Utah lawmakers reach a deal to put stronger beer in grocery stores, but it would be 4 percent, not 4.8 percent

(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.

Utah lawmakers have struck a deal to let higher-alcohol beer be sold in Utah grocery and convenience stores.

House members signed off on the measure Wednesday by a 61-14 vote, sending the bill back to the Senate for a final vote that is expected to occur Thursday.

This second substitute bill would boost the cap on retail beer from 3.2 percent to 4 percent by weight, a level that would include the majority of beer that already is in retail outlets, said bill sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.

“About 88 percent of the labels now in the stores would be able to stay,” Stevenson said, adding that it was a compromise “I can live with [it].”

Nationally, most light beers are 3.4 percent by weight, and dozens of others — such as Budweiser, Coors and Miller Genuine Draft — are 4 percent by weight.

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. Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opposed that plan.

Last week, that proposal, which already had been approved by the Senate, was gutted by a House committee and replaced with language that would create a task force to study the issue.

Wednesday’s version is a blend of the two bills. If the measure passes and Gov. Gary Herbert signs it into law, Utah’s 4 percent alcohol limit for retail store beer still would rank among the nation’s strictest.

"It’s a glass half full compromise,” said Kate Bradshaw, director of the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition. The group has been pushing for months to increase the state’s allowable alcohol cap on beer.

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

In recent months, new alcohol laws have taken 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. That would leave Utah as the lone holdout on low-alcohol beer — unless lawmakers make a change before the legislative session ends Thursday.

Large companies, such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, have said that it’s not worth brewing lighter beer for such a small market and have reduced the types of packages — mainly six-packs — available in retail stores. Large retailers and small-business owners say they stand to lose millions in beer sales if the Legislature doesn’t raise the allowable alcohol cap.

While it doesn’t go as far as retailers desired, moving the alcohol cap to 4 percent by weight or 5 percent by volume (a more common industry measure) could keep the selection of retail beer from dwindling.

Rep. John Knotwell, the bill’s House floor sponsor, quipped that the issue had been “brewing for a long time,” eliciting groans from his colleagues. The Herriman Republican urged them to support a modest change negotiated by retailers, brewers and advocates.

As part of the legislative compromise, a “beer availability work group,” staffed by the DABC, would study issues of availability, alcohol content and retail practices during the next nine months and report findings to legislative interim committees.

To Rep. Norm Thurston, lifting the alcohol cap and subsequently studying beer availability and sales is a backward approach; once raised, the limit will never be lowered, even if the work group links the change to increased underage drinking or intoxicated driving.

“How are we ever going to go back? ... The answer is, we’re not,” said Thurston, R-Provo, who in previous sessions led the effort to enact the nation’s toughest drunken driving law.

A portion of beer that is now sold in liquor stores would move to grocery and convenience stores under the compromise plan.

While the move could slow the growth of DABC revenue by 4 percent, Stevenson said, the state’s general fund, school lunch and public safety programs would not see any negative effects because Utah liquor sales have been rising about 7 percent annually. Last year, the DABC brought in more than $450 million.

Transferring beer to retail stores also will leave space on the liquor store shelves for other products, Stevenson added.

Utah brewers have been divided on the issue.

“The [Brewers] Guild is not taking a position on the new 4 percent ABW limit deal,” Executive Director Nicole Dicou wrote in an email, “because some brewers are for it and some brewers do not support it. All of these voices are valid."