'It’s a commerce bill’ — Measure to allow stronger beer in Utah grocery stores hops early hurdle

(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 bill that would let Utah grocery stores stock higher-alcohol beer surmounted an initial hurdle Thursday by clearing a Senate committee.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson wants to raise the threshold from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent alcohol by weight to address the problem of dwindling brand selection on store shelves across the state.

While bills to relax alcohol laws can be a tough sell in the Legislature, the Senate Business and Labor Committee gave unanimous support to the measure Thursday.

“This is not an alcohol bill, and it won’t change the amount of product sold. It’s definitely, in my mind, it’s a commerce bill, and we’re going to put some businesses at risk, particularly in rural areas, by not doing this,” Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, said.

That’s because, as other states allow stronger beer to be sold in stores, large brewers say it no longer makes financial sense to produce the lighter beer for a shrinking market. The result is diminishing selection in Utah’s grocery and convenience stores, with businesses in rural areas suffering the most, Stevenson said.

“It’s possible for enough of these brands to disappear that these businesses would disappear,” the Layton Republican told the committee.

A Maverik Inc. representative confirmed that the shifting beer landscape is making it difficult for the company’s convenience stores to stock the flavors and pack sizes that customers desire.

“Instead of having four-packs and six- and 12-, you have 30-packs,” David Hancock, Maverik’s general counsel, said.

Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday said he hadn’t yet studied the proposed alcohol content increase but suggested that he was open to the change.

“It’s an issue that is kind of new to me," he said. “But it’s certainly something that’s maybe reflective of changes in the marketplace.”

Raising the alcohol limit from 3.2 percent to 4.8 percent by weight — or from 4 percent to 6 percent alcohol by volume — could deprive the state of about $4.3 million in yearly revenues, as people find more of their favorite brands outside state-run liquor stores. While Stevenson said the fiscal analysis of his bill is a concern, he predicted that these losses would be offset by continued sales growth within the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

The committee heard mixed testimony on the bill from brewers, some saying it would broaden opportunities and others arguing it would give larger companies a leg up.

The Utah Brewers Guild said the proposed alcohol content increase doesn’t go far enough to benefit its members.

“At this low level, it’s really like a David and Goliath situation," the guild’s Peter Erickson said. “Where we’re moving the ABV is exactly where the big brewers will excel, and ... it doesn’t add any of our products.”

But Tim Dwyer of Salt Lake City-based Fisher Brewing Co. spoke in support of Stevenson’s legislation.

“This widens what we can make as craft brewers. It increases what is available to consumers,” Dwyer said. “It’ll also help dispel some of the stigma that we have as a local craft brewer ... that what we make is not ‘real beer,’ or it’s ‘near beer.’”

Speakers representing Family Policy Resource and the Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment voiced concern that the bill would lead to more alcohol abuse, especially by underage drinkers.

The bill now moves to the full Senate.

Reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this report.