10 things to expect when Utah allows stronger beer in grocery stores

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pallet of beer at Harmons in Riverton on Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. Utah grocery and convenience stores can't sell higher alcohol beers until Nov. 1. But starting Friday, the retail outlets can begin to store the 5% alcohol-by-volume beers in their warehouses in anticipation of the historic change.

Beer aisles in the Beehive State are bare, looking a lot like the empty shelves that ensue just before a hurricane hits.

Utah’s beer drought is a temporary disturbance that — at least on paper — will officially end Friday. That’s when a new state law kicks in, allowing grocery and convenience stores to sell higher alcohol beer for the first time in more than 86 years.

It might take a few days or weeks before the shelves are fully restocked and consumers throughout the state see the full effect of the historic switch, says Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association.

“If consumers will just hang on during this short-term situation," he says, "they will have a better system moving forward.”

That new statute raises the allowable alcohol content on retail beer to 5% alcohol by volume — up from 4% ABV (or 3.2% by weight). Beer that is higher than 5% ABV will be sold in Utah’s state-run liquor stores.

The higher alcohol cap allows for hundreds of new regional and national brands to be sold in retail stores and could help douse or least dilute the state’s weak-beer stereotype. Although, even at the higher alcohol level, Utah will continue to have one of the nation’s strictest alcohol limits on retail beer.

Here are 10 things Utah consumers should expect as the transition to stronger beer nears.

Low supplies

The remaining supply of 4% ABV beer will continue to decrease through week’s end. Beer sales are typically brisk the weekend before Halloween — when costume parties are in full swing — thus, many shelves will be wiped clean by Oct. 31.

New beer is here

On Friday, retailers started bringing in the 5% ABV beer and storing it on-site. It cannot be put on the shelves or sold, though, until Friday.

Discounts and deals

Utah’s state-run liquor stores have cut prices on all beer that falls between 4% and 5% ABV — basically all brews that can move to retail stores under the new law. Any discounted beer that remains on Nov. 1 will be destroyed, say officials with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Also, many Utah brewers have marked down their remaining 4% stock for quick sale.

Better selection

Consumers can expect to see dozens of regional and national brands that have not been sold before in Utah retail outlets. Buying habits will determine what stays, says Kate Bradshaw, the director for the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition, which lobbied for the new law. “Whenever any new product comes on the market, there’s a testing period to determine consumer preference. If consumers seem to like a particular product and it continues to sell, it will command a bigger chunk of shelf space.”

More creativity

While the new cap on retail beer is set at 5% ABV, that doesn’t mean all beer in the retail stores will hit that limit, says Chad Hopkins, the owner/brewer at Hopkins Brewing Co. in Salt Lake City. “That’s a big misconception,” he adds. “Certain beer styles need that alcohol backbone; other’s don’t.” Some beers, like Hopkins’ Irish stout, could be 4.3%.

Same beers, new location

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

Lower prices

Beers that were once in liquor stores also will be less expensive in grocery stores, since they no longer will be subject to the state’s mandatory 66.5% markup on heavy beer.

Higher taxes

As part of the compromise, worked out on the final day of 2019 legislative session, the state will boost the excise tax on barrels of beer from $12.80 — already the highest in the nation — to $13.10. The tax increase is expected to generate $350,000 annually and will be tapped to pay for enforcement programs, according to the Utah State Tax Commission.

Beer on tap

The new law also boosts the allowable alcohol content on beer served on tap — sometimes called draft beer — at restaurants and bars to 5% ABV. A new grassroots group already has said it is pushing for a change in state code, so that even stronger beer can flow on tap.

Liquor stores

With more than 100 beers leaving state liquor stores, the DABC is expected to fill the space with other products, offsetting any potential revenue losses. Not all the open shelf space will go to beer, though, even those stronger brews that retailers still won’t be able to sell. “Alcoholic seltzers, flavored malt beverages, premixed cocktails, canned wine and wine spritzers have been trending really well," says Rob Southworth, DABC purchasing specialist. "We regularly look at all categories and the data from customer purchases to decide where to focus purchasing on new items.”