Unless Utah lawmakers allow stronger beer in grocery stores, beer drinkers might soon have fewer options, Anheuser-Busch says

Massive brewer says it is studying whether it makes sense to cut back on the weaker, 3.2 beer sold in Utah grocery stores. Beer wholesalers expect MillerCoors to do the same.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Anheuser Busch says it may cut the amount of 3.2 percent-alcohol-by-weight beer it sells in Utah, giving imbibers fewer choices.

Utah beer drinkers might soon have fewer options when looking for their favoritebrews in grocery stores next year, one of the world’s biggest brewing companies told the state’s beer wholesalers in a recent letter.

As three states phase in laws that allow grocery stores to sell beer stronger than 3.2 percent, Utah will become one of two that limit the strength of beer wholesalers and retailers can sell.

While those 3.2 percent beers account for the vast majority of all beer sold in the state, it may no longer be feasible for some large brewers to create a weak beer for Utahns. Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser, said it was evaluating whether it would cut products next year.

While the company wrote that it was still studying its options, as expected, it included specific estimates for possible cutbacks.

The company wrote in the Dec. 1 letter to Utah’s beer wholesalers it was “considering package reductions of up to 40% of those currently offered to Utah’s consumers.”

“This would mean a decline from 113 packages to less than 70,” wrote Anson Frericks, vice president of sales for the company’s northwest region, “and going from a range of 20 brands to 12.”

Frericks attempted to put the cuts into perspective by comparing the state’s beer options to Maine’s.

“In Maine, which has almost the exact same beer volume as Utah, Anheuser Busch currently offers more than 800 packages,” the company wrote. “That means Utah – while equal to Maine in volume – could have less than 10% of its portfolio offerings.”

Utah and Minnesota will remain the only two states that allow only beer with 3.2 percent alcohol-by-weight — roughly half of the content in bottled craft beers — to be sold in grocery stores and convenience stores.

Unlike Utah, however, the vast majority of beer sold in Minnesota is high-alcohol or “production line” beer sold in private liquor stores. By contrast, over 90 percent of beer sales in Utah are weak beers. Just 0.5 percent of total beer sales in the U.S. are 3.2 percent beers, Anheuser-Busch wrote.

The announcement was expected after three states — Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas — made changes to their alcohol laws to permit grocery stores to sell stronger beer in coming years.

Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association, said if the company begins offering fewer options, he expects it will start phasing out products before October 2018, when Oklahoma’s law takes effect.

“They don’t want to be stuck with a lot of 3.2 product in the stores once the change happens,” Olsen said.

Olsen also said he was told to expect a similar letter coming from MillerCoors, another large brewing company, that would be similar to the Anheuser-Busch letter, which was first reported by Fox 13.

The state’s liquor agency, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, has already said it wouldn’t be able to meet demand if big brewers cut options, noting grocery and convenience stores sell five times more 3.2 beer than liquor, wine and heavy beer sold at state-run liquor stores.

“The DABC cannot realistically replace that market if there is a complete reduction of 3.2 beer,” DABC Executive Director Sal Petilos said in June.

Olsen said he’s alerted lawmakers — specifically Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville — to the possible cutbacks.

Stevenson said he’s aware of the threats, and he’s spoken with legislative leaders about the issue. But he said the state isn’t clamoring for a fix just yet.

“I don’t know that this is the right year to even consider this,” Stevenson said, referring to the upcoming legislative session. “We had a major alcohol [legislation] year last year.”

Lawmakers last year voted to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent. They also changed the so-called Zion Curtain law that had required restaurants to put up barriers to keep people from seeing drinks being mixed.

“There could be a market reaction if they take a lot of stuff off the market. But the thing is we don’t know that,” Stevenson said. “We’re a long way from panic mode.”