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Holladay Journal

Holladay residents say cheers to boozier beer

Nov 18, 2019 02:04PM ● By Zak Sonntag

Holladay liquor store open for business. (Zak Sonntag/City Journals)

By Zak Sonntag | [email protected]

For the first time in 86 years, grocery and convenience stores filled their drink aisles with boozier beer, as a new state law took effect Nov. 1. The law raises the allowable alcohol by volume (ABV) level from 4% to 5%, popping the top on a new era of increased consumer selection and quicker beer buzzes, advocates of the law say.

“I’ve heard customers talking all this week, saying things like, ‘I can’t wait to see the new beer selection.’ Shoppers are very excited,” said Andrew Haidenthaller, store manager at Harmons in the Holladay Village. “There’s more selection. We’re now stocking beer that I used to only see outside the state,” he said on Nov. 1, pulling a purple-tinted can of lager beer out of the cooler. “This is Rouge Brewery, from Oregon, at 5%. We couldn’t have sold this before today.”

The transition, however, comes with some casualties.

The new law prohibits state-run liquor stores from selling beer beneath the 5% threshold because, as an entity of the state, they cannot participate in broader consumer markets. 

“We can no longer sell it because that would put us in competition with private enterprise,” said Terry Wood, spokesperson for the Department of Alcoholic Beverages and Control (DABC).

“We’ll have to dispose of whatever we don’t sell. We might take it to the dump and pour it out,” Wood initially told the City Journals.

Some in the beer industry did not appreciate this logic.

“It doesn’t make sense to me. I feel like they could do something else instead of just dump it in the ground. Because all these exact beers that are discounted here are going to be getting sold at grocery stores this time tomorrow,” said Rob McEllaney, an employee with Carlson Distribution, speaking on Oct. 31 while he nudged beverages off a dolly at the Holladay liquor store.

For beverage distributors, the change has created a lot of extra work, as employees hustle to replenish inventories with new products throughout the state.

“It’s been a crazy week. We’ve been to at least 60 stores already trying to get them the new product in time,” said one Carlson employee as he hurled boxes onto a pallet in the loading zone at Harmons on the day the law took effect. “It’s been insane.”

Anticipating the law, the DABC discounted the soon-to-be unsellable beer. The product moved rapidly, leaving behind empty shelves and a small selection on the last day before the law took effect.

“I’ll be surprised if there’s much we have to dispose of, if any at all, by the time it’s said and done,” Wood said on Oct. 31.

On Halloween day, blue discount signs hung above barren beer shelves at the state-run liquor store in Holladay. Still, many hadn’t heard about the changes. 

“New law? What new law?” asked Sarah Huerta, leaving the store with a case of White Claw beer. “I noticed there were discounts but I didn’t know it had to do with a new law.”

Despite the sales, consumer savings may have been less than expected. State liquor stores impose a 64.5% tax markup, one of the highest of such markups in the country. Because the beer tax in convenience stores is significantly less, even the liquor store discounts may not seem like savings in hindsight. 

“Lots of the same beers that are discounted here at the liquor store will probably be cheaper in grocery stores, anyway. And they will be colder, too,” said McEllaney, referring to the absence of refrigeration at state-run stores. 

While most seemed to support the changes and feel good about the law generally, many expressed reservations.

“I support the change, but it continues to feel like an arbitrary regulation cap on a consumer product. I think that the state doesn’t realize that beer is a big consumer market, and even though they’re opening the market up, they’re still keeping an unnecessary cap on it,” said a 30-year-old named Josh, who consumes two to four beers per week.

A man named Dale said, “I think it’s a decent thing. But honestly it’s only a 1% difference. Is that really that big of a deal?”

One man, a 30-something who asked not to be named, said he was pleased by the law, even as he admits it will not affect him.

“I was surprised when I heard about the change. Our legislature has a reputation for being kind of weird about these things. I think it’s probably a smart move, but it won’t impact me because I come for the heavier stuff,” he said, lifting a six-pack of “high point” beer. “This is 9%. I drink one with dinner every night.”

The unsold beers were pulled from shelves and shipped back to DABC’s central inventory. “We ended up with about 240 cases of beer that we’ll have to dispose of,” said Wood, speaking a week after the law kicked in. “We’re pleased because it’s a small figure in the overall scheme of things. We sold almost half of what we had left on Halloween day.”

Rather than dumping the beer out as presumed, Wood said the plan to “destroy” the beer had changed. 

“Instead of just dumping it into the ground, we’re going to send it to a company that will ‘anaerobically digest’ the unusable product. It is an environmentally sustainable way to get rid of it. Then we’re going to send the containers to Momentum Recycling, who will recycle the aluminum, paper, glass — everything.”

And what about all that empty shelf space?

“We’ll keep trying out new items and just see which ones sell and what the customers want, and slowly we’ll replace all that beer. It might be beer or it might be other items. We’ll have to see. And after that, it will be back to business as usual.”