Utah braces for impact of Oklahoma’s 3.2 beer vote

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah's alcohol policy makers are watching a vote on beer in Oklahoma, and preparing for the potential impact it will have.

Question 792 on Oklahoma's ballot would allow grocery stores and convenience stores to sell high-percentage alcohol beer as well as wine. It could also be the death of 3.2 beer in Oklahoma and the rest of the nation.

"If something happens and brewers decide to move away from the market, we need to make sure we're able to deal with the fallout from it," Sal Petilos, the executive director of Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Currently under Utah liquor laws, 3.2 beer is allowed to be sold in grocery stores and convenience stores. Higher percentage malt beverages are sold in state-run liquor stores.

Beer on sale in a grocer store in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Beer on sale in a grocer store in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Oklahoma is the nation's largest consumer of 3.2 beer. The Utah Beer Wholesaler's Association cited figures it seeks that show Oklahomans consume 56 percent of the 3.2 beer produced and shipped. Utah comes in second at 29 percent, with Kansas, Colorado and Minnesota rounding it out. (Colorado is doing away with 3.2 beer in 2019.)

However, 3.2 beer only accounts for 1.8 percent of all beer produced nationwide, said Jim Olsen, the president of the Utah Beer Wholesaler's Association. If Oklahoma voters do away with it -- as polls suggest they will -- major brewers may not want to make a special batch just for Utah, which is not a heavy drinking state.

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"Why would they do it? I think they won't," said Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City. "If they do, it's their choice but if not, then legislatively and policy-wise, we've got to make some decisions. We've got to be grown up about our liquor industry."

Sen. Mayne has been approached about revising the definition of beer under Utah liquor laws in response to Oklahoma's beer vote. She said she believes some kind of a policy change is necessary, which could include moving high-point beers to grocery stores and convenience stores.

3.2 beer for sale in a Salt Lake City grocery store. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

3.2 beer for sale in a Salt Lake City grocery store. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Olsen said if brewers drop 3.2 beer and Utah doesn't revise its definition, consumers could see a dramatic decrease in beer selection in convenience stores and grocery stores. Alternatively, state-run liquor stores could be forced to absorb an extra consumer base they're not prepared for (heavy beer accounts for only 20 percent of sales, according to the DABC).

"Our position would be they need to look at the definition and address it, so consumers can obtain the products they are wanting and desiring and it's not a major disruption to the private sector and the state," he told FOX 13.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who has been tasked by the Republican majority with overseeing liquor laws, told FOX 13 the earliest the Utah State Legislature could look at it would be 2018 -- after observing the timeline of Oklahoma's beer vote, presuming it passes.