Why Utah liquor stores will dump cases of beer down the drain

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) James Brinkerhoff adjusts labels in the beer section of the liquor store in West Valley City.

Here’s a true, but scary, Halloween story: Any beer that remains on liquor store shelves at midnight on Oct. 31 — and is 5% alcohol by volume or less — will be poured down the drain.

Unless consumers get there first to snag a six-pack or three — and probably at a bargain price.

The Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control says it has no choice but to “destroy” the unsold brews after Nov. 1, when a new law takes effect changing where beer with an alcohol level up to 5% ABV is sold.

For nearly a century, Utah law has barred grocery and convenience stores from selling beer that was higher than 4% ABV (that’s 3.2% by weight). Higher-alcohol brews could be sold only in state-owned liquor stores.

The new law changes that, boosting the alcohol level for retail outlets to 5% ABV.

That means dozens of beers that fall between 4% and 5% ABV need to be moved out of liquor stores or dumped, DABC purchasing specialist Rob Southworth wrote in an email.

Beer distributors cannot legally take back products and give credit, he said. And the DABC “will not carry and sell items" that are sold on the open market.

“There were 105 beers that were discontinued due to the new beer law,” he wrote. “Most of these items will be available in the open market after Nov. 1.”

A handful of items might not be available because of low sales, supply chain issues or because beer wholesalers or distributors didn’t picked them up.

[Listen: The latest Utah Booze News podcast dives into the switch to higher-alcohol beer in grocery stores]

Pacifico Lager, Stella Artois, Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Newcastle Brown Ale are among the top-selling beers that will move into grocery stores, Southworth said, noting that consumers still might find some items — such as flavored malt beverages and wine spritzers — that are under 5% ABV in liquor stores. The new law pertains only to beer.

Even with stronger retail beers, the Beehive State will continue to have one of the nation’s strictest alcohol limits. Currently, 18 states have caps on alcohol for beer and wine sold in grocery and convenience stores. The average limit is 12.4 percent ABV, much less restrictive than Utah’s.

As the conversion date nears and supplies dwindle, Southworth said, “customers will see less selection over the next week as we run out of stock on the beers that are 5% ABV and under."

The same holds true at grocery and convenience stores, said Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association. “There will be some pain and suffering for the next couple of weeks as we go through this transition. But, long term, the beer consumer should be pleased.”

He said beers that were once in liquor stores will be less expensive — since they no longer will be subject to the state’s mandatory 66.5% markup on heavy beer. Consumers also can expect to see hundreds of new products from regional and national breweries that haven’t been sold before in Utah.

Until that happens, though, consumers can get deals on what will soon be Utah’s antiquated 4% ABV beer. Level Crossing Brewing, Kiitos and other Utah-based brewers have said on social media they are having special sales on their remaining 4% stock.

State-run liquor stores also will offer discounted prices to help move products out of the stores, Southworth said. Beers will be shipped from store to store to help move inventory out of the system.

“We plan on having very little beer left over," he said, "and what we destroy will just be odds and ends.”

Southworth expects no more than 250 cases will have to be dumped.

While tossing out beer will cost the DABC money, Southworth said, dwindling stock has caused a bigger financial hit to the liquor agency.

“We will lose more in opportunity sales dollars from being out of stock,” he wrote, “than we will by throwing away product that we can no longer sell.”

Southworth said the DABC disposes of products in two ways. Large amounts are taken to a landfill, where “special handling is provided to make sure the product is destroyed efficiently and safely."

For smaller amounts that have to be discarded, he added, "we normally open and dump them.”

It’s a cruel end that may leave some lager lovers crying in their 5% beer.