Utah brew pubs warned not to offer beer samplers
First, restaurants were ordered to erect barriers (so-called Zion curtains) to hide bartenders from public view. Then, out of the blue, eateries were getting busted in recent months for following the age-old practice of allowing diners to be served a glass of wine while looking over a menu but before actually ordering food.
Now, the new administration at the state's liquor-control agency and its enforcement cops have gone after the popular beer samplers at brew pubs.
Samplers are sold in much of the nation, and some Utah brew pubs have been offering them for the past 20 years to customers as a way to try out a small taste of beer varieties before they order one. That is until now.
Reasons for the latest crackdown are unclear, with varying opinions from various sources, but it has created confusion and frustration among customers and business owners.
"It seems that there's a twisting of the laws and reading into them things that are going to get the industry in trouble," said Dave Morris, owner of Piper Down Olde World Pub in Salt Lake City. "I don't know where this is coming from, but these are things that do not pose a threat to public safety."
Vickie Ashby, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, insists that the agency is reacting to a law passed in 2011 that didn't go into effect until last March. It phased out some liquor licenses, and as a result, "all restaurants, clubs and airport lounges may allow only two alcoholic products to be in front of the patron at one time. Beer, no matter the size, is considered an 'alcoholic product' and therefore, the limit is two per patron at a time."
Ashby said that for many years beer samplers "have been illegal" in establishments other than brew pubs, which in the eyes of the DABC have now lost their protection.
But it wasn't until November, shortly after Salvador Petilos assumed control of the agency in the wake of a series of critical legislative audits, that compliance officers began contacting brew pubs and sacking the samplers. For their part, surprised owners say that liquor cops told them samplers had become a no-no because of a different law also passed in 2011, which actually liberalized restrictions on wine, making wine flights legal. Because beer samplers were not included in that law, they became illegal.
There is even more confusion within the state's myriad regulations because another law allows each customer to be served up to a liter of beer at a time (33.8 ounces, in no more than two glasses) which is several ounces more than in an outlawed tray of six to eight small samplers (18 ounces to 24 ounces).
"Now, instead of ordering six two- or three-ounce samples, guests may have to order two 12-ounce glasses to get a taste of what we're offering," said Joe Lambert, president of Squatters brew pub. "This is contrary to serving alcohol responsibly."
Adds Stantel Stoff, general manager of Red Rock Junction in Park City: "We have a lot of guests who like to taste all of the styles of our beer, and currently we can only serve them two [small glasses] at once, even though they are only 3 ounces each. The way the law is written, it encourages overconsumption."
Also, by outlawing the samplers, the DABC has put Utah in a position of telling out-of-town beer aficionados visiting the state that it cares little about the traditions of the growing craft beer industry, local brewers say.
Lambert said brew pub guests expect to be able to purchase sampler trays to determine which variety of beer they may want to order. "This is typical in the craft brewing industry."
Red Rock representatives have asked for a meeting with state Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who drafted the 2011 law allowing wine flights to see if local brewers can get their samplers back. Valentine said he was unaware of any issues, but that he would listen to concerns.
Beer fan Jan Szopa, 25, who moved to Utah from Florida five years ago, hopes for a quick resolution.
Szopa said that in January he and a date visited the Red Rock Brewery and ordered samplers, which he described as a "great conversation starter." Then he got the news that no craft beer drinker wants to hear.
"I'm picky with choosing the kind of beer I want to drink," said Szopa. "I don't want to order a big glass without knowing if I'll like it. I'm confused why it's better to order a big stein of beer instead of small samplers. It's silly. "
The crackdown on beer samplers comes on the heels of another recent effort in which compliance officers issued citations late last year to restaurants that serve drinks to customers before they order food, only to later back off after news stories about the initiative created an uproar in the hospitality industry and a flurry of calls from the public. Pelitos, who has declined repeated requests for interviews since taking over at the DABC, said a series of direct warnings from the agency to restaurants and a subsequent rise in citations had been misunderstood.
In recent years, lawmakers also have added other restraints on liquor, mandating that restaurants erect barriers to hide bartenders from public view. Legislators also passed a law requiring servers to go behind barriers or into a back room to open cans or bottles of beer.