The country is full of strange laws about beer: where you can buy it, when, and how much you can enjoy at a time. Mostly, these seem like vestigial oddities that have stubbornly held on from earlier, less permissive days. It’s bigger news when a state passes a contemporary law that breweries oppose (as was in the case in Georgia).
A controversial Utah bill, HB 228, currently on its way to the governor’s office for signature, has drawn sharp criticism from that state’s breweries for some of its changes to distillery, winery and brewery tasting room procedures. It passed the Senate earlier this month to the surprise and frustration of many brewery owners.
One positive step: The bill allows for tasting of beer (and heavy beer, defined as beer above 4.0% ABV) up to 16 ounces total per person per calendar day. On the other hand, says Utah Brewers Guild president and Epic Brewing Co. operations supervisor Phil Handke, it puts in place some restrictive requirements.
First, breweries must offer “substantial” food in tasting rooms, a definition left up to the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC), which also raises questions about municipal zoning and health department food prep requirements. Those would have to be addressed by local authorities.
Secondly, alcohol tasting must be conducted “out of view of minors,” which could be a concern, according to Handke, for breweries whose physical spaces aren’t designed with such partitioning. The guild had hoped for an agreement that would allow a roped-off area for tastings, but that didn’t happen, according to Handke.
Third, the new law voids (as of Dec. 31, 2016) the Educational Permits that other alcohol manufacturers (such as distilleries) had applied for and been granted in the past, which require an educational component (tour, tasting explanation, etc.) to tasting room alcohol service. Handke says those permits were much more straightforward in their regulations and that brewers would prefer those permits to the regulations under HB 228. Several breweries had applied for those educational permits in the past, he says, though to his knowledge none had been granted them.
So, what’s the bill’s intention? According to Republican Rep. Gage Froerer, the bill’s chief sponsor, it started with distilleries who don’t currently have a way to offer tastings at their facilities. Breweries and wineries were then included to make the rules more consistent and uniform.
“I heard from one or two [breweries] previous to legislation and I thought we’d pretty much answered their questions,” Froerer says. “Nobody contacted me the week or two when this was taking its course.”
When asked whether the food regulations would make operations more difficult for breweries, Froerer said he didn’t think so: “I’ve got commitments from the DABC that they won’t overburden any of these industries with the food requirements. DABC will determine ‘substantial’ food, but I’ve talked to the enforcement officers and I’ve pretty much told them that they can’t go out of sight with that interpretation.”
Breweries are still concerned. “HB 228 will only have a minor impact on how we conduct our day-to-day business; however, we are opposed to HB 228 due to the undue added burden on some of our fellow Utah brewers,” Uinta Brewing CEO Steve Mills says in an email. “This change could put a few of them out of business.”
According to a statement sent by Jeff Van Horn, head brewer and owner of Moab Brewers, to his state representative, the bill “creates a requirement for food service at manufacturers’ beer tastings which effectively prohibits any brewery that is not also a restaurant from conducting regular tastings.” In summation, he wrote, “As a small business owner, I implore you not to support a bill that creates undue burdens on our already highly regulated business.”
Whether breweries’ opposition to HB 228 will have any impact on Gov. Gary Herbert’s decision remains to be seen. If you’re a Utah citizen, of course, you can make your opinion heard through your legislators.