If one were to walk into a wine bar or a cidery in Utah, one could be served a glass of wine or cider on tap that is more than 5% alcohol by volume — but one cannot buy a draft beer with that level of alcohol.
“There are bars pouring 15% Cabernet Sauvignon into glasses on tap in the state of Utah,” said Colby Frazier, co-owner and head brewer of Salt Lake City’s Fisher Brewing Company, “and at this brewery, I can’t pour my 7% IPA right where it is made. … No one has really explained to me why, what that’s doing, or what the purpose is.”
It’s been more than three years since the state of Utah — in what beermakers consider the biggest adjustment to liquor laws since Prohibition — raised the limit of how much alcohol could be in a beer that was sold on draft, from 4% ABV to 5%.
“That change was huge,” Frazier said.
Most Utah breweries produce beers over 5% ABV, also known as high-point beers. There’s a catch, though: They aren’t allowed to serve it on tap — and, instead, have to bring the customer a bottle or can of that beer, along with a glass in which to pour it.
The can or bottle, once emptied, is tossed into a recycling bin — usually in the same building it was filled.
Brewers say the no-draft law adds to the costs for smaller craft breweries, can prompt overconsumption by consumers, and is likely the least environmentally friendly way to enjoy a cold one.
Fisher recently added a canning line, and more fermentation tanks to increase its capacity and add high-point beers to its menu. Frazier said its customers wanted beers over 5%, and Fisher spent north of $250,000 just to get the necessary equipment to begin producing and selling high-point beers. That cost doesn’t include buying the packaging materials needed to keep up with demand.
“There’s no question that the lack of change to that law, not allowing us to pour our beer that we made here on draft, forcing us to can it, was a part of the equation,” Frazier said. “And realizing that we were done waiting around thinking that maybe someday that would change. We wanted to start offering higher-alcohol beers to the market, and the only way that we were going to do that effectively, and really well, was with a canning line.”
Across town, Red Rock Brewery installed a canning line, to the tune of about $150,000, according to Michael Druce, Red Rock’s growth director.
Red Rock, for years, had only packaged its beers in glass bottles — but it recently added cans to its lineup, to save money.
“It costs us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for our small business to package this product that we made,” Druce said. “It serves no purpose whatsoever. There is no element of control of that package in the arena of preventing underage drinking, preventing overconsumption, or preventing driving and drinking.”
Kevin Templin, owner and head brewer at Templin Family Brewing, said that his company spends a lump sum each year packaging high-point beer, just for that package to be thrown in the trash once it is poured out.
“I literally take a can out of the fridge, open it up, pour it in the glass, and then throw a can, a lid and a label out — including all of the labor that goes behind filling that can,” Templin said. “People talk about environmental stuff, that right there is the complete opposite of environmentalism.”
Cans vs. kegs
Canning, the brewers say, is a time-consuming process. Often, cans are dented and can’t be sold, or the lids fall off and those cans are wasted.
For beer at the brewery, the place it was made, brewers would prefer to serve it on tap.
At Fisher, a mostly draft brewery, Frazier said drinking beer on tap is the most environmentally friendly way to do so.
Kegs, brewers say, are efficient, both economically and environmentally. The breweries have the means to fill kegs already, so there’s no added cost, and a sturdy keg can be washed out and reused for decades.
Then there’s the issue of overconsumption.
Some Utah breweries produce amazing double IPAs, delicious high-point sours, complex imperial sours, and more. Some of these beers are upwards of 8% ABV, and at times can peak at 13% ABV, based on the style of beer.
When a customer buys one of these beers, because of the law, they have to buy a bottle or can, which contain 16 ounces, sometimes even 22 ounces. In other states, both Druce and Templin said, breweries won’t serve 16-ounce pours of certain high-point styles — but, in Utah, there aren’t any other options.
Templin pointed out his brewery’s Ferda Double IPA, which has an 8.2% ABV and comes in 16-ounce cans. “You have an 8% beer, but you have to drink 16 ounces of it because most people feel committed if they purchase it,” he said.
If they could serve such high-point beers on tap, Templin said, they could serve smaller portions, controlling serving sizes and reducing overconsumption. (Templin Family Brewing has rules in place for certain high-point beers, where customers can only have one per visit.)
Shopping at the source
Another thing about high-point beers in cans: You can’t buy them at most grocery stores or convenience stores. Utah law puts the limit for store-bought beer at 5% ABV. Anything stronger has to be bought at the state liquor stores or directly from the brewery.
If there’s a choice between the brewery or the state liquor stores, the brewers interviewed for this article agree: Buy your beer from the source.
“Fresh beer is better beer, that’s largely the case across all brands,” Frazier said.
Many state liquor stores store beer at, or above, room temperature. Heat is the enemy of beer, and as beer is moved around at room temperature, it is exposed to oxygen and it will continue to age more rapidly.
“Of all the things that are absolutely true, if you go buy beer from the brewery, you are one of the smartest people in the state of Utah,” Druce said.
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