'We have to reflect the market’ — Gov. Herbert is OK with stronger beer in Utah grocery stores

(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.

Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that he has no problem with allowing higher-alcohol beer in Utah grocery and convenience stores.

But SB132 was a bit of a revelation.

“It’s been a little bit of a surprise to me,” he said, “because I have not had anybody ever come to me over the last number of years saying, ‘I wish my beer had more alcohol content.’"

SB132 would increase the alcohol limit for beer sold in retail stores from the current 3.2 percent by weight to 4.8 percent — or from 4 percent by volume to 6 percent, a more common industry standard. Large national brewers are phasing out 3.2 beer because so few states now sell it.

Beer sold "on draft” at restaurants and bars could also increase to the 4.8 percent alcohol level under the bill. Stronger beer would continue to be sold in state-run liquor stores.

Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opposes the proposal.

SB132 cleared the Senate earlier this week. It faces a tougher test in the House, but if it passes there, a veto seems unlikely, given the governor’s comments Thursday.

During his monthly news conference, Herbert was asked if he has any concerns that the bill would cause more DUIs or other problems.

“Not really," he said. "I understand the motivation behind it. It seems to be driven by manufacturers.”

The bill sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, has said the proposal is about business, not alcohol. If Utah were to keep the 3.2 beer status quo, he said, it would harm stores where beer products make up a significant part of sales.

Herbert seemed to agree.

We have to reflect the market. I think that will happen, whether it is this year or next year — if that trend continues that you can’t get access to typical beers that we have in grocery stores.

We just need to make sure we are following a market demand of the public and consumer, rather than someone who thinks it’s a better way to make more profits.”

Reporter Lee Davidson contributed to this story.