Utah liquor officials say no beer at karaoke venues or ax-throwing businesses, unless state law is changed

Beer will not be allowed at a karaoke business in Salt Lake City or an ax-throwing venue in Ogden, because neither fits the definition of a “recreational amenity," under a new law that takes effect in mid-May.

The state liquor commission denied the beer license requests from Salt Lake City’s Heart & Seoul Karaoke and Ogden’s Social Axe Throwing on Tuesday, saying that while both business might qualify as recreational amenities under the current state statute, they won’t later this month.

That’s when HB453, a liquor law “cleanup bill” passed by the Utah Legislature, takes effect. It lists specific businesses that can have recreational beer licenses.

The list was buried in the massive measure — more than 3,500 lines long — and for the most part went unnoticed, even among staffers at the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, until recently.

Current law allows bowling alleys, golf courses, tennis clubs and any business the DABC deems “substantially similar" to have a recreational beer license. Having the license allows businesses to sell beer that is 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (or 4 percent by volume). Wine or spirits are forbidden.

When the new law takes effect May 14, it takes control away from the DABC and instead lists 14 specific recreational amenities in which beer can be served. Bowling alleys, golf courses, pool halls, ski resorts and government-owned concert venues, for instance, made the list.

Karaoke and ax throwing did not.

The new law took Brody Horton and Matt Smith, the owners of Heart & Seoul Karaoke, by surprise. Last month, they came to the DABC commission requesting the beer-only license. They believed their business, at 67 W. 100 South, fit the recreation theme, because customers pay a per-person admission fee and then rent a room with a music player and a microphone.

The liquor commission was unsure and postponed the request until April to determine if the business qualified. The DABC even sought advice from the Utah attorney general’s office.

“The Legislature spoke last session and said this is the way they want to go,” said commissioner Thomas Jacobson. “They’ve tied our hands."

There are other ways, however, a businesses could secure a beer license, Jacobson said. Owners could change their business models to fit the new law or add more food options so that beer sales totaled less than 15 percent of annual receipts.

“Or you can talk to your legislators," he said, “and get this law changed.”

Heart & Seoul’s attorney, Janelle Bauer, said the decision was an “arbitrary and capricious” use of governmental power. “They’re applying a law that is not in effect yet,” she said after the decision. The owners "will now look at options to comply with the new law.”

Last year, the liquor commission gave recreational beer licenses to Social Axe Throwing venues in Salt Lake City and Orem — despite concerns about safety and underage drinking. Since then, several other ax-throwing venues along the Wasatch Front have been granted recreational beer licenses from the DABC.

When those licenses expire at the end of December, however, the beer could stop flowing unless owners make changes.

On Tuesday, Social Axe owner Mark Floyd was seeking a third recreational beer license for his expanded Ogden location.

Floyd, who originally opened in Ogden in 2017, planned to move the business to a larger, 3,000-square-foot building to accommodate his growing clientele — and so he could serve beer. (The original Ogden location didn’t qualify for a beer license because it was too close to a church, in this case a temple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

Floyd was visibly frustrated by Tuesday’s decision to deny a beer license. “The commission is out of line," he said, noting that he planned to get a lawyer “and get things changed.”