Deal struck in the Utah State Legislature to dump 3.2 beer for slightly heavier brews

SALT LAKE CITY -- A deal has been struck in the Utah State Legislature to dump 3.2 beer for heavier brews.

A substitute bill would raise the alcohol content from 3.2 to 4.0% alcohol-by-weight. It's less than the 4.8% ABW the Senate sponsor originally wanted, but it is believed to get through the House, which has opposed changes.

"It’s not everything we’d hoped for but it is the biggest change in alcohol laws in Utah since 1933," Kate Bradshaw of the beer-industry group Responsible Beer Choice Coalition said in an interview with FOX 13.

The new bill would also create a task force to study whether to go to higher alcohol content, but beer makers would abandon efforts for a potential ballot initiative in 2020

"It may not feel like it was everything we wanted, but it’s a significant move in a state where it’s very hard to run alcohol legislation. So at this point, we’ll probably be holding off and continue to work on this task force and show legislators that going all the way to 4.8 isn't as scary as they think it is," Bradshaw said.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said the compromise will keep about 88 percent of the labels on store shelves. As FOX 13 has reported, other states have abandoned 3.2 beer for heavier brews, leading to declining product on grocery and convenience store shelves.

"It isn’t certainly where we wanted to go to, but I think we can get there eventually. It might take years," he said.

Beer industry representatives said a lot of the "natural recipes" for most major brews have a 4% alcohol threshold, so it wouldn't be a huge shift. Utah would still be alone in the nation and continue to have "unique" liquor laws with 4.0 beer. Minnesota still sells 3.2, but has private liquor stores that sell heavier brews. Kansas is moving to 4.8 in April.

The beer bill faced opposition from social conservatives who worried about youth drinking and public safety, and some lawmakers who felt the crisis of disappearing product wasn't there. Local brewers also opposed it because they wanted increased shelf space and higher alcohol content.

The Utah Brewer's Guild declined to comment on the compromise bill. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a powerful influence on Capitol Hill, said in a statement to FOX 13 it was happy with the compromise.

"We thank the Utah legislature for considering the public health and safety aspects of this policy. We believe the proposed compromise represents a significant improvement over the original bill. We also believe the interim study group will allow for the legislature to better consider the public health and safety consequences of expanding access to beer with increased alcohol content levels," said Marty Stephens, the LDS Church's government relations director. "Although we still have concerns, we do not oppose the compromise bill as drafted and look forward to reviewing the results of the interim study group."

The ballot initiative, which threatened to move to full-strength beer -- and possibly wine -- in grocery and convenience stores, did worry some lawmakers, said Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, who sponsored the bill in the House.

"I think there was concern about ballot initiative. This does give us some leeway to keep moving the needle before a ballot initiative happens," he told FOX 13.

The House voted 61-14 in favor of the compromise bill on Wednesday night. The bill is expected to pass a procedural vote in the Senate.

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