New law could mean awkward transition period

By Tim Nelson
September 12, 2019
Zoonar RF/Getty Images

When it comes to alcohol regulations, Utah has always been a little bit weird. Thanks largely to the influence of the state’s outsized Mormon population, it wasn’t so long ago that restaurants had to prepare drinks out of sight from customers behind a partition nicknamed a “zion curtain” so that clean-living patrons wouldn’t be tempted to sin by the mere sight of alcohol.

Now, the Beehive State is finally updating its alcohol laws to allow the sale of 4.0 percent alcohol by weight in grocery stores (up from 3.2 percent). But in the short term, it sounds like the transition from Utah-centric 3.2 beer to the more readily-available 4.0 varieties could cause some headaches for the state’s drinkers.

Retailers, beer distributors, and consumers all seem excited about the prospect of “strong” beer being readily available come November 1st. But with that changeover date approaching, Salt Lake’s Fox affiliate suggests drinkers are preparing for the possibility of an October marked by low supplies on store shelves.

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That’s because distributors— especially for less popular brands— may have a hard time gauging exactly how much of the old 3.2 beer to produce and sell over the next few weeks. As an article from the Salt Lake Tribune from around the time of the bill’s passing suggests, it’s also possible that brewers in the state might not be able to adjust their formulas and get labels approved in time for 11/1, given that the process “usually takes months.”

That could lead to logistical complications and inconveniences. "You may see some of your bars, restaurants, grocery and [convenience] stores not have your favorite. Maybe you’ll switch to a second favorite for a short time. It’s a growing pain the drinking population just has to endure for a couple of weeks," Kate Bradshaw, director of the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition said in a recent podcast appearance.

However, those with a stake in how the transition unfolds have made a point to downplay fears of any significant beer panic. “There will be temporary out-of-stocks. It’s kind of inevitable,” Andy Zweber, president of General Distributing said. We’ll do our best to keep our retailers in stock as much as possible.”

To that end, Utah legislators simplified the changeover by granting a one-week grace period that will allow retailers to store (but not display or sell) the stronger brews for a quicker in-store changeover. Hopefully, that should help prevent mild-mannered Utahns from rioting (i.e. politely expressing mild frustration) that their favorite brew isn’t in stock.

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