Goodbye, 3.2, hello, 4.8? Utah lawmaker pushes bill to allow stores to sell stronger beer

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Signs in the beer aisle at a Smith's Food & Drug store encourage consumers to join the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition.

A century-old law that caps the alcohol content of beer sold in Utah grocery and convenience stores — and often makes the state the target of jokes — could topple in 2019, if Utah adopts a bill coming before the Legislature.

Sponsored by Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, the measure proposes raising the alcohol cap on grocery-store beer from its current 3.2 percent alcohol by weight to 4.8 percent. (Or from 4 percent alcohol by volume to 6 percent ABV, a more common industry measurement.)

Under current Utah law, only 3.2 percent beer can be sold in retail stores. Beer with higher-alcohol levels must be sold in state-run liquor stores.

Stevenson said his bill still would leave Utah near the bottom of states in terms of the permissible alcohol content in grocery store beer. But it also would be in line with the bulk of commercially produced brews.

“That’s more of the norm,” he said Friday. “It will fill, probably, 90 percent of the gap.”

He noted Utah has already seen some products disappear from shelves as companies discontinue their low-content varieties, but he was unsure how his bill would be received by colleagues in the House and Senate.

“I’ve lived all the way from being the hero to having my head handed to me,” Stevenson said. “This is probably one of either.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Jerry Stevenson talks at the Utah Capitol, Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

The Responsible Beer Choice Coalition — a political action committee formed several months ago by small-business owners, grocery stores, convenience stores, beer distributors and brewers — has been pushing the state to boost the alcohol cap.

New laws in other states are forcing the proposed change. In 2018, Oklahoma and Colorado allowed higher-alcohol beer to be sold in grocery stores. Kansas is not far behind; it will allow full-strength beer in stores beginning April 1.

When that happens, only Utah and Minnesota will require weaker beer in grocery stores; and officials estimate that low-alcohol beers will drop to just 0.06 percent of all the beer brewed in the United States. Large companies, such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, have said that it’s not worth it to brew lighter beer for such a small market.

The results are already being felt in Utah, says Kate Bradshaw, a lobbyist and director for the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition. More than a dozen major brands have pulled their six-pack configurations from the state. Consumers still can get 3.2 beer in larger 12- and 20-packs.

Utah voters are evenly split on this issue, according to a new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

Of the 604 registered Utah voters surveyed, 49 percent want the state to allow higher-alcohol beer in stores, 45 percent oppose such a move, and 6 percent are unsure. The overall statewide poll, conducted Jan. 15-24, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, making the results a statistical dead heat.

Convincing lawmakers — the overwhelming majority of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — to adjust the beer law may prove difficult. Latter-day Saints are taught to abstain from alcohol as part of their faith’s health code.

More than two-thirds (69 percent) of respondents who identified themselves as “very active” Latter-day Saints oppose changing the 3.2 standard. But nearly six in 10 (58 percent) of “somewhat active” members would support such a shift as would 74 percent of “not active” members.

Meanwhile, 62 percent of Republicans don’t want to change the law, which could pose a significant barrier on Utah’s GOP-dominated Capitol Hill. Most Democrats (79 percent) and unaffiliated voters (57 percent) favor higher-alcohol beer sales in retail outlets.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)