Upheaval hits Utah’s craft brewing industry • Salt Lake Magazine
when it comes to Utah’s liquor laws, it’s still one step forward and two steps back for local craft brewers. In 2021, the Utah State Legislature increased the alcohol percentage by volume allowed for beers sold in grocery stores to 5% from 4% ABV. This year, the legislature passed a bill that cuts half of hard seltzer available from the grocery store. The legislator also debated raising the excise tax on beer manufacturing by linking it to inflation.
When Utah craft brewers need to advocate to the state legislature, that’s where the Utah Brewers Guild comes in. Current Chairman of the Board of Directors Utah Brewers Guild and founder of Crossing Brewery. Medura says the brewers have reached an agreement with lawmakers to put the excise tax debate on the back burner for now. “We already have one of the highest excise taxes. We just wanted to make sure they understood where we were coming from, economically, and find common ground, if there is any. We believe we have succeeded in educating the legislature.
Even before the start of the legislative session, this year has already seen big upheaval for Utah’s craft brewers. The largest breweries based in Utah, Uinta Brewery 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 deal (more on that here), and American drink acquired Uinta, Utah’s largest independent craft brewer. The management, operations and staff of Uinta Brewery will remain in place. “There will be no visible change to the public,” says Jeremy Ragonese, president of Uinta Brewing. “We will continue to invest in our brewers and employees and grow the brand here in Utah.”
The acquisitions, Ragonese says, demonstrate how difficult it can be for Utah craft brewers to grow their business. “Growth challenges are inherent everywhere,” he says. “We are still concerned about the restrictions put in place on how we manufacture our products.” The debate over selling hard seltzer at the grocery store, for example, boils down to a technicality of the manufacturing process. Although they are all still 5% ABV, in some hard seltzers the alcohol is added with flavoring rather than fermentation. “The legal definition of beer, which seltzers belong to, needs to be updated,” says Ragonese, who says Uinta plans to launch new flavors of its own Westwater Hard Seltzer.
Existing restrictions on the direct sale of their products to consumers are also of particular concern. “We just wish we could sell all the beers we produce,” says Medura. For example, heavy beers (anything above 5% ABV) must be sold at the DABC store. “In order for us to serve this to consume in our bar, we need a bar licence. So we’re fighting for those same competitive licenses as the bars. Medura says that for a single license available in February 2022, there were up to 15 establishments lining up. That’s why they are investigating a workaround. “We are exploring with lawmakers over the next two sessions the possibility of breweries getting their own set of licenses,” Medura says.
“WE JUST WISH TO BE ABLE TO SELL ANY BEER WE PRODUCE.”
-MARK MEDURA, CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD,
UTAH BREWER’S GUILD; FOUNDER/CEO,
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 down to the constraints. “Utah’s brewers have to get creative to have a tasty, full-bodied, full-bodied beer at a low ABV. Alcohol content isn’t everything to beer, and Utah brewers are innovating with raw materials to produce delicious beers. Even before the 5% increase, Utah brewers were still winning national awards.
Rangonese also praises the fervor of Utah’s craft brewers. “Despite the headwinds, it’s a great place to do business with lots of really inspiring people making great beers. Utah is represented by some of the most award-winning breweries in the country. Utahns should be very proud. Both breweries have done their share of award-winning beers and plan to do more. Level Crossing’s head brewer, Chris Detrich, won nine national awards in 2021. Medura is especially proud of Cryptoporticus, which won a gold medal at the US Beer Tasting Championships. It’s a double sour IPA that taps into a brewing trend that excites it – using an innovative yeast strain called “Philly Sour”.
Snapshot: Utah’s Craft Brewers
43 craft breweries in 2020 (compared to 16 breweries in 2011)
$477 million in economic benefits
171,827 barrels of craft beer produced per year
Uinta’s lagers and other traditional styles were particularly well received, including their 801, Wasangeles and Lime Pilsner. “We continue to explore other types of beer,” says Ragonese, including “cold” beers, which refers to the type of fermentation process, and expanding their variety of flavors with their Pro-Line. “What’s happening right now is an explosion of style and process variations that may seem scary on the outside, but it only expands the range of products available, making them tastier,” says Ragonese. “Hopefully we can continue to educate decision makers on process and innovation.”
Either way, Utah’s craft brewers aren’t going anywhere (despite the best efforts of some members of the state legislature), and brewers are helping each other to make sure as many people as possible of breweries succeed. “We are happy and proud to be part of this close-knit community. We help each other, we call each other if we need ingredients, that sort of thing. We are all passionate about producing good beers. There have been many breweries that have come before us, and we pay homage to them and the thousands of beers that have gone before them,” says Medura. “We just want to have fun. Beer should be fun.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO…
Level crossing brewing
Sunday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday & Saturday 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
2496 S. West Temple, South Salt Lake
Brewhouse Pub & General Store Hours:
Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Saturday 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
Close on Sunday
1722 S. Fremont Drive, SLC
Learn more about Utah Breweries in our Bar Fly section.