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Cover Story

The 3.2 Myth

Just because it's 3.2 beer doesn't mean it's lightweight

By Randy Harward
Posted // August 24,2011 -

Locals and tourists carp about Utah wuss beer all the time, but we don’t really know the score. Utah law measures alcohol content by weight (ABW), says Uinta Brewing production manager Kevin Ely, who explains that this “was the method of measuring percents of mixed dilutions, alcohol in particular, during the Prohibition Era. A lot has changed in chemistry methodology and food-science practices.”

Utah is renowned for its 3.2 percent ABW beer. But if Utah beers were measured in the same fashion as most other beers (by volume), it’s really 4.0 percent ABV beer. This percentage is just slightly less than the average alcohol content of most mainstream beers. Alcohol by weight (ABW) is 80 percent of the amount by volume (ABV).

When you measure by weight, Ely says, you’ll find 3.2 grams of alcohol in every 100 grams of beer. But since beer is a liquid, it makes more sense to measure it volumetrically (ABV). “So, in 100 milliliters of beer, there are 4 milliliters of alcohol. Internationally, that’s how alcohol is measured.”

So when putting Utah beer up against so-called “high-point beer” in other states (excepting Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, where grocery stores only sell 3.2 beer), the difference isn’t enough to cry about. Common, big-name brews like Budweiser and Coors are only .4-.5 percent stronger, and most light beers only have about .2 percent more kick than our supposedly daintier beers. And get this: “Around the world, [weaker] beers are what people drink day in and day out,” Ely says. “If you go into a Scottish pub, there are a lot of beers that are way below 4 percent alcohol.”

English ales are commonly around 3 to 3.5 percent ABW or 3.7 to 4.4 percent ABV. In fact, the milder the beer, the more refreshing and satisfying it can be. Guinness Original/Extra Stout is 4.2 or 4.3 percent ABV in Ireland, and is adjusted to 5 percent for Americans.

Guess what else? Utah’s 3.2 limitation only applies to beer sold in bars and grocery stores. Our state liquor stores stock beer and barley wines as high as 9 percent ABW (Chimay Grand Réserve). And among Utah microbreweries, Uinta’s Labyrinth Black Ale—part of its Crooked Line catalog—registers at 13.2 percent ABV, and Epic’s Brainless on Cherries clocks in at 10.7 percent ABV. “And in a couple of months,” says Epic brewmaster Kevin Crompton, “we’ll have something even stronger.” It’s exciting because, as Crompton notes, “a few years ago, we only had a handful of breweries brewing strong beers. Now, there is [Epic], Red Rock and Uinta doing it—and I know Shades of Pale plans some high-point beers.”

Ely says there’s something to be said for the weaker brews. “We have so many 4 percent beers that are so well-brewed and so tasty,” says Ely. “All the [local] breweries do a great job. I’m really an advocate of 4 percent beers because that’s the beer you can drink the most of and still be a functioning member of society.”

Maybe someday the saying will be, “Eat, drink and be merry—you’re in Utah.”







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Posted // August 25,2011 at 15:45 true enough but many beers are traditionally
above 4.0 ABV, I don't brew beer but I do think that most red ales and
IPA are more like 6-7% ABV So how does it change flavor, character when
you make beers with lower ABV than they traditionally are brewed?
Must the sugar levels be tweeked, or how much yeast is present? Just
glad to not live in Utah where it is so strictly controlled. Beer
should be brewed how it was meant to be, strong beers should be strong
and lighter beer should be lighter. duh Utah.


Posted // August 25,2011 at 16:08 - Brewing a beer meant to sit at, say, 5.5%abv, to 4%abv ensures the beer will taste weak and that the body will "feel" watery. You can add all the hops you want but to no avail, it won't change the fact that your beer is weak with a thin body.

To brew a weaker beer, you adjust the "sugars" by adjusting the grain bill. That is, you add fewer grains to the brew in the beginning. The grains are cooked, turned into mash, and at the appropriate temps, the starches are converted to malt (sugar). That means that there is less sugar for the yeast to feed upon, leading to a lower alcohol content. It wouldn't matter how much yeast you add (too little and your beer will take longer to ferment until the colony builds) during the fermentation process as yeast cells multiply like crazy and only stop once available food (sugar) is used entirely (leading to a dry beer) or the alcohol surpasses the level at which the given yeast can survive. All yeasts are different and several (Belgian, mostly) can thrive in an elevated alcohol environment where others would croak.


Posted // August 24,2011 at 14:43 Great article, I've been trying to get whiners to listen to this logic for years, but the alcohol must be distorting their hearing.


Posted // August 25,2011 at 12:56 - Hi Georgia,

I've made a few batches, that's for sure. I definitely agree that people that continue to complain about beer in Utah are either dumb or willfully ignorant. In one of the brewer's comments above, think it was Compton, he states that brewers like Uinta and Red Rock are now brewing full strength beer, and that's misleading. Uinta has been brewing their Barley Wine for years, something like 14 or 15, and Red Rock has been producing Reve, their Belgian Tripel, for several years now, as well. About your IPA comment: I awoke with a headache this morning due to indulging in too many Red Rock Elephino's last night - that's a good IPA, man.


Posted // August 25,2011 at 10:33 - I hear yah Mikee - And to Anonymous, I think you are giving the complainers too much credit. You seem to have the taste and knowledge enough that you could make that beer in your basement. For the most part it's some jackass sittin at the bar wanting a full strength Blue Mooon. I agree with what you're saying though and think if it's an IPA than it should be an IPA.


Posted // August 24,2011 at 15:39 - I could disagree with you and give you a decent argument but, unfortunately, I actually have work to do! Look, there are many beer styles that are intended to be brewed to a higher ABV, and for good reason. When you brew a beer that is intended to be 5.5%abv and come in at 4%abv, you're going to notice as the grain bill was short, therefore, the body (of the beer) will be thin and the flavor will be weakened, leading to a "watery" beer. Also, that percentage thing. It is not precise to say that it is exponential, but it is not incremental, either. 2 percentage point ABV make a HUGE difference in a beer and 1 is definitely noticeable. I've been listening to the argument presented above many times and can only say that it is only true some of the time. Otherwise, it is fallacy.