lee says while it’s good to see what he calls “progress” on state alcohol laws, the extension to 4.8 percent isn’t enough. He says though it would give consumers more choice, it would still hinder access to Wasatch beers with more than 4.8% alcohol.
“We’d like to be able to have all the beers that we make, all the beers that we brew, available full-time to anybody in any location, not just through the state liquor stores.”
Stevenson says, the way this bill is written, there’s no adjusting the 4.8 metric. Lee says if the bill passes as is, it’s a good step, but there won’t be another opportunity to have this debate anytime soon. He pointed to the muscle flexed by national retailers and breweries as the motivation for the legislation, and says that local breweries won’t have the same impact on the state government.
“The last time the brewers had this chance to talk about alcohol was in 1933, and I was definitely not alive at that point, and I will definitely be moved on by the time anybody gets that chance to talk about it ever again," Lee said.
The Utah Retail Merchants Association spoke in favor of the bill at its committee hearing, along with a representative from Maverik, who said it would improve selection for customers. Many organizations, like the conservative Utah Eagle Forum and Family Policy Resource, spoke against SB 132, saying it would encourage underage drinking. Regardless, it passed out of committee by unanimous vote.
Days later, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced its opposition to SB 132, which didn’t surprise Stevenson. He says he’s not sure how the church’s position will sway lawmakers.
“They have a level of values they teach to, and they’re doing exactly what they do all the time," Stevenson said. "So, I think I’ve expected them, I’ve expected that. The thing that would kill this bill is not enough votes.”
The full Senate will vote next on the bill. If it passes, it will then be heard by a House committee.