SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is one step closer to allowing the sale of beer with stronger alcohol content in grocery and convenience stores.
A bill that would allow the higher alcohol content beer — now available in state liquor stores — easily sailed out of a Senate committee Thursday afternoon.
The bill, SB132, would change two key figures currently in Utah law. Currently, the law restricts beer sold in grocery stores and gas stations to an alcohol content of 4 percent by volume or 3.2 percent by weight. Under the new law, allowable alcohol content would rise to 6 percent by volume or 4.8 by weight.
"This is strictly a commerce bill," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.
Stevenson's bill comes amid a push from national breweries that are phasing out the production of 3.2 percent beer as markets for it dries up. Utah is one of only two states left selling the weaker beer after laws in Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas have changed or are slated to change in coming months.
Last month, Walmart launched a campaign urging customers to lobby Utah lawmakers to make the stronger beer available in stores.
The retail giant is part of a group of retailers, beer manufacturers and distributors, and trade associations calling itself the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition that is lobbying the Legislature to raise the alcohol content for beer sold in grocery and convenience stores.
As Stevenson presented the bill to the Senate Business and Labor Committee on Thursday, he joked that proposed changes to Utah's alcohol laws are like opening "Pandora's box."
Although the bill was met with opposition from some conservative and family-focused organizations, it was widely supported by most local breweries, retailers and among Republican lawmakers on the committee.
Kate Bradshaw of the Responsible Beer Choice Coalition told lawmakers the bill creates a "modest change" in Utah law that will bring it in line with other states.
"It will allow us to restore these choices the beer drinkers of Utah have lost in their grocery and convenience store outlets," she said.
Representatives from conservative organizations including the Sutherland Institute and the Utah Eagle Forum pushed back against the bill, expressing fears the increased alcohol content would further harm teens who drink underage.
"I am opposed to adding more alcohol," Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said.
Still, the Senate committee voted unanimously to advance the bill to the Senate floor.