The Politics of Beer | Drink | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Politics of Beer 

How Utahns gained a meaningless 1 percent jump in alcohol content.

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A lot has been going on behind the political scenes regarding beer in Utah. Since the end of Prohibition, Utahns have only known of 3.2 beer in their grocery stores. Later this November, that will change. How did we suddenly get to this rare point in our drinking history? It's just as convoluted and fucked up as you might imagine. Here's a brief synopsis of how we gained a 1-percent jump in alcohol by volume—the standard measure—from 4 to 5 percent.

Before the 2019 Legislature had even started, we learned that Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, was introducing a bill to change the definition of beer—upping the standard 3.2 percent alcohol-by-weight limit (4 percent ABV) slightly to 4.8 percent ABW (6 percent ABV). This proposed legislation blindsided local brewers, who were left out of the process; it was aimed at keeping grocery store shelves stocked with large national brands that are phasing out 3.2 brew across the nation.

The Utah Brewers Guild—which represents the interests of most local breweries across the state—scrambled to get ahead of these proposed changes and make sure their interests were heard. The UBG opposed the proposed increase because it would reduce their already-dwindling shelf space in favor of more prominent national brands. The UBG wanted a more level playing field that would have local and national brands compete at no weight or volume limit for grocery store beers.

While consumers supported this unlimited-alcohol idea, most suggested through social media forums and in the news that the UBG's proposal was basically a pipe dream, and that they should get in line with the proposed jump to 4.8, then take up their cause later. A small faction of the UBG that has no real presence in grocery stores favored the 4.8 jump, while the rest of the UBG stood firm on their all-or-nothing stance.

Senate Bill 132 sailed through the Labor and Means Committee favorably, with two positive votes in the Senate, until it was hijacked by the Health and Human Services Committee when it came time to hear it in the House. This committee rarely delves into matters of commerce; Stevenson had stated publicly that he knew the makeup of the Health and Human Services Committee and didn't believe it had a chance of passing there. He was correct. At the end of the meeting, Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, proposed creating a "beer task force" that would study the issue to see whether the lack of 3.2 beer was, in fact, a crisis for grocery store chains—and whether higher ABW limits would be a public safety issue. With no clear support in the House, the bill appeared to be dead.

Then chains like Walmart and Maverik, who supported SB132, warned that products would begin to disappear and instructed their lobbyists to threaten a ballot initiative in 2020 to get it done. Not wanting another Prop 2 situation on their hands, legislators struck a deal that would up the ABW of beer to 4 percent (5 percent ABV) instead of 4.8. This will allow big beer producers to maintain their presence in grocery and convenience stores, keeping about 88 percent of their products on the shelves. However, very little will change for local brewers fighting for shelf space. The amended SB132 passed and will likely be signed into law by the governor.

The Utah Brewers Guild has taken a lot of heat for standing their ground in support of their unique place in America's beer industry. We do things differently here in Utah, and for our exploding craft beer scene to continue to thrive, we must support those who are driving this economic engine beyond pushing the needle on some teetotaling legislators' alcohol meters 1 percent higher. As always, cheers!

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