Yet another new rule for Utah beer makers: Alcohol tests to make sure that brew is 3.2

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mohammad Sharaf, a lab manager with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, demonstrates how to test beer to make sure that it does not exceed the state limit of 4 percent alcohol by volume, on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.

Utah brewers, already accustomed to meeting myriad liquor restrictions, recently were given one more state mandate: alcohol testing for all new 3.2 beers they produce.

Under a new requirement from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, all new beers to be sold in Utah grocery and convenience stores, first must be tested in a state laboratory to ensure the brews do not exceed the state limit of 4 percent alcohol by volume. That’s the same as 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.

“It’s not really an inconvenience for the brewers to send a sample," said Nicole Dicou, executive director of the Utah Brewers Guild, "but it is another hoop to jump through.”

There will be no financial penalty for having a brew that tests higher than 3.2, Dicou said. “You just can’t sell it.”

The alcohol-content test also is required for any beer that is sold at production facilities. Most Utah breweries have stores and taprooms, where customers can buy products that sometimes aren’t available in stores.

Beer with a higher alcohol content — which state law requires to be sold at liquor stores — is not subject to the testing.

A few larger brewers — including Squatters and Uinta Brewing — have their own alcohol-analyzing equipment. Even small brewers commonly use a hydrometer during the mashing process, which calculates what the density and alcohol content of a beer will be.

Dicou said the guild was told that testing was part of a national standardization movement and that states across the country were asked to implement it.

However, Paul Gatza, director of the national Brewers Association, a trade organization for craft brewers headquartered in Boulder, Colo., knows of no other state that has such a requirement.

“I am unfamiliar with any other beverage control entity requiring testing of a certain class of products,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is something that would not fly in many states, as it puts an undue burden on the smallest breweries that have the least amount of sales.”

Testing could dissuade small brewers from making test batches of beer, he added. “Ultimately, it could reduce consumer availability and choice.”

Brewers are not the only ones that could have their products tested, explained Cade Meier, deputy director of the DABC. “Testing may apply to any product to check for compliance to labeling.”

That means distilleries and wineries could be asked to submit samples of their products.

Testing the alcohol content of a beer, wine or liquor is not unheard of in Utah. In the past, when a product was in question, Meier explained, the DABC would send a sample to an out-of-state lab.

“Now we are doing our due diligence,” he said. "We want to make sure that anything we list, the alcohol content, is correct per the labeling.”

And, he added, “it’s not anticipated to be a large number” of products that will go through analysis.

For the testing, the DABC has entered into a governmental agreement — called a memorandum of understanding — with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, which already has on-site labs.

The DABC will be charged $25 per test, said Weston Judd, the director of lab services.

"The fee is based mainly on the time to analyze the product,' Judd recently told the Agricultural Advisory Board. "There’s not much material involved.”

The liquor agency also reimbursed the Agriculture Department nearly $29,000 for the equipment that was needed to conduct the alcohol-content testing, Judd said in an email.

“It makes sense to use our lab rather than start their own,” said Jack Wilbur, a spokesman with the Department of Agriculture. “We test water, for example, for ourselves and other agencies. So it is not unprecedented to provide labs services for other state and local agencies.”

The Utah Department of Health also has testing labs, he said. Both were used recently to test for the hazardous algal blooms.

“Both of our labs have Legislature-approved fee schedules,” he said. “But with DABC, it may be the first time another agency has bought equipment for us specifically for their testing needs.”

The DABC and the Utah Legislature seem to be focused on 3.2 beer and the retail outlets that sell it. In 2017, as part of a massive overhaul of the state’s liquor laws, the Legislature required all grocery and convenience stores that sell beer to obtain an “off-premise” license from the DABC before March 1, 2019.

Lawmakers also tightened restrictions for beer displays, limiting each store to two and requiring warning signs that read: “These beverages contain alcohol. Please read the label carefully."

Legislators said the restrictions were needed to prevent confusion between nonalcoholic beverages and flavored beers and ciders, which often have similar labeling.

Licensing is happening at the same time the state’s 3.2-beer selection is expected to dwindle. As of Oct. 1, Oklahoma scrapped its requirement that all beer in the state contain just 3.2 percent alcohol. Colorado will get rid of 3.2 beer in January, and Kansas will follow suit in April.

That leaves Utah and Minnesota as the only states to require 3.2 beer in grocery stores, and they do not represent a large enough market for major beer producers to continue making the low-alcohol beer. Beer giant Anheuser-Busch has already warned it could reduce its 3.2 beer offerings by 40 percent.

Utah groups affected by the reduced selection are split on what to do.

Stores that sell beer have been trying to persuade legislators to raise the alcohol level of Utah beer from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent. Lawmakers have taken a wait-and-see approach.

However, a separate beer organization, called the Utah Brewers Association, has come out against the increase, saying the state’s 26 craft breweries — and counting — could step up production of 3.2 beer and fill the void.

Could that be what prompted the DABC’s new testing requirement?

No one is saying.