Nicole Dicou: Time to rally around Utah’s breweries to keep them afloat

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bewilder Brewing, Salt Lake City's newest brewery and tavern, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019.

If you love cracking open a local lager that’s been brewed with an artisan’s touch, Utah is a pretty great place to live. Especially recently. Today our state is home to more than 30 craft breweries. Amazing, right? Now consider this: Two-thirds of them opened in the last five years alone. Even if you’re not a beer fan yourself — just a Utahn who wants to see our economy thrive — you can likely appreciate this surging industry.

Dreams, life savings, sweat — they’ve all been put on the line to grow businesses that create jobs, revive neighborhoods, give people a place to connect and elevate our state’s food and beverage culture. Utah’s intrepid, homegrown brewers are finding success in not just our large population centers where you might expect. They’re flourishing in smaller towns, suburbs and tourism areas — even as many navigate their companies through their early years.

That’s why it’s been so heartbreaking to hear their worried voices these past few weeks. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Utah’s brewers are struggling to maintain their hard-won momentum. For some, the focus is shifting to finding ways to stay afloat.

Last week, a new brewery, eager to launch, abruptly had to postpone its grand opening. Across the state, beer — a perishable food item best served fresh and cold — is waiting on pallets, unable to be sold because distribution channels to bars and restaurants have completely dried up. A number of breweries have had to lay off employees with plans to rehire them at a later date. Meanwhile, breweries with a restaurant side of their business are pivoting to food delivery and pickup options to boost sales now that dining areas are temporarily closed.

In the best of times, opening and running a brewery in a state known for its strict liquor laws isn’t easy. Now brewers are contending with an unprecedented public health crisis that could cripple their businesses for months. It’s time to rally around them.

Across the U.S., leaders are implementing outside-the-box thinking, even previously unheard-of strategies, to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. These include social distancing and “stay at home” orders, temporarily shuttering nonessential businesses and sending four-digit checks to about 90 percent of adults in our country. We need to get creative, too, if we’re going to help our brewers weather this storm.

California, for example, has provided emergency regulatory relief in its alcohol code to help breweries get their products to customers in this uncertain time. Utah breweries could benefit from a similar strategy. For example, we could temporarily allow curbside pickup for alcohol sales. Customers could pre-order online or by phone and then complete their transaction at the time of pickup only after their age and identity has been verified. This solution would immediately help breweries get their beer to their customers.

Another way to immediately help breweries is to extend the hours of state-run liquor stores. The Utah Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control recently limited hours in response to the pandemic, and this change is creating barriers for brewers who rely on liquor stores to sell their heavy beers (ABV over 5%). Increased hours would also mean more jobs and earnings for workers in our communities.

This week, the federal stimulus package has created new loans and grants for small businesses to help them survive this troubling, unforeseen situation. Likewise, now is the perfect time for Utah to reduce an excise tax that brewers are required to pay on each barrel they produce. Excise taxes are levied on specific goods like fuel, tobacco and alcohol. Last year, Utah’s beer excise tax per barrel went up 30 cents, a significant increase, especially for smaller brewers. Removing this increase would be a huge relief to brewers during this critical time.

It’s time to be open to change, approach things in new ways, and continue to support these businesses in whatever ways we can. Encourage policymakers to take action now. You can help by purchasing gift cards and merchandise, continuing to buy Utah beer at your favorite breweries, grocery stores and state-run liquor stores and picking up meals curbside or having them delivered.

Let’s act now to reduce the damage to our craft brewing industry, which, in many ways, is long-established, enduring and stable. In other ways, it is brimming with potential but fragile.

Nicole Dicou

Nicole Dicou is the executive director of the Utah Brewers Guild.