Brewer Colby Frazier views the ABV increase of tap and commercially available beer from 4 to 5 percent as a boon to the local beer community.

Prohibition may have ended in Utah in 1933, but that hasn’t stopped Utah lawmakers from continuing to introduce restrictive legislation surrounding beer and alcohol.

However, in the most recent Utah legislative session, Sen. Jerry Stevenson (R-Layton) introduced S.B. 132—a bill that would allow beer sold in Utah grocery stores to raise alcohol by volume (ABV) from 4 percent to 6 percent. The Senate Business and Labor Committee voted unanimously to advance the bill to the floor, where it sailed through the Senate with a 27–2 vote, and landed in the House, where it met more stiff resistance.

“It is the most progressive liquor-law change proposed or denied since Prohibition ended in the state of Utah,” says Colby Frazier, Head Brewer and co-owner of Fisher Brewing Company, in an interview prior to end of the legislative session. “Utah will still be able to say that they have the lowest restriction on ABV in the country. That’s important for the Mormons who are voting for this bill right now.”

“This would be a progressive step, a moderate step in the direction I’ve always wanted to see beer go.”

Alcohol legislation in Utah has been influenced, of course, by the state’s significant Mormon population and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Word of Wisdom, which prohibits followers from consuming alcoholic beverages. Inevitably, because the majority of the state’s population is Mormon, this will trickle into the legislature’s actions. Many local brewers have expressed concern and anger over the legislature’s tendency to consult the Church regarding matters of alcohol policy, citing a need for separation of church and state.

Frazier is firmly in favor of any legistlation that would raise ABV of the beer available in local grocery or convenience stores. “I’m for it simply because we believe that change happens to liquor laws in Utah pretty rarely,” Frazier says. “This would be a progressive step, a moderate step in the direction I’ve always wanted to see beer go.”

Rather than put the bill to an immediate vote in the House, it failed but was then revived, with the House forming a task force to investigate whether the state really needs to raise the limit of beer sold in grocery stores.

“Utah is the only state that regulates not only wine and spirits, but also beer.”

On March 13, the second-to-last day of the legislative session, S.B. 132 passed in the House, but with some compromise. The amended bill will raise ABV levels from 4 percent to 5 percent, rather than the proposed 6 percent. The final version of the bill passed in the Senate on March 14.

While brewing at Fisher Brewery, Frazier stands by his opinion against the ABV law change in the interest of the local brewing community. Photo: Chris Hollands
Photo: Chris Hollands

“I have mixed feelings,” says Frazier in a second interview after the bill was passed. “On the one hand, I’m stoked that Utah had a discussion about beer and alcohol, and the needle moved in a progressive direction. There are some problems with the bill that passed. For instance, they increased the taxes local brewers must pay for each 31 gallons of beer they produce. This tax rose from $12.80 per 31 gallons to $13.10. That sucks. And I would have preferred 6 percent to 5 percent.”

There is a long and arduous history of beer law in the state of Utah, of which S.B. 132 will just become part of the timeline. After Prohibition ended, several attempts to make Utah a completely dry state had failed. Since 1935, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (UDABC) has regulated the sale of alcohol, making it one of 17 “control states”—meaning the state has a monopoly over wholesaling or retailing. Utah is the only state that regulates not only wine and spirits, but also beer.

“It’s important to note that this bill was not brought forward by local breweries.”

When the Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City in 2002, the UDABC relaxed the enforcement of Utah’s alcohol laws after an official complaint from the International Olympic Committee, which would better accommodate out-of-state and international visitors. This eventually led to a change on May 5, 2003, which benefitted wine drinkers and allowed individuals to bring home the remainder of a bottle of wine ordered at dinner, among other benefits.

Among many other alcohol-related laws, there was the 2010 legislation enacted that restored barriers, or the “Zion Curtain” between bar areas and the seating of individuals under the age of 21. In 2017, another bill was passed that allowed the removal of the Zion Curtain. 2017 was also the year that Frazier teamed up with Tim Dwyer, Tommy Fisher Riemondy and Steve Brown to reestablish A. Fisher Brewing Company, which had once existed from 1884 to the mid–20th century.

This brings us to 2019, where, unlike Frazier, some other local brewers were opposed to S.B. 132 because they claim the bill itself is motivated, written and being put forward via lobbying efforts funded by large, out-of-state and out-of-country macro-brewing concerns, such as Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Heineken.

“These changes are likely to be subtle across the board. But I believe you will see a flurry of new local beer labels clocking in near 5 percent.”

“It’s important to note that this bill was not brought forward by local breweries,” Frazier says. “It was paid for and sponsored by tangential beer interests: retailers and wholesalers. These folks have money, lobbyists, and they’re quite smart. For instance, they knew that the legislature had no appetite to raise alcohol levels to the stars, and so they chose 6 percent, a number that would have matched the nation’s newest low number put forth by Kansas. They knew that the discussion needed to be about business and consumer choice, not just alcohol. In order to get my say, I did what any concerned citizen might do: I contacted the bill’s sponsor, the lobbyist and hiked my ass up that hill and told them how I felt. Sometimes, that’s about all you can do.”

