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Gehrke: Looming changes on beer laws should force Utah to re-evaluate its own policies

First Published      Last Updated May 31 2017 12:21 pm

"Enjoy it while it lasts."

That was the advice a bartender gave a friend of mine recently.

It wasn't an existential commentary on life. Rather, it was a farewell to the regionally produced beer he had ordered, which would soon go away because the brewery that produced it had decided to no longer brew a version of the ale with 3.2 percent alcohol.

And you can probably bet on other breweries following suit before long.

In the past year, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas have all voted to get rid of their 3.2 percent beer requirements for grocery and convenience stores, leaving just Utah and Minnesota as the only states that have the weaker beer requirements in law.




With those three states lifting their limitations, two-thirds of the volume of 3.2 beer sales will disappear and with it any economic incentive for breweries to keep producing product lines just for Utah.

"I think its likely we're going to see a reduction in the variety and amount of products available," said David Davis, president of the Utah Retail Merchants Association, which represents the grocery stores and convenience stores that stock 3.2 beer. "All these breweries are going to have to make business decisions of whether it makes sense to produce beer in a 3.2 variety when there is so little volume left in the country."

So while you'll likely see the big yellow beers, the Coors and Budweisers of the world, continuing to produce specifically for Utah, you will probably start to see a sharp decline in the mid-size, regional breweries that bother making entire batches just for one or two states.

That's probably great news for the booming local brewers. They have, in the past, actively lobbied the Legislature to keep Utah's 3.2 percent beer in place because it gives them a built-in corner on the market. Others pulling out will only give them more clout in the state.

But it also has a downside.

Utah is already battling the perception that it has strange and onerous liquor laws. The moves in recent months toward the 0.05 DUI and not-a-drop for adult immigrant drivers, the arbitrary buffer zones and mini-walls, and the "this premises is licensed as a bar" signs have done little to help the stigma.

Tourists — and locals for that matter— are already faced with severely limited options when they want to order a beer on tap at a bar or restaurant or get a six-pack at a retail store. Driving out dozens of those brands that are available will only heighten that frustration.

Raising the permissible alcohol level from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent would allow Utah retailers and restaurants to serve the vast majority of beers that are in production.

The hold-up, of course, is convincing the anti-alcohol legislators and, perhaps more importantly, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the change would not have a major downside from a public health standpoint.

The good news is that Utah has some time to catch up. Oklahoma's law doesn't take effect until October of next year and Colorado's change doesn't come until the following January.

"I think the Legislature is going to take a long, hard look at this issue," Davis said. "Whether or not it has the political momentum and can clear all the hurdles ... is yet to be seen, but I feel pretty confident that, No. 1, the Legislature is aware of this issue and, No. 2, they're willing to engage in a discussion of this issue."

Those discussions will likely center around House Majority Leader Brad Wilson and Sen. Jerry Stevenson, the duo who now take the lead on important liquor issues in the Legislature. If they can work out a solution, it could be an actual step forward for Utah beer laws.

If they can't, well, "Enjoy it while it lasts."

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

 

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