Liquor laws in the United States are complicated, varying state by state even though many breweries distribute across borders and beyond. Uinta Brewing Company was founded in 1993 in Salt Lake City by Will Hamill.
While every state has its quirky laws – from distribution limitations to the exact material of brewery take-home containers and even what temperature beer can be sold at – Utah was often one of the more extreme examples with a membership fee for bars and social clubs. The membership concept was eliminated almost a decade ago, but many still think of Utah as a unique legislative landscape.
One unique rule is that visitors to Uinta’s brewery can buy any of their beers, from the sessionable Cutthroat Pale Ale to Anniversary Barleywine, but anything over 4% ABV will be sold and served in bottle, not draft.
With small breweries making cultural waves in Utah and across the US, Paste caught up with Hamill to talk about liquor laws and how they’ve affected his brand, both in-state and their growth into 34 states – each with their own unique rules and regulations.
Paste: How have Utah brewery laws changed since you opened? Do you see a changing attitude reflected on a national scale?
Will Hamill: We opened up in a refinished auto mechanic’s building in 1993 and started producing beer for draft only. That was unique for the state of Utah. When we started doing that, it brought a lot of awareness because we were different. There was already a brewpub in Utah.
To give a background, in Utah you can manufacture beer over 3.2% by weigh or 4% by volume — most people quantify alcohol by volume. In Utah you can manufacture beer over 4% but it has to go through a controlled state: through the liquor commission and it’s available only in bottles not draft. However, all the beer at 4% or below is available at grocery stores, convenience stores. It’s uncontrolled and available throughout the state. It’s very accessible.
That still resides today. It’s not much of a limitation from a manufacturing viewpoint.
Paste: Do you aim your production more at liquor stores at draft outlets?
Will Hamill: We sell 90% of our beer in Utah through the grocery, convenience store, bars and then 10% through the liquor commission, which is 4% or above.
Paste: How has that shaped how you’ve grown?
Will Hamill: Significantly. Uinta has been known for their 4% beers for quite a while. That’s what we perfected when we were only selling beer in Utah. We created beers that were unique in their flavor profile that weren’t available in the convenience store or grocery store or bar in 1993. I think that was a very unique thing. These were the session beers people are talking about today. People are making their Session IPA, well we made that in 1994 (it was called India). It’s where we came from.
Paste: How did some of the state’s unique laws affect your business plan, as compared to if you had opened somewhere else?
Will Hamill: I knew going in that the majority of the beer would be 4%. However, we’ve been making Anniversary Barleywine since 1998, which is 10.5% ABV beer that is near and dear to my heart.
My five-year plan was doing about 5,000 barrels, but we surpassed that in year two. Utah was ready for a production brewery.
Paste: Were there any legislative roadblocks for a production brewery?
Will Hamill: There weren’t. What was tricky for us was the feds in 1993. They had just introduced the Brady Bill and the ATF was busy licensing gun sales.
Today the access to beer over 4% is doing pretty well, but the big thing that’s going to happen is Oklahoma and Colorado are going to eliminate their 3.2% law. To me, looking forward in the next three to four years, I would think that ABI, MillerCoors, Corona, they will be done with 3.2 beer…I think that’s probably going to go away and the states are going to be forced to not adhere to this Prohibition 3.2 law.
Paste: How do you think consumers have inspired some of those law changes, like in Oklahoma or with states allowing taprooms or reducing Prohibition-era limitations?
Will Hamill: I think all the states have very peculiar laws, Utah being one, or Texas; they’re all over the place. I think it’s going to be a chain reaction and eventually it will go away. Let the beer be the beer. Don’t make it so complicated.
I think legislators understand that. The big thing for Utah is that there’s a different tax structure for beer that is 4% and beer that is over 4%. We are in 34 states and they all have different taxes.
Paste: Interstate commerce is quite the thing.
Will Hamill: I moved here from Maine in 1992.
Utah is such an amazing place. Today I got up, went to work for about six hours, I went skiing, and now I’m talking with you. And then I’m going to cook dinner for some friends. It’s an amazing life here.
Even with the limited access to beers, it’s [still] available in a nice way. I’m really happy with where Utah is. It can always be better and that’s coming down the road. I don’t know when, but I think when they can financially justify the decision they’ll be all over [new laws] because it’s less work for the state to not be controlled.
Paste: What do you think drives some of the legal changes?
Will Hamill: I think it’s the consumer awareness of what beer is and what it can be: how it pairs well with food and, if its consumed responsibly, it generates money and brings the community together.
Community building is a beautiful thing and, at the same time, money is being raised for the state lawmakers to provide more money for education and the general fund through taxes. I’m happy to be a part of that.
Paste: How do you feel Utah’s alcohol laws compare to other states? Are they more complex or just different?
Will Hamill: I think they’re complex but, from a manufacturing standpoint, they are the same as the federal government. It’s really how you bring your beer to the consumer that’s confusing. You have bars where, if you serve food and are not a bar, then you can just serve 4% or 15% beer but, if you have food and kids can come in then you have to have 65% of your gross sales from food not alcohol. That’s confusing and complex. I know other states have that.
A big change is Utah had member clubs before as a formality to get around the law. You’d have to be a member and you could have as much as you want to drink. Due to the Olympics and tourism that’s done away with.
I think Utah gets a bad rap. I believe at the end of the day we make great beer and we have a great clientele.