DABC changes course, says ‘beer to go’ can stay at Utah restaurants and bars

The liquor agency will work with the Legislature to clarify the law regarding the sale of packaged beer.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Beer taps are shown at Holladay’s iconic Cotton Bottom Inn.

In the early days of the pandemic, Mark Alston, the owner of The Bayou, purchased $3,000 worth of equipment that would allow his Salt Lake City bar to bottle and sell draft beer to go.

Sales of the sealed containers were brisk, he said, until last week when bars and restaurants across the state received a letter from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control saying sales of “beer to go” would no longer be allowed — except in a few instances.

The DABC is taking away “an important lifeline” for bars and restaurants, Alston told The Tribune. “At a time when to-go sales are mission-critical, it’s like cutting off one leg of a three-legged stool.”

On Tuesday evening, the DABC eased up on its initial interpretation.

“As a result of additional dialogue between stakeholders, legislative leads, and others, the DABC has determined that the best course of action now is to allow licensees to continue to operate as they have been prior to the April 8, 2021, letter they received,” the agency said in an emailed statement. “In the meantime, the DABC will continue to review this issue ... to determine if and how additional clarification can be sought during next year’s general legislative session.”

For nearly two decades, the DABC had been following a “less restrictive” interpretation of state alcohol law, according to the April 8 letter, signed by Angela Micklos, the DABC’s director of licensing and compliance.

“Beer sales to go,” Micklos wrote, “is prohibited because it is ‘inconsistent with and less restrictive than’ what is allowed” in the state statute.

“Absent a legislative change to the current statutes, most on-premise retail licenses may not sell beer or other alcoholic beverages to go,” she said.

The only exceptions were beer-only taverns and businesses with a recreational beer license — such as a bowling alley or ax-throwing venue. Those businesses are allowed to-go sales, “because the law expressly allows them to do so.”

To Alston, the change felt like a step backward, especially during the pandemic when several states have temporarily relaxed laws on alcohol purchases and are allowing curbside pickup and/or home delivery of beer, wine and spirits.

After Alston received his letter last week, he took to social media to let consumers know that after nearly 20 years, getting beer in a bottle, can or growler was — in most cases — coming to an end in Utah.

Several months ago, DABC employees had been reviewing publications and training materials for accuracy and compliance with state statute when it noticed “an inconsistency” in its “beer-to-go” chart for businesses with state alcohol licenses, the agency said in a previous statement.

“We made the correction,” the statement said, “and immediately notified licensees, the Utah Restaurant Association and Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association.”

At one time, the state liquor agency was given some leeway when interpreting state alcohol law, said Michele Corigliano, president of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association. But in 2015, the Legislature took away that discretion, telling the agency it had to more strictly adhere to the legislative language on the books.

The revised “beer-to-go” chart distributed with Micklos’ one-page letter clarifies the businesses that can — or can’t — sell beer to go.

But it also illustrates just how confusing Utah liquor laws can get.

For example, taverns and recreational businesses can sell packaged beer as long as the brews are less than 5% alcohol by volume (ABV).

Utah’s licensed beer brewers can sell “beer to go” in bottles and cans if it is 5% ABV or higher, but they are not allowed to sell packaged beer if it is less than 5% ABV.

And finally, no bars or restaurants are allowed to sell growlers or crowlers filled with beer that is more than 5% ABV.