SALT LAKE CITY — Hard seltzers, with their light and fruity taste as well as low-carb and calorie promises, are taking over store shelves.
But the popular alcoholic beverages are finding themselves under legislative scrutiny in Utah as they fall into a gray area in this state's often unique liquor laws.
"Utah is always a little bit different and quirky when it comes to alcohol laws, and we haven’t adopted definitions that sometimes match federal definitions and definitions in other states," said Kate Bradshaw, the president of the Utah Beer Wholesalers Association, an industry group that represents major beer distributors.
Utah does have a legal definition for beer, just like it legally defines wine and spirits. Beer is allowed to be sold in grocery and convenience stores, but at no more than 5% alcohol-by-volume now. Anything heavier in alcohol content is sold in state-run liquor stores, alongside wine and spirits.
But Utah laws don't specifically categorize the "hard seltzers" like White Claw, Vizzy and Bon Viv. Part of the issue is how they're brewed, what is used to flavor them and whether that boosts alcohol content.
"The law says beer. So what is it? Technically, it’s how it’s brewed, whether it’s beer or not and whether it falls under a certain alcohol content. There’s a real question about that definition because it’s been vague in the past and we’ve had some things that have come in that aren’t clearly defined as beer," said Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, who is tasked with running liquor legislation for the Republican majority in the Utah House of Representatives.
Under federal definitions of beer and in 49 other states, hard seltzers clearly fit, Bradshaw said. But can Utah's legal definition of a beer can be expanded to include hard seltzers?
"We have some things on shelves now that don’t meet the technical definition for beer," Rep. Hawkes told FOX 13 in a recent interview.
In 2008, the legislature banned "flavored malt beverages" from grocery and convenience store shelves after then-Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff crusaded against "alcopops," arguing they were too much of a temptation for children. As a result, beverages like Mike's Hard Lemonade and Lime-A-Ritas were only sold in DABC stores.
In 2016, Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control allowed them to go back to grocery and convenience store shelves after being satisfied that the formulas to make the drinks were changed enough to be called a "beer." Exactly what changed, the DABC could not say, because it was a proprietary formula by the manufacturers.
Discussions are under way on Utah's Capitol Hill about whether the definition of beer ought to be expanded to accommodate hard seltzers.
"I think we’ll be looking to revise the definition of beer in a sensible way," Rep. Hawkes said.
Asked by FOX 13 if it was possible some hard seltzer brands could be pulled from shelves, he replied: "That could happen."
Bradshaw said hard seltzers are very popular and consumers love them, and she believed they can reach consensus on the definition of beer.
"We’re having great discussions with the legislature, with our regulating authority the DABC, and we’re looking at what products exist and how they’re made, and how they fit Utah’s definition and if Utah’s definition should be expanded," she said. "At this point we’re early in those discussions."
Every year, the legislature makes tweaks to liquor laws. Rep. Hawkes said he expects any definition changes would come in the 2022 session.
Until then, hard seltzers are staying on store shelves.
"Things that meet the definition of beer? We want to keep that in stores," Rep. Hawkes told FOX 13. "Consumers expect that to be in stores. But we want to be clear about what that is."