While Fisher beer isn’t sold in grocery stores, Frazier will now have the opportunity to create higher-point beer to be sold on tap. “The jump from 4 to 5 percent will allow me to make certain styles of beers (hoppy pale ales and porters, for instance) that have a bit more body and, perhaps, bolder flavor profiles,” he says. “These changes are likely to be subtle across the board. But I believe you will see a flurry of new local beer labels clocking in near 5 percent. When the law goes into effect this November, I think the Utah beer aisle is going to look a lot different.”

Among some of the concerns about raising the ABV of tap and grocery-store beer offerings is the dwindling availability of local beers as out-of-state breweries making higher-point beer filter into stores, potentially limiting some of the shelf space available to local beers.

“This little spat over S.B. 132 was fairly fractious. I’d like to see the local brewing and alcohol communities unite on our shared interests and continue to thrive in the Beehive State.”

“That’s something that I don’t know that much about—distributing, grocery store, shelf space,” says Frazier. “We don’t distribute our beer. We don’t package our beer on a wide scale. And the only thing that I can say to that is that there is a movement, a really favorable movement across the country, for local products. And local beer is not an exception to that. While there is a limited amount of grocery-store shelf space in the state of Utah, there is in every state. There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a much broader availability of national brands that we’re all going to have to compete with.”

Throughout the 2019 Utah legislative session, conversation among brewers sometimes became contentious—some wanting a limitless ABV, some desiring alternative lobbying origins, others hoping for no change at all as they held the reins of 4-percent beer.

“The future is complicated,” Frazier says. “This little spat over S.B. 132 was fairly fractious. I’d like to see the local brewing and alcohol communities unite on our shared interests and continue to thrive in the Beehive State. I believe this is possible. Certainly, I hope that my daughter’s daughter gets to make a beer someday with higher alcohol than 5 percent and pour it on draft at Fisher. Hopefully, steps continue to be taken in an onward-and-upward direction. Progress, you know?”

“Hopefully this task force arrives at this truth: Beer is not responsible for the scores of societal ills that was cast upon it during this legislative session.”

And progress seems to be the optimal concept for most Utah beer drinkers and brewers. Frazier refers to the passing of S.B. 132 as “nothing short of the most momentous change to Utah alcohol policy in nearly a century,” but also believes that a perfect storm of national alcohol policy changes and major shifts in the culture and demography in the Utah legislature must occur before more of the kind of progress he wants is achieved.

“I’m quite skeptical about future legislative opportunities to change alcohol policy in Utah,” Frazier says. “There is, though, one possible exception. S.B. 132 created an alcohol task force of sorts that is going to be required to, among many other things, study the impacts of increasing the amount of alcohol in beer in Utah. Hopefully this task force arrives at this truth: Beer is not responsible for the scores of societal ills that was cast upon it during this legislative session. It should be revealed to those who dictate alcohol policy in this state, who do not drink and are hostile to alcoholic beverages, that beer has long been available in Utah. Some people drink too much; some people aren’t responsible; some people let their kids drink alcohol; some kids drink alcohol, etc. And sometimes, bad things happen when people abuse alcohol. All of these things happen regardless of how much alcohol is in beer. We need to promote education and start taking care of our fellow humans. Blaming beer for suicide, domestic abuse and depression is simply a way to ignore the fact that most of us have issues. We need to deal with our issues, not blame them on beer.”

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Using the history, geology and visual appeal of the Southern Utah arches, Wischer has design a multi-media exhibit to heighten the magic the arches are capable of creating. Photos courtesy of Wendy Wischer

On Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, Nox Contemporary presented the multi-media exhibition Displacing Vibrations by visual and performance artist Wendy Wischer, in collaboration with geophysicist Jeffrey Moore.

Displacing Vibrations is a direct response to 45’s administration shrinking the boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments. “Less than a political statement, our aim is to raise awareness that these features exist, and that they deserve and need our assistance to ensure their long-term preservation,” says Moore. “These arches are like nothing else on earth, found in such density and variety nowhere else on earth—that is a resource worth protecting.”

To gather the data that Wischer used to create a visual and experiential exhibition, Moore and University of Utah PhD students Paul Geimer and Riley Finnegan spent years creating a methodology that would allow them to measure the sounds of rock formations. “Starting the project several years ago, we had no idea if we could even measure the resonant frequencies of natural rock arches from ambient vibration data,” Moore says. “We were pleasantly surprised, as arches are powerful and clean resonators producing clearly distinct, resonant tones.”

The geology team’s study used broadband seismometers—similar to those used to record earthquakes—placed on an arch for anywhere between one and 24 hours. They recorded continuous vibrations and then processed data for their frequency content. The seismometers are small, about the size of a coffee can, and simply rest on the arch, which means that this method is completely noninvasive and nondestructive.

Each piece in the exhibition is closely connected to the next. Visitors can expect a number of interactive, nontraditional installation pieces both in 2D and 3D. “One piece in the show is a chalk drawing directly on the wall accompanied by erasers, inviting the viewers to erase it but without providing any chalk, so adding to it is not an option,” says Wischer. “