We’re coming up on a big moment in Utah history, especially if you’re a lover of lagers or enjoy nursing your favorite ale while watching the Jazz play. A statute that has been etched in stone since Prohibition has been rewritten and, on Nov. 1, the new version will take effect: ABV (alcohol by volume) in Utah beer is rising from 4% to 5%. Or, in terms of ABW (alcohol by weight), 3.2% to 4%.
So yes, both of your friends were correct when one told you the percent of alcohol allowable in Utah beer will finally be increasing above the longstanding limit of 4% while the other friend posted on social media about the increase to … 4%. Most areas of the country exclusively use ABV, but here in Utah, both measurements are common. With 4% in the equation no matter which metrics you use, it’s understandable why some people are scratching their heads over the numbers.
Another area that could use some clarity: The law only applies to beer sold at grocery and convenience stores and on-tap at restaurants and bars. Just as before, canned and bottled beer containing alcohol content above the new limit of 5% ABV — referred to as “high-point” — can still be purchased at your favorite local breweries, state-run liquor stores, restaurants and bars.
So what does the change mean for Utah consumers and the state’s 32 homegrown breweries? For starters, it means more variety, which is exciting for everyone. Craft brewers, who are all about creativity and experimentation, will be able to offer innovative, new brews. At the same time, national and regional beer brands never before available in our market will be hitting the shelves for the first time, offering more choices for beer lovers.
This means new competition is headed our way for shelf space, tap handles and the hearts and minds of Utah consumers. Is change scary? Of course. Is the ballgame going to be different than before? Yes. But Utah breweries, serving local fans and thirsty tourists in every corner of the Beehive State, will continue to thrive thanks to your support and because, well, their product is really good. It’s mouth-wateringly fresh, inventive, complex, and downright crushable.
Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a Jellyfish Hazy IPA, Guava Goddess or Nitro Coffee Stout. Or maybe your favorite is the Plum Berliner Weisse, Blood Orange Gose, Maltese Cross Red Ale, or Rimando Pale Ale named in honor of Real Salt Lake legend Nick Rimando. Each of these beers is made right here in our state by intrepid entrepreneurs and artisans.
Over the decades, local brewers have built Utah’s craft beer industry from the ground up, busting through barriers and fussy alcohol policy to create jobs and grow our economy. Today, the local craft brewing industry has an economic impact of $453 million a year and employs about 3,000 people who earn an average wage of $44,000. Combined, Utah breweries make more than 200,000 barrels a year. People outside the state are noticing too as distribution of Utah beer continues to expand. And, in early October, five of our breweries won medals at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival.
While it’s a time to be optimistic, the new law is bringing growing pains, too. For many local brewers, the short window between the law’s signing and taking effect created complications. Packaging inventory became obsolete and required reprinting; recipes needed changing; logistics with wholesalers had to be figured out; and 4%-ABV beer had to be quickly liquidated.
In addition, a new, higher excise tax, applied to each beer barrel (31 gallons), takes effect Nov. 1, when the rate rises from $12.80 to $13.10 per barrel. It’s a significant increase for local brewers at a time when many states and the federal government are reducing the rates. As the hike looms, Utah brewers are already working together to reduce this tax in the future.
For local breweries, the new ABV law (let’s just forget ABW is a thing, OK?) brings challenges to solve but plenty of opportunity. Brewers are already dreaming up and producing recipes they hope will quench, delight and inspire you.
With that in mind, bring on November.
Nicole Dicou is the executive director of the Utah Brewers Guild.