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After 86 Years, Utah Has Raised its Beer ABV Restrictions ... Barely

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Here’s the good news, for Utah beer drinkers: After 86 years, the state’s “3.2” beer law finally came to an end Tuesday, as Gov. Gary Herbert signed SB132, raising the maximum ABW (alcohol by weight) allowed in Utah grocery and convenience stores.

Here’s the bad news: That number is only increasing from 3.2 percent ABW to 4 percent ABW. Which is to say, this increase is barely a perceptible increase at all, and is ultimately one that should benefit the likes of AB InBev and MillerCoors more than it will Utah craft breweries. For reference, and because pretty much the entire rest of the country uses ABV (alcohol by volume) instead of ABW, this is an increase from 4 percent ABV to 5 percent ABV beers that will be available in supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants. Higher ABV beers and liquor are only sold at liquor stores operated by the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The law takes effect on Nov. 1, 2019, joined by an increase in tax on each barrel of beer from $12.80 to $13.10, the additional 30 cents “to be used for enforcement.”

How did this happen? Well, as initially introduced, the bill was meant to raise the cap on ABW all the way to 4.8 percent (6 percent ABV), which would have at the very least allowed some of the craft beer world’s lighter IPAs to make an appearance. This legislation was opposed by the state’s local breweries, however, not because they didn’t want the ABW to increase, but because they naturally wanted it to increase even more. The average limit, in states that bother to institute a limit on beer sold in grocery and convenience stores, is 12.4 percent ABV. Understandably, Utah brewers likely wanted something similar for themselves. Nicole Dicou, the executive director of the Utah Brewer’s Guild, said it quite plainly: “Obviously, we are on the same side as consumers that want a higher ABW.”

And so, we ended up with the following “compromise” on the last day of the 2019 legislative session, wherein the state legislature does what it tends to do in every state—purposefully misinterpret the feedback of the state’s craft breweries and adopt legislation that primarily benefits AB InBev and MillerCoors. Most importantly, it will let AB InBev and MillerCoors finally do away with the “3.2” versions of beers such as Bud Light and Miller Lite, replacing them with the flagship 4.2 percent ABV versions that exist nationally. Craft brewers, meanwhile, are unlikely to see much benefit, aside from possibly being able to get new beers onto the store shelves that fall between 4 and 5 percent ABV.

Arguably the most damaging aspect of this entire story, though, is the fact that it will no doubt hold back any further discussion of Utah’s ABW laws for several years, which will only continue to hurt the state’s craft breweries. It’s not as if they’re going to be able to drum up support for MORE legislation to increase the ABW limit next year, when the response will surely be “But we just increased it last year.” Never mind the fact that it increased by .8 percent ABW.

Still, this at least marks the end of an era that dated back 86 years, all the way to the Cullen-Harrison Act of 1933. Signed nine months before Prohibition’s repeal, it allowed the production of 3.2 ABW beer, functioning as what was essentially a “soft repeal” before Prohibition’s final end. When the end of Prohibition finally came via the 21st Amendment, most states did away with Cullen-Harrison. In Utah, well … 86 years later is theoretically better than never.

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