Utah House approves full-strength beer on tap

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Full-strength beer could soon be making its way into Utah's kegs.

The Utah House voted 58-2 on Tuesday to allow the sale of full-strength draft beer in bars and restaurants, taking a significant step toward eliminating one of the major complaints about Utah's quirky liquor laws.

In Utah, draft beer can contain no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight, or 4 percent by volume. Most beers contain 3.6 percent to 3.9 percent alcohol by weight.

In the United States, the weaker beer that's often referred to as 'near beer' is only sold in four other states -- Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Minnesota.

Bars and restaurants in Utah are already allowed to serve full-strength beer if they buy it in bottles from the state liquor store, but the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control doesn't have the ability to store and sell kegs.

All full-strength beer in Utah is sold from state liquor stores unrefrigerated.

House Bill 349, sponsored by Rep. Curtis Oda, R-Clearfield, would likely result in bars and restaurants being able to serve greater varieties of beer on tap. Many small breweries don't bother to make separate batches of weaker draft beer for Utah.

"It's basically a new line that the licensee will be able to have. It doesn't increase consumption at all because they're either going to still order heavy beer in the individual containers that they already get or buy it on tap," Oda said.

Oda's bill now advances to the Senate. It is one in a series making its way through the Legislature this year that's intended to make Utah's liquor laws a little less odd. There are also proposals to allow liquor stores to open on Election Day and to eliminate a requirement that customers fill out an application and pay a fee to enter a bar.

Utah is the only state in the country that considers bars open to the public to be private clubs, requiring customers to be members or to be sponsored by one.

Utah is also the only state that prohibits bartenders from serving cocktails directly over the counter at restaurant bars. A partition usually made of glass known as a Zion Curtain separates the two.

A bill to eliminate the Zion Curtain and the private club system awaits a vote in the House.

However, in a state where most of the Mormon population shuns alcohol for religious reasons, loosening any liquor law isn't easy. Some would like to see Utah's liquor laws become even more strict.

A measure awaiting a vote in the Senate would require that cocktails be mixed behind 10-foot-high walls in restaurants, in an effort to keep children from being tempted to take up drinking. The same measure would also make it illegal to appear drunk, giving state law enforcement officers widespread discretion in fining and shutting down bars and restaurants.

In October, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that state agents were wrongfully citing bartenders for serving customers state agents deemed to be intoxicated. The court ruled that simply being drunk is not a crime; only being so drunk that a person poses a clear danger to himself or others is a crime.