Stronger beer and stricter DUI threshold make 2019 Utah’s ‘Year for Beer’

When future historians look back at Utah’s peculiar liquor legacy, 2019 may go down as the “Year for Beer.”

Allowing stronger brews in grocery and convenience stores marked a momentous end to a law that had endured since the demise of Prohibition 86 years ago. It also put the Beehive State’s beer selection on par with other states and could, in time, douse Utah’s weak-brew reputation.

“Yes, it’s been quite a year,” said Jeremy Ragonese, president of Uinta Brewing. “We’re ready to write 2019 into the record books.”

There were other noteworthy alcohol changes, too. Utah had its first full year under a new drunken driving law — the toughest in the nation — and a statewide rare-liquor drawing was launched, the closest thing to a lottery the Beehive State may ever have.

So, grab a favorite beverage — beer seems appropriate — and read how posterity will remember the booze news of 2019.

Beer’s run

Utah drinkers can thank Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas for higher-alcohol beer in grocery stores. In recent years, those three states changed their laws to allow full-strength beer to be sold in retail outlets.

That left Utah — and, in a way, Minnesota — as the only places to have the 4% alcohol by volume beer requirement. (Most beer in the North Star State is sold in private liquor stores, not grocery stores.)

Large companies, such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, had warned that it was not worth brewing lighter beer for such a small market. By January 2019, Utah consumers already had started to see the effects, with some beer packaging — namely six-packs — becoming unavailable.

Plenty of drama surrounded the change, which raised the allowable alcohol cap on retail beer from 4% ABV (3.2% by weight) to 5% ABV.

Initially, the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition lobbied to raise the cap to 6% ABV. That idea got a frosty reception from lawmakers — the overwhelming majority of whom are members of the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and are taught to abstain from alcohol as part of their religion’s Word of Wisdom health code.

The coalition settled for the lower 5% ABV, which still gives Utah the lowest alcohol lid in the nation, explained Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers, but “it took us off the cliff.”

In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 1 effective date, the beer aisles in Utah stores were bare — like the stripped shelves that ensue just before a hurricane hits.

“Grocery stores decided to live with empty shelves,” Olsen said, "rather than get stuck with products that consumers didn’t want to buy.”

That frustrated shoppers and dented the bottom line for some brewers.

“We lost a month’s worth of sales," said Uinta’s Ragonese, who noted that the shelves were at their leanest over Halloween, one of the largest beer sales days in Utah. “That takes a big chunk of money and hurts small business like ours.”

When the big switch-over day came, though, all was forgotten. Elation and cheers rang out. “Hallelujah," a Bountiful resident rejoiced. “It’s been a long wait."

Indeed, there are now dozens of regional and national brews available for the first time in Utah. Retail stores also picked up more than 100 ales and lagers — between 4% and 5% ABV — that had been sold exclusively in Utah’s state-owned liquor stores. Those brews are now cheaper in grocery stores, because they no longer are subject to the state’s 66.5% markup on beer.

Utah liquor stores continue to sell higher-alcohol beer (above 5%) and because the new law pertains only to beer, consumers still can find items — such as flavored malt beverages and wine spritzers — that are under 5% ABV in liquor stores.

The new law also boosted 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 in those establishments.

What’s a celebration without a hangover, though? That came in mid-December when the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control dumped 275 cases of beer worth about $18,000 into a food digester in North Salt Lake, where they eventually will be turned into natural gas and fertilizers.

The DABC no longer could sell the products under the new law, because that would put them in competition with private industry. The agency also could not return the beer for credit; distributors legally cannot take back products.

While it’s still too early to know the full impact of the beer change on liquor sales, said DABC Executive Director Sal Petilos, "at least initially we seemed to have avoided the worst-case scenario.”

He said other trending products — alcoholic seltzers, flavored malt beverages, premixed cocktails, canned wine and wine spritzers — have filled the gap.

Even without the 5% beer, alcohol will continue to be big business in Utah, partly because the state’s strong economy is luring more newcomers and its recreation riches are attracting more tourists — most of whom are less likely to belong to Utah’s largest teetotaling faith.

Liquor sales topped $479 million, during fiscal 2018-2019, a 5.65% spike from the previous year. That growth has continued during the first five months of the current fiscal year. Between July and November, sales exceeded $204 million, an increase of $12.7 million from the previous year, or 6.66%.

Beer has been the focus of late, but wine and spirits are what most people buy at state-run liquor stores. Barton Vodka, Patrón Silver Tequila and Jack Daniel’s Black Label — as well as sparkling and boxed wines — are among the most popular items sold in Utah.

The expanding number of brewers and distillers in the state also bolster sales numbers. In 2019, for example, five new breweries opened in Utah, the most recent, Bewilder Brewing, debuted this month in Salt Lake City.

DUI crackdown

Utah has now operated almost a whole year with the nation’s toughest drunken driving law.

On Dec. 30, 2018, the state’s blood alcohol content standard — used to determine when drivers are considered legally impaired — dropped from 0.08% to 0.05%.

Shortly after the measure passed in 2017, the American Beverage Institute waged an advertising war against the state, placing full-page ads in newspapers under the headline: “Utah: Come for Vacation, Leave on Probation.”

The law had plenty of critics — from the hospitality industry, which said it would hurt restaurants and bars, to tourism promoters, who warned it would scare away visitors.

Others complained that it limits individual liberties, although a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health called it “ethically justified."

Safety advocates didn’t back down, arguing the change would save lives in Utah — which already ranked among states with the fewest DUI fatalities in the nation.

They may be correct. During the first three months of 2019 — with the new law in place — 135 motorists were arrested for drunken driving with a blood alcohol level between a 0.05 and 0.079, according to quarterly data released by the Utah Highway Patrol.

The Utah Department of Public Safety has been collecting numbers for alcohol-related injuries and deaths and is expected to release them in the new year.

The National Transportation Safety Board supports a 0.05 limit — and urges other states to follow Utah’s lead — citing numerous studies that show impairment starts after one alcoholic drink and that motorists are noticeably affected at 0.04, the limit for commercial truck drivers.

And the winners are ...

Utah unveiled a new "rare liquor "drawing earlier this year as a way to give all consumers a fair shot at buying “unicorn” products that are released only once a year in limited quantities.

Nearly 11,000 people registered and entered the first drawing in August for a chance to buy one of the 108 bottles of Elmer T. Lee single barrel bourbon the state received. A 750 milliliter bottle is listed for as much as $300 online.

The award-winning whiskey was practically a steal in Utah at $37.99. It’s one instance when Utah’s legislatively mandated 88% liquor markup works in favor of consumers.

Earlier this month 16,000 peopled entered the drawing for rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbons. With such limited distribution — Utah received 183 bottles — the bourbons typically have a huge markup, sometimes selling for more than $2,000 a bottle in other states and online.

In the Beehive State, though, the price is less — much less. The 23-year and 20-year bourbons, for example, went for $299.99 and $199.99, respectively.

While Utah’s beer rules have changed, there are still plenty of “only in Utah” liquor laws on the books.

For example, the state allows only one bar license for every 10,500 people. Under that formula, the state has run out of bar licenses for the year and only three permits are expected to become available before July.

In addition, an ax-throwing business and a karaoke venue got beer licenses only after they added pool tables.