New Utah group wants higher-alcohol beers on tap, seeks change in state law

A new grassroots group, concerned about Utah liquor laws, says it plans to represent everyday residents and “advocate for better beer laws."

The first item on Utah Consumer Coalition’s to-do list: change state law so that higher-alcohol beer can be served on tap.

“What we’ve done is we’ve picked an issue that we think everybody can agree on,” spokesman Michael Druce said Wednesday during an interview on The Salt Lake Tribune-FOX 13 “Booze News” podcast.

Having a bartender pour beer directly into a glass — from larger barrels or kegs — would eliminate waste from bottles, cans and other packaging, he said, and it possibly could reduce overconsumption.

Druce said the coalition was formed out of frustration over a new Utah law that increases the allowable alcohol content in grocery store beer — and brews sold on tap — from 3.2 to 4 percent alcohol by weight.

The minimal increase, which takes effect Nov. 1, is a major victory for grocery and convenience stores, which can now bring in a larger selection of beers to the state. But even with the boost, Utah retail stores still will have the lowest alcohol cap in the nation.

The coalition received initial funding from Robert Jensen, founder of Red Rock Brewing Co. (Druce’s previous employer) and Bob McCarthy, the owner of The Garage on Beck and Stoneground restaurant. Druce also has contributed personal funds.

The coalition plans to begin fundraising in August, Druce added, and will seek "contributions from community members, bars, restaurants, and any organization that is in support of this change.”

During the interview, Druce discussed why the coalition was formed, why beer taps are the group’s focus and why he thinks beer consumers should join the effort — although angry people need not apply. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

What is the motivation?

The whole (2019 legislative) process was kind of the motivation for this organization. It was a lot like watching sausage get made and the consumers were not looked after in that process. Consumers were unimpressed by the actions of the breweries, the legislature and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints. There’s a whole group of special interests that were involved in that, but the consumers were not considered.”

Can citizens join?

“We are a citizen lobbying group. We are incorporated as a 501 (c)(4) giving us the ability to advocate and to lobby. We currently have an operating board, but we’re very much in a startup position. The important thing is we need a base of consumers that care. We know people love to complain. But can we assemble a group of people that can have an impact? Ultimately what we want is a seat at the table. I’d like to see about 10,000 people involved and we’re not at that number yet.”

What is the group’s top priority?

“What we would like to see is the ability to pour draft beer directly into the glass. Right now, you walk into a restaurant or a bar and — if the beer you order is above (the state limit) — they serve you a bottle. The consumer then pours what’s in the bottle into a glass and then the bottle goes into the trash. That makes absolutely no sense. At the very least it is an environmental issue. Right? You’ve got millions of bottles and cans per year that are just being disposed of needlessly.”

How will you address concerns about underage drinking and overconsumption?

“I can’t even order beer (at a restaurant or bar) without having my ID scanned. So there is no increased risk of underage drinking. It’s already a very controlled environment. If you go into any other city and you have a Double IPA or an imperial stout, it seldom is poured into a glass larger than 12 ounces. It might even be 10 ounces. In Utah, it could be a 22-ounce bottle they serve you. So immediately we’ve got the potential to reduce overconsumption. And any time we reduce overconsumption we’re automatically reducing the probability of impaired driving. So I think it’s a win win.”

What’s the next step?

“We’ve been reaching out to people to make them aware of what it is that we’re interested in changing. It’s going to come down to the level of support that we’re able to drum up between now and then. We’ve had a lot of people reach out to us and say, ‘Hey, we would like to help.’ We’re being very careful to not attract just angry people. That’s not going to help us. There’s effective complaining and there’s ineffective complaining and we want to make sure that we are considering all sides of this issue. What we’ve done is we’ve picked an issue that we think everybody can agree on.”