Stronger beer dead for this year? House committee guts bill allowing higher-alcohol brew in Utah grocery stores.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) 3.2 beer on the shelves at Smith's Grocery in Salt Lake City, Friday, January 26, 2018. The selection of 3.2 percent beer in Utah grocery and convenience stores is expected to decline — as much as 40 percent — later this year. The beer industry want the Utah Legislature to change state law to allow beer that is 4.8 percent alcohol in stores. However, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune poll, Utah residents on split on the issue, with the majority of Republicans and active Mormons opposing the idea.

A bill to put higher-alcohol beer in Utah grocery and convenience stores was gutted by a House committee Wednesday and replaced by one that would create a task force to study the proposal.

But the initial bill still could be revived on the House floor, said its sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson.

“It’s not over,” the Layton Republican said after the vote.

The initial version of SB132 would have hiked the alcohol limit on retail beer from its current 3.2 percent by weight to 4.8 percent.

Even with such a change, Utah’s alcohol limit for grocery store beer still would rank among the nation’s strictest, said Stevenson, who resisted the task force measure, saying it was unnecessary.

“I’ve studied this for three years now,” Stevenson said. "This is a good move."

Even before Wednesday’s hearing, the lawmaker said he knew the proposal was in jeopardy after House leadership placed it before the Health and Human Services Committee. Liquor bills usually are heard by the Business and Labor Committee.

“It was sent to this committee for one reason,” he said. “To kill it.”

Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opposed the original proposal, but Stevenson said the measure was about business and commerce. If Utah were to keep the 3.2 beer status quo, it would harm consumers, who would have fewer product choices, and stores, especially ones in which beer makes up a significant chunk of their sales.

More than a week ago, the Senate approved Stevenson’s original bill, 27-2.

Kate Bradshaw, director of the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition, which supported Stevenson’s initial bill, said the Senate may not be agreeable to a task force proposal when it comes up for a vote. "The House and the Senate are not in agreement on this.”

Bradshaw also was concerned about the makeup of the proposed task force, which was heavily weighted toward those in the alcohol-prevention and underage-drinking groups.

Under current state law, only beer that is 3.2 percent by weight (or 4 percent by volume) can be sold in grocery and convenience stores. Stronger beer is sold in liquor stores operated by the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

In recent months, alcohol law shifts in other states have caused Utah’s 3.2 beer selection to evaporate. 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 April 1.

Large companies, such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, have said that it’s not worth brewing lighter beer for such a small market.

Small-business owners, Utah grocery and convenience stores, beer distributors and some brewers have been pushing to boost the alcohol limit so consumer selection is maintained.

“If this bill is not approved, we stand to lose $2.5 million in sales,” warned David Hancock, vice president and chief legal counsel for Maverik Inc. Stores have had changes to about 58 beer products in recent months, “and we are reassessing employee staffing at stores.”

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said the state should be concerned about the effect more alcohol would have on underage drinkers.

“What will the [additional] alcohol do to these children?” she asked. “We already know it affects developing brains and driving. It affects their grades and their lives drastically. Please consider the children.”

Utah brewers are divided about stronger beer.

Small brewers, like Fisher Brewing in Salt Lake City, would like to see the alcohol cap increased to 4.8 percent, said head brewer Colby Frazier.

“This is a moderate, responsible way to move the needle,” he said, " and it would allow brewers to make a wider variety of beers."

Larger brewers, however, say the small bump to 4.8 percent alcohol by weight (6 percent ABV) gives an advantage to the mega-brewers.

“It’s about choice,” said Robert Jensen, a co-owner of Red Rock Brewing. “The [original] bill would move a tremendous number of beers into grocery stores. Aisles will be filled with Budweiser and Coors and only a little bit of craft beer.”