Utahns are pushing for a change to the state’s 3.2 beer law so consumers can have more options when it comes to six-packs

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Signs in the beer aisle at a Smith's Food & Drug store encourage consumers to join the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition. The signs are currently in the store at 876 E. 800 South, in Salt Lake City, but will roll out next week in all 50-plus Smith's in Utah.

Utah was warned years ago that this might happen — that the selection of beer in grocery and convenience stores would dwindle.

And now, just weeks into 2019, six-packs of beer with 3.2 alcohol content are disappearing.

From Bud Light and Corona in bottles to Rainer and Tecate in cans, "a lot of six-packs have gone away,” explained Kate Bradshaw, a Salt Lake City lobbyist and director for the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition. She said a least 13 major brands have pulled their six-pack configurations from Utah. (See the accompanying graphic.)

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Consumers still can get 3.2 beer in larger 12- and 20-packs, a curious twist for a state that prides itself on limiting excessive drinking.

“Utah has made this interesting public policy choice,” Bradshaw said. “They are making consumers buy more beer than they want.”

Bradshaw and the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition — a political action committee formed several months ago by small-business owners, Utah grocery stores, convenience stores, beer distributors and brewers — is pushing a change to the state’s 3.2 beer law so consumer selection is maintained and the tradition of “picking up a six-pack” can continue in Utah.

Alcohol shifts in other states are causing the evaporating Utah beer selection. In recent months, new laws took effect in Oklahoma and Colorado that allowed higher-alcohol beer to be sold in grocery stores. Kansas is not far behind; it will allow full-strength beer in stores beginning July 1.

When that happens, only Utah and Minnesota will require weaker beer in grocery stores; and officials estimate that low-alcohol beers will drop to just 0.06 percent of all the beer brewed in the United States. Large companies, such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, have said that it’s not worth brewing lighter beer for such a small market.

The results are already being felt and, over the next few months, selection could drop as much as 40 percent, going from hundreds of options and container sizes to a few dozen. Quality also could be affected, Bradshaw warned, as the mass producers continue to make 3.2 beer, just not as often.

The Utah Legislature has known the 3.2 beer changes were coming for at least two years but has taken a wait-and-see approach before deciding whether to alter state law.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Signs in the beer aisle at a Smith's Food & Drug store encourage consumers to join the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition. The signs are currently in the store at 876 E. 800 South, in Salt Lake City, but will roll out next week in all 50-plus Smith's in Utah.

The coalition has said 2019 is the year to fix the problem and has ramped up its presence on social media and in the beer aisles at grocery stores, where signs encourage Utahns to get involved in the campaign. Consumers can text the word “beer” to 91990 to learn how to contact their state legislators and add their names to an online petition.

Bradshaw said the group hopes the public involvement will persuade the Utah Legislature to raise the alcohol cap on grocery-store beer from its current 3.2 percent alcohol by weight to 4.8 percent. (It’s the same as increasing from 4 percent alcohol-by-volume to 6 percent ABV, a more common industry measurement.)

Either way, the change would equal about half a tablespoon of additional alcohol in each beer or can, Bradshaw said. “And not every beer would jump to the 4.8 percent level. Bud Light’s normal production is 3.4 percent, same with Coors Light."

For those popular beers, the increase would be less than a tenth of a tablespoon, she said. “It’s really not that much.”

Currently, 18 states have an alcohol cap on grocery and convenience store beer. The average cap in those states is 12.4 percent ABV. “At the level we are proposing,” added Bradshaw, “Utah’s alcohol content would still be the lowest in the nation, matching Kansas.”

The change would allow Utah to maintain selection for beer drinkers, but still satisfy the desire of the state’s conservative population to keep a “low-alcohol environment,” she said. “What we are really asking for is a modest and responsible change. We just want to restore what consumers have lost.”

Two major grocery store chains are helping the coalition get the word out. Smith’s Food & Drug recently started posting signs in the beer aisles, encouraging consumers to join the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition and contact their legislators.

Signs are currently in the Salt Lake City store at 876 E. 800 South, but will roll out next week in all 50-plus Utah stores, said Marsha Gilford, the company’s director of corporate affairs.

“For us, it’s all about customer choice and providing what our customers expect from us," she said. “Because of the production issues, we are starting to see a reduction, and, in a changing market like this, we need to be responsive.”

In December, Walmart stores across Utah posted similar signs.

While higher-alcohol beer is sold in Utah’s state-run liquor stores, grocery and convenience stores in Utah sell the overwhelming majority of the beer in the state — more than 94 percent, about 32.4 million gallons, annually — according to statistics from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Surprisingly, the Utah Brewers Guild, which represents Utah’s growing craft beer industry, doesn’t support the small bump to 4.8 percent alcohol by weight (6 percent ABV) because it gives an advantage to the mega brewers.

“The 6 percent is an arbitrary number," said Executive Director Nicole Dicou. “It could be another 100 years before we get back to this discussion, so if we are changing the rules, we need to have a conversation about what the number should be. Why not make it 7 or 8 percent?

Or, the guild’s first preference, no alcohol cap at all?

Dicou pointed out that the 3.2 percent law dates back at least 85 years. Nine months before Prohibition was officially repealed, Congress passed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which allowed the production of 3.2 percent beer. It was a major step at a time when making alcohol was prohibited.

Cullen-Harrison was displaced when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but many states, including Utah, left the law on the books.

Since removing the cap completely is unlikely in conservative Utah, the guild wants the state to keep the 3.2 percent status quo. With the mass-produced beers potentially going away, Utah brewers could fill the void left on the grocery store shelves as well as on taps at restaurant and bars.

Dicou said the Utah Brewers Guild has been meeting with the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition, but ultimately the brewers believe the agenda being pushed — and paid for — benefits large beer manufacturers and grocers, not Utah’s craft beer industry.

“Utah’s craft brewers provide diverse products, and that would be gone if the mega breweries were able to flood the shelves,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t want competition; we just want a level playing field.”