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Hard seltzers may stay, but no new bar licenses in latest liquor bill

Posted at 5:05 PM, Nov 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-30 19:45:04-05

SALT LAKE CITY — As they do every year, Utah lawmakers will take up alcohol policy changes in the next legislative session.

An omnibus bill being crafted on Capitol Hill will make some tweaks to liquor laws. It's coming out of an alcohol policy working group involving Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, restaurant and hospitality representatives, alcohol manufacturers, lawmakers and community groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"We have been working collaboratively with stakeholders, the legislative leads," said DABC Executive Director Tiffany Clason.

On Tuesday, the working group met again ahead of the 2022 legislative session. In an interview with FOX 13, Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, outlined some of the proposed changes that might wind up in the omnibus bill:

'Click & Collect'

Lawmakers are warming to the idea of "Click & Collect." It would allow consumers to order product online, but they would still have to go to a state-run liquor store to pick up and pay for it (after showing ID, of course). Curbside pickup may be abandoned to ensure minors do not purchase alcohol.

Rep. Hawkes, who is one of the lawmakers handling liquor policy for the Republican majority, said it is something they are likely to advance.

"'Click & Collect,' I think you can do that under existing authority," he said, meaning the DABC can implement it without a statutory change, though lawmakers may have to tweak other laws and add funding for it.

Speaking of technological changes, Clason said the DABC is looking at adding Apple Pay and touchless pay options with an upgrade to liquor store credit card machines.

Hard Seltzer deal?

FOX 13 first reported earlier this year on the potential for very popular hard seltzers to be yanked from grocery and convenience store shelves. It's because they don't meet Utah's unique legal definition of "beer." Beers can be sold in Utah grocery and convenience stores if they are no more than 5% alcohol by volume. Any more than that, they must be sold in state-controlled liquor stores.

The low calorie, lightly flavored seltzers, which are exploding in the marketplace, are brewed differently and there's also questions about whether their flavorings boost the alcohol content. But Rep. Hawkes and Kate Bradshaw, the head of the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association, indicated they are close to an agreement.

"We still will have some Utah-specific definitions that exist in code," Bradshaw told FOX 13 on Tuesday. "We’re Utah, and so one should expect that to a certain extent."

Rep. Hawkes told FOX 13: "I think seltzers will stay, but there will be some clarification to what can and cannot be sold" adding that any products that need to be yanked from store shelves will have plenty of notice.

Bar licenses

The powerful DABC commission has become increasingly vocal about the lack of bar licenses available in the state. The legislature sets the quota at one license per 10,200 people (a completely arbitrary number). Every month, businesses line up for the change to try to win a "golden ticket," as it were, with a coveted bar license.

"I know that every one of the commissioners is frustrated when they see business people who are ready to go and operate a business and enthusiastic about operating a business and we can’t do anything to help them at all," said DABC Commission Chair Thomas Jacobson.

This month, the DABC commission had no new licenses to give out and one is expected to become available in December based on the population quota. In order to get another one, someone either has to go out of business and forfeit their license, or they can sell it to the highest bidder.

DABC commissioners were also not thrilled to see those licenses being sold at prices sometimes over $100,000 with a retiring bar owner pocketing the money and other businesses still waiting in line for one. Rep. Hawkes told FOX 13 that they may pull back the ability for a bar to sell their license.

But Rep. Hawkes said they are not planning to increase the number of bar licenses and disturb the quota system. (His Senate counterpart told FOX 13 earlier this year he was not opposed to expanding the number of licenses.)

"We have to balance that availability on the one hand, with managing social costs on the other," Rep. Hawkes said, referring to DUIs and over-consumption. "That balance is what we’re trying to strike."

Governor Spencer Cox has publicly supported increasing the number of bar licenses in Utah.

For months now, DABC commissioners have told people that if they want to see changes to the licensing system, they need to directly call their lawmakers. Chair Jacobson didn't back down from that stance on Tuesday.

"If you have a vested interest in this, you should talk to the legislature and tell them your story as to why you think we should have more bar licenses," he said.