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Weakness of Utah beer greatly exaggerated

Two Utah myths about beer: Utah grocery stores sell a much weaker beer, and Wyoming beer has more alcohol than other states.

Under Utah law, beer sold in grocery stores or from bar taps cannot exceed 3.2 percent alcohol by weight. While that makes it challenging for beer aficionados to find many speciality brews, it does not present much of a problem for those who enjoy most American lager beers, many English ales and even the king of stouts.

Think that draft Guinness in a San Francisco Irish pub has a higher quality than a Guinness from a Utah tap? Think again.

According to the Guinness Web site, the company brews its American draft beer at just under 3.3 percent by weight. (The draft Guinness found in Ireland is actually the Extra Stout found in many Utah liquor stores).

Almost all macro-brew beers, including Coors, Budweiser and Miller, have very few beers over 4 percent by weight. Regular Bud comes in at 3.7 and Coors at 3.6. No light beers get above 3.4. Even most English ales come in at around 3.4 percent because of a tax structure that is based on alcohol content.

Where Utah's 3.2 law does cause problems is for small breweries and import beers. Most beers sold in Utah actually register around 3.0 or less. While it is not a challenge for a big brewery to adjust its beers, even large European brewers who make English ales near 3.4 do not go to the trouble to get them below the state maximum.

The biggest cause of confusion for beer drinkers can be attributed almost exclusively to how the beer is measured. Throughout the United States, many states have a maximum alcohol content for beer that is measured by weight. However, European brewers measure by volume, which registers with a higher number. If given the choice, American brewers will also list their beers' alcohol content by volume.

To make this simple, consider that 3.2 by weight equals 4.0 by volume.

"It's just jargon," said Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control spokesman Earl Dorius. "We're quibbling about 0.4 or 0.5 percent. Most beers are not that much stronger."

Outside of Utah, beers that have their alcohol content listed will usually be in the 4.0 to 5.0 percent by volume range, even for light beers. Because of the variance in the two numbers, this has perpetuated the myth that 3.2 beer has significantly lower alcohol, Dorius said.

The 3.2 beer has evolved throughout the previous century, starting during Prohibition as a legal option for people wanting beer. In the latter half of the century, when the drinking age moved to 21 years, some states allowed 18- to 20-year-olds to drink 3.2 beer.

Now, only four states have 3.2 beer regulations, with Utah and Oklahoma making it the only legal option for grocery stores and bars. Colorado and Kansas also will only allow grocery stores to sell 3.2.

As a brewmaster for Squatters Pub, Jenny Yohe has actually had to learn better brewing techniques because she can't hide a poor mix behind the mask of alcohol. "It's easy to brew a big alcohol beer with tons of flaws, because the alcohol overwhelms the palate," she said. "It's much harder to learn to brew beer at 3.2."

While the lower alcohol limitations placed on Utah beer has forced her to focus on flavor, it has also restricted her from brewing a number of craft beers that require a higher alcohol content, such as imperial stouts or India pale ale.

"If the law changed tomorrow, I would not move all of my beers up in alcohol," she said. "I would be able to brew other styles, and I could better educate my customers about those styles."