Robert Gehrke: Utah drinkers might want to stock up. A law change has grocery stores and bars bracing for a temporary shortage of popular beer brands.

Robert Gehrke

It makes sense from a business perspective.

When Utah followed states like Colorado and Oklahoma in ditching low-strength beer, the market for it was gone and breweries were bound to stop brewing it.

Not only that, with the legal alcohol content going from 3.2% by weight to 4%, grocery stores and distributors didn’t want rows and rows of low-point beer sitting on their shelves after the transition came.

So in a perfect world, they would measure out supplies perfectly so the last low-point beer got poured just before midnight on Halloween and the first higher-alcohol-content beer was sold Nov. 1, when bars, restaurants and grocery stores can legally start selling products with higher alcohol content.

But hitting that target apparently proved tricky and they undershot. That means the state’s big distributors are warning bar owners and grocery store managers to brace for a beer crunch.

“The brewers are going to err on the side of running out early as opposed to having too much 3.2 beer after Nov. 1,” said Andy Zweber, president of General Distributing, which distributes Budweiser, Michelob and other brands in Salt Lake County and the surrounding area.

The less popular brands, which will stop their production first, could disappear from grocery store shelves and taps at the local watering holes sometime in early October with the more popular brands following suit later in the month. That is true for all the major national brands, not just, say, Budweiser products.

“The last couple weeks of October, there could be very little left on the shelves,” Zweber said.

There are a lot of variables, obviously, like the volume a particular store or tavern turns around. Or, for example, if a store runs out of Budweiser, customers may order more Coors, and the shortage could snowball.

[Listen: Booze News podcast with Tribune reporter Kathy Stephenson, and co-host Ben Winslow of FOX 13, discuss the state’s policy change on beer sales in grocery stores.]

“It’s one of those things that will be an annoyance for this window of time,” said Kate Bradshaw, director of the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition, a group of retail outlets that lobbied to change Utah’s law.

“The logistics required to make this shift for Utah meant that there might be this window of awkwardness, of more limited availability,” she said. “It’s hard to pick a date and roll everything out at once when you’re phasing out a product and bringing in a new product.”

And her group had warned that if Utah didn’t raise the legal alcohol content, the national breweries would have stopped brewing special batches for Utah anyway and consumers would have seen diminishing options.

Bar owners, meantime, are bracing for two weeks or more without their most popular sellers.

For example, David Morris, owner of Piper Down and Handle Bar, and president of the Utah Hospitality Association, which represents Utah bars and taverns, said he was told Molson had stopped brewing special batches of Guinness and his recent delivery would be the last one he would get until Nov. 1. Morris’ Piper Down is the biggest seller of Guinness in the state.

“Change isn’t always comfortable or painless or easy, but it is inevitable,” he said. “We’ll sell what you see.”

Morris said when his big sellers run out, he’ll lean more heavily on local breweries, which won’t be as quick to phase out 3.2% beer.

The local breweries are generally excited for the change and the extra flexibility to brew different types of beer with a little bit more alcohol, said Nicole Dicou, executive director of the Utah Brewers Guild, which represents the state’s craft breweries. Although, she said, a change like this could take a little time.

For example, Peter Erickson, co-founder and co-owner of Epic Brewing, said Utah craft breweries like his are going to have to retool some of their recipes if they want to produce beer with higher alcohol content, and that takes time. Plus, they already have packaging for 3.2% beer they plan to use up.

So Epic won’t run out of its lower strength beer, and Dicou said she hasn’t heard of shortages from other breweries, but craft brewers also don’t produce the kind of volume that would be needed to fill a major hole in the market for very long.

The impending shortage could have dragged on longer. The way the law was written, groceries and taverns couldn’t receive shipments of the new product until Nov. 1. That meant distributors would be swarming across the state to replenish supplies for thousands of retailers. It would have been a logistical nightmare.

“We only have so many guys and so many trucks,” Zweber said. “We can’t deliver it all on that day.”

But late last week, Gov. Gary Herbert called a special session of the Legislature on Sept. 16 to in part tweak the law and let outlets receive shipments — but not sell the higher strength beer — a week before the Nov. 1 change date.

“Having the Legislature take up the pre-staging in the special session is a big relief,” Bradshaw said. “Getting millions of cases of beer to 2,500 retail outlets across a vast geographic territory was going to be interesting, so we’re very grateful.”

Theoretically, lawmakers could also move the implementation date of the transition to higher-strength beer up by two weeks to avoid a shortage, but Sen. Jerry Stevenson said Friday the plan is just to fix the shipping issue.

So that means drinkers should stock up, prepare to try some different brands and, as Morris told me, “hang on for the ride.”