SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah is part of an ever-shrinking slice of the country that bans full-strength beer at grocery stores, and as another state abandons those limits some in the beer industry worry that Utah could be left in the cold as big breweries limit or even halt production of low-alcohol beers.
Making the lighter booze requires extra work for production facilities, and ultimately may not make financial sense for companies such as Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors after Oklahoma voted Tuesday to allow full-strength beer, said Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association.
His solution is for Utah to follow other states and raise or abandon the alcohol limits. Doing away with so-called Utah beer would be a big shift in the state known for quirky alcohol rules, but the state has made other changes designed to normalize liquor laws, like removing a requirement that made bars private clubs.
One big brewer, Anheuser-Busch, said in a statement after the Oklahoma vote that it plans to "continue to provide Utah beer drinkers with the products they demand."
Still, many beer companies say in industry conversations they're planning to weigh the costs and benefits as the changes go into effect, Olsen said. Colorado has also voted to remove grocery store limits, which will reduce the amount of low-alcohol beer sold nationally to less than 1 percent, he said.
If breweries scale back on low-alcohol beer, the biggest hit would likely be to niche products where volume is small to begin with, like apple ales or Belgian wheats. But while those styles lag classics like Budweiser or Miller in sales, they make up the variety that's increasingly in demand by consumers, Olsen said.
He also points out that regular low-alcohol beer contains about 3.4 percent alcohol by weight, not much more than Utah's 3.2 percent limit.
Removing grocery store alcohol limits might be a tough sell in a state where many lawmakers are teetotaling Mormons.
Though the discussion may not come up next year, Utah lawmakers will likely have to tackle the question as the changes in other states go into effect over the next few years, said Utah Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City.
If big beer makers pull back, there could be a silver lining for microbrewers in Utah's burgeoning craft beer scene who are used to alcohol limits and hoping to make inroads in the grocery store market.
"What would be really nice is if it opened up room and shelves for craft beer," said Matthew Allred, spokesman for Salt Lake City's Epic Brewing Co.
Bigger beer companies often offer stores incentives to stock prime grocery store space with their product, leaving smaller producers with less space in stores to catch customers' yes, he said
State liquor officials who oversee the state-owned stores where higher point beer is sold are monitoring national changes.
Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control spokesman Terry Wood said the department has been aware of the Oklahoma initiative for some time and are analyzing the impact of the vote.