Guild Update – Utah Brewers Guild

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Support and development of state brewers guilds remains a major focus of the Brewers Association. Acacia Coast, the trade group’s State Brewers Association Coordinator has helped the BA become more of a resource for existing and fledgling guilds. Acacia has been busy crisscrossing the country attending state brewers association meetings.

Acacia provides and update on here trip to Utah.

In mid-March I paid a visit to the Utah Brewers Guild (UBG) for their annual meeting in Salt Lake City. Hosted at Uinta Brewing Company, ten of Utah’s breweries came together to collaborate on the development of the craft brewing industry in Utah. 

The recent guild election resulted in Uinta’s Kevin Ely passing the president seat to Epic Brewing’s Phil Handke, who has already started substantial work in managing much of the guild’s organizational logistics. Established in 2011, the UBG’s foundation has been difficult to build but the Utah brewers have increased their momentum and are making progress in developing a united voice for Utah’s small independent brewers.

Utah’s challenging beer laws are well known. It’s often mentioned that Utah is run as a theocracy and in January the Mormon Church took a rare public stance declaring there will be no alcohol law changes this year. Released days before the Legislature opened, the Salt Lake Tribune multimedia policy statement was picked up far and wide, making it to The Big Story on Associated Press. 

“It’s very important that we avoid an alcohol culture,” said D. Todd Christofferson, an Apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve, the church’s second-highest governing body, in the video interview.

Utah policy makers regard all alcohol as one issue–they do not differentiate beer from wine and spirits–and want all alcohol producers to come forward with one voice. This presents an interesting challenge for Utah’s craft brewers and the brewers guild–the need to find a way to differentiate themselves from other alcohol industries producing beverages much higher in ABV.

A divisive issue among brewers in the state is the protectionist market that Utah brewers hold. In Utah, any beer produced above 4.0% alcohol by volume (ABV) must be bottled–it cannot be sold in draught packaging. Any beer you get on draught in Utah is 3.2% alcohol by weight. Developing 3.2% full-flavored beers requires specialized equipment and skill that some U.S. craft brewers do not care to undertake. It’s because of this law that many would argue Utah brewers reign when it comes to full-flavored sessionable beers. 

The Utah state government has control over all bottled high point (meaning greater than 4.0% ABV) beer distribution and private wholesalers hold the right to distribute all draught beer (lower than 4.0% ABV). Accordingly, there is not much likelihood the state will willingly give up control of the high point beer distribution, which would open up the draught market to higher alcohol brews. As expected all four alcohol bills in the legislature, including the ongoing attempt to remove the infamous Zion Curtain, were killed. Status quo will likely be maintained for a couple years now, as we head into the election year next year.

Presiding over all these challenging considerations is the Utah Brewers Guild. The guild board is putting forth great effort to find balance, camaraderie and common ground in order to make progress. While the Brewers Association Board of Directors was meeting in Salt Lake in September 2013, they also took time to meet with the guild in an encouraging rally for progress. 

The Utah brewers expressed immense gratitude for the opportunity to meet and glean insights from the national association’s directors. While I was visiting, I was able to lend national insights and resources to the ongoing brainstorming discussions, which will hopefully yield further momentum.

The guild meeting provided ample opportunity for brewery owners to step up in support of the association but volunteers willing to lead were not easy to find. Eventually, a few guild members did step up to help out in various ways and the group was able to accomplish much through discussions of guild initiatives–building committees, participation in the upcoming SAVOR Hill Climb and other national Brewers Association events, considerations for hiring an executive director, approaching legislative issues and what more the guild can do to move forward. Other guild initiatives include launching guild website and increasing their social media presence.

After participating in two successful events last year, the UBG intends to find more fundraising opportunities through partnership with even more established local events. With one event partnership, the Park City Food & Wine Classic donates a portion of its ticket sales to UBG. Guilds are the front line of defense for small brewery business and are therefore the perfect non-profit recipients for promoters to give back if they want to continue offering delicious craft brews at their events.

I am encouraged to see the headway the UBG is making. I am confident they will gain more tangible leadership support as organizational action progresses. They are certainly a resilient community. Despite the challenges that Utah brewers face, the breweries in this state have earned a stack of 81 GABF medals for their brews. I always look forward to visiting these talented Utah brewers and I am grateful they remain steadfast towards a united voice for positive change.

Find your state guild contact here!