Tired of being left out of important liquor law discussions, Utah’s small brewers have decided to hire a part-time executive director to help with — among other things — lobbying efforts that affect their industry.
“It‘s important for the local voices to be heard first,” said Peter Erickson, the communication director of the Utah Brewers Guild, which represents more than a dozen small craft brewers in the state.
These business owners typically don’t have the time or resources to lobby on Capitol Hill but know that several liquor issues brewing in the state will affect their livelihood, said Erickson, who is co-founder of Epic Brewing in Salt Lake City.
Those ongoing issues include possible reduction of 3.2 beer products in grocery and convenience stores and the state’s new drunken driving law that reduces the blood alcohol content level (BAC) to 0.05 from the current 0.08, Erickson said.
“The powerful voices are the lobbyists for the mega brewers and chain retailers,” and they often have different interests than small brewers, he explained. Local brewers also have an ongoing struggle to explain their interests to lawmakers, most of whom are Mormon and avoid alcohol for religious reasons.
Many aren’t familiar with the subtleties of the craft beer industry in Utah, which employs about 3,000 people and has a $416 million impact on the economy, he said.
The Guild’s board of directors, which posted the paid part-time position earlier this week, hopes to find someone who understands the brewing industry but also has legal or nonprofit experience that could help with lobbying, administrative, fundraising and membership.
Among other duties, the executive director will create “a series of regular meeting events that entice state legislators, regulators, and other key strategic organizations, to get together with craft brewers,” the job notice states.
The new executive director also would create and maintain relationships with industry counterparts and trade associations, including Utah tourism boards, chambers of commerce, restaurant associations, beer wholesalers, beer manufacturers and economic development leaders.
The Utah Brewers Guild is following steps taken last year by the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association. That group also hired a lobbyist to push changes in the state’s restaurant barrier law — aka Zion Curtain — designed to prevent underage drinkers form seeing the mixing and pouring of alcoholic drinks.
During the next two years, Utah and Minnesota will become the only states to require weaker beer in grocery stores. Three other states — Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas — have recently passed laws that will allow stronger beer in grocery stores.
Under current state law, grocery and convenience stores in Utah can sell only beer that is 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (or 4 percent ABV). Anything with a higher alcohol content must be sold at the state-owned liquor stores. Beer on tap at bars and restaurants also must be 3.2 percent.
State statistics show that the state-run liquor stores sell only about 6 percent — or 2 million gallons — of all the beer in the state. The majority of beer — more than 94 percent or about 32.4 million gallons — is sold annually in grocery and convenience stores.
Utah brewers have said they would like to see the laws changed to allow beer of any strength — not just 3.2 — to be sold in Utah grocery and convenience stores, as well as on tap at bars and restaurants.
The beer wholesalers and retailers are looking for a slight bump in the permissible alcohol level for grocery store beer from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent.
But those who work in alcohol prevention don’t want higher alcohol beers in stores and would prefer to keep the status quo.
All the stakeholders will have time to work with lawmakers as Oklahoma’s new law doesn’t take effect until October 2018. Changes in Colorado and Kansas begin in 2019.