SALT LAKE CITY — As much as half of those wildly popular hard seltzer brands could disappear off of grocery and convenience store shelves in the latest alcohol policy bill unveiled on Utah's Capitol Hill.
Senate Bill 176 strikes a deal to a brewing problem: Utah has a "unique" legal definition of beer that seltzers presently don't meet. Under the proposed legislation, it all comes down to how they are brewed and what flavorings are in them.
"It’s going to be a little bit confusing to consumers why they might see a cherry or a lime flavored seltzer in a grocery or convenience store," said Kate Bradshaw, the president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents major beer manufacturers. "That same brand’s watermelon or blackberry flavor is going to be in the state liquor store."
Bradshaw described it as a "nuanced problem" that comes down to chemistry.
"If you’re looking at your particular favorite brand, they may have certain flavors that meet the glycol based flavoring standards and stay in a grocery or a convenience store and others that use an ethyl alcohol based flavoring component and that doesn’t meet Utah’s unique flavoring test and they will have to go to a DABC store," she told FOX 13 News.
Bradshaw said of the 106 hard seltzer products currently sold in Utah, just over half are fixed by the legal definition change for beer. But there's a number of others that will be prohibited from being sold in grocery and convenience stores, leaving their only option a state-run liquor store.
The 223-page omnibus liquor bill has been the subject of negotiations on Utah's Capitol Hill involving a working group of industry representatives, alcohol policy stakeholders and lawmakers. FOX 13 News is told that some groups who oppose any loosening of Utah liquor laws pushed back on a compromise on the flavored malt beverages — including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"The Church certainly lets us know their viewpoints on a myriad of alcohol issues. They have a belief that is totally anti-alcohol," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who runs the annual liquor bill for the Republican majority in the Senate. "But there are many other groups that I think lobbied much harder — I don’t think lobbied is the right word — but were much louder in that process."
The liquor bill will also not expand the number of bar licenses in Utah, a longstanding complaint from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Lawmakers will put a halt to a bar license owner being able to turn around and sell the license to the highest bidder, Sen. Stevenson said.
"We were causing a bidding war to take place over a license," he told FOX 13 News of the policy shift. "That was eliminated with this legislation."
The bill will also rebrand the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Services, a request of Governor Spencer Cox's administration. The legislature is expected to fund a system allowing people to order alcohol online, go to a DABC store and pick it up after showing ID and paying for it. Mini-bottles could also make a return to Utah liquor store shelves under a pilot project.
Sen. Stevenson acknowledged not everyone will be happy with the bill. He also said he expected lawmakers would revisit the seltzer issue and the lack of bar licenses next year.
"We have those who would like to see alcohol much more broadly spread across the state," Sen. Stevenson told FOX 13 News. "And then we have a few who would like to see us go back to Prohibition. And the right answer is in the middle. This bill is in the middle."