When it comes to Utah’s liquor laws, it’s always one step forward and two steps back for local craft breweries. In 2021, the Utah State Legislature raised the alcohol by volume percentage allowed for beers sold in grocery stores to 5% from 4% ABV. This year, the legislature passed a bill that removes half of the available hard seltzers from the grocery store. The legislature also debated raising the excise tax on the manufacture of beer by tying it to inflation.
When Utah craft brewers need to defend their interests from the state legislature, that’s where the Utah Brewers Guild comes in. “The guild is meant to bring the brewers together with one collective voice when we need to lobby legislators,” says Mark Medura, the current board chair of the Utah Brewers Guild and founder of Level Crossing Brewing Company. Medura says brewers reached an understanding with legislators to put the excise tax debate on the backburner for now. “We already have one of the highest excise taxes. We just wanted to make sure they understood where we were coming from, from an economic standpoint, and find common ground, if there is any. We think we were successful in educating the legislature.”
Even before the legislative session began, this year has already seen great shake-ups for Utah’s craft brewers. The largest Utah-based breweries, Uinta Brewing and CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective (which includes Squatters Craft Beers and Wasatch Brewery) were acquired by two national companies. Monster Beverage Corporation gobbled up Squatters and Wasatch in a $300-million-dollar deal (more on that here), and US Beverage acquired Uinta, Utah’s largest independent craft brewer. Uinta Brewery’s leadership, operations and staff will remain in place. “There will be no visible change to the public,” says Jeremy Ragonese, President of Uinta Brewing. “We’ll continue to invest in our brewers and people and develop the brand here in Utah.”
The acquisitions, says Ragonese, demonstrate how difficult it can be for Utah craft brewers to grow their business. “The challenges of growth are inherent everywhere,” he says. “We’re always concerned with the restrictions put in place in terms of how we produce our products.” The debate over selling hard seltzers in the grocery store, for instance, comes down to a technicality in the manufacturing process. While they’re all still 5% ABV, in some hard seltzers alcohol is added with flavoring rather than achieved through fermentation. “The legal definition of beer, which seltzers fall under, needs to be updated,” says Ragonese, who says Uinta is planning to release new flavors of its own Westwater Hard Seltzer.
Existing restrictions on selling their products directly to consumers are also of particular concern. “We would just like to be able to sell any beer that we produce,” says Medura. For instance, heavy beers (anything over 5% ABV) have to be sold at the DABC store. “In order for us to serve that to consume at our taproom we need a bar license. So, we are vying for those same competitive licenses as bars.” Medura says for a single license available in February 2022, there were as many as 15 establishments lining up. That’s why they’re looking into a workaround. “We’re exploring with legislators, over the next couple of sessions, the possibility of breweries getting their own set of licenses,” says Medura.
“WE WOULD JUST LIKE TO BE ABLE TO SELL ANY BEER THAT WE PRODUCE.”
-MARK MEDURA, BOARD CHAIR, UTAH BREWERS GUILD; FOUNDER/CEO, LEVEL CROSSING BREWING COMPANY
Even with the challenges, Medura says the craft brewing industry in Utah is growing, and the success of Utah craft brewers on the national stage could be due to the constraints. “Utah brewers have to get creative to have great tasting, full-flavored, full-bodied beer at a low-point ABV. Alcohol content doesn’t bring everything to the beer, and Utah brewers are innovative with raw materials to produce delicious beers. Even before the increase to 5%, Utah brewers were still winning national awards.”
Rangonese also lauds the scrappiness of Utah’s craft brewers. “Despite the headwinds, it’s a great place to do business with a lot of really inspiring people making great beers. Utah is represented by some of the most award-winning breweries across the country. Utahns should take great pride.” Both breweries have made their share of award-winning brews and plan to make more. Level Crossing’s head brewer Chris Detrich won nine national awards in 2021. Medura is particularly proud of the Cryptoporticus, which won a gold medal at the US Beer Tasting Championships. It is a sour double IPA that taps into a brewing trend that has him excited—using an innovative yeast strain called “Philly Sour.”
Uinta’s lagers and other traditional styles have been particularly well-received, including their 801, Wasangeles and Lime Pilsner. “We continue to explore other types of beers,” says Ragonese, including “cold” beers, which refers to the type of fermentation process, and growing their variety of flavors with their Pro-Line. “What’s happening right now is an explosion in style variations and processes that may appear scary on the outside, but it’s just expanding the range of available products, making them more flavorful,” says Ragonese. “I hope we can continue to educate the decision-makers on the process and innovation.”
Regardless, Utah’s craft brewers are not going anywhere (despite the best efforts of some in the state legislature), and brewers are helping each other to make sure as many breweries succeed as possible. “We’re happy and proud to be a part of this very tight-knit community. We help each other out, call each other if we need ingredients, that kind of thing. We’re all passionate about producing great beer. There have been many breweries to come before us, and we pay homage to them and the thousands of beers that came before,” says Medura. “We just want to have fun. Beer should be fun.”
Level Crossing Brewing Taproom hours: Sunday–Thursday 11 a.m. –10 p.m. Friday & Saturday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. 2496 S. West Temple, South Salt Lake levelcrossingbrewing.com
Uinta Brewery Brewhouse Pub & General Store hours: Monday–Thursday 11 a.m.–7 p.m. Friday 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Saturday 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Closed Sunday 1722 S. Fremont Dr., SLC uintabrewing.com
Read more about Utah breweries in our Bar Fly section.