With 3.2 beer brands likely to disappear, lawmakers may have to act or face a ballot initiative

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah lawmakers may be forced to deal with disappearing beer brands and move heavier alcohol content brews into grocery and convenience store shelves.

If not, there's a possibility voters may do it for them.

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

By October, some of the nation's biggest brewers of 3.2% alcohol-by-weight content brews have indicated they may stop making some brands. That's because Oklahoma, the nation's largest consumer of 3.2 beer, will move to selling heavier brews. Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado have all started moving away, too.

"Once the changes take effect, Utah will be the largest consumer of 3.2% ABW beer, and 3.2% ABW beer will make up only 0.5% of the entire beer sales in the United States," said a letter sent by Anheuser-Busch to Utah beer wholesalers and first reported on by FOX 13 last year.

"Given this reality, we are beginning a process to evaluate our 3.2% ABW beer portfolio, including considering package reductions up to 40% of those currently offered to Utah consumers. This would mean a decline from 113 packages to less than 70, and going from a range of 20 brands to 12."

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who is tasked by the Republican majority with overseeing some of the liquor legislation, said he is exploring options.

"We’re kind of watching for a bit of an eruption from the public. Maybe this interview will cause that!" he joked in an interview with FOX 13 on Monday. "It’s possible we would take a hard look at it."

Sen. Stevenson predicted some brands will start to disappear from grocery and convenience store shelves. But it remained to be seen if major beer brands like Budweiser, Michelob, PBR or Shock Top, vanished entirely.

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

"We’ll see the real effect come October when the Oklahoma law comes into effect," said Sal Petilos, the executive director of Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Petilos said if 3.2 beer disappeared entirely from store shelves, state-run liquor stores could not handle the consumer volume that would hit them. But he said the situation is more nuanced.

"The question becomes how much do the national breweries go out of the market and how much do the local breweries and craft breweries take part of that market?" Petilos told FOX 13.

The legislature may be forced to change the legal definition of beer in Utah to move higher alcohol content beers to grocery and convenience store shelves. But Sen. Stevenson said there are concerns about DUIs and public health.

The senator said he's been taking meetings with retailers, distributors and other interested parties. Dave Davis, the head of the Utah Retail Merchants Association (which represents grocery and convenience stores) said Sen. Stevenson has been listening to their concerns. The trade group said it would prefer to see heavier beers moved onto store shelves.

Any legislation would not come until January 2019 -- after some 3.2 beer brands have started dropping off of store shelves. But Davis said if lawmakers did not address it next year, his group is contemplating a ballot initiative to let voters decide it in 2020.

"We think a legislative solution is the best and most appropriate way to deal with this," Davis told FOX 13. "But we’re also looking at whether or not we’re going to have to go to the ballot on this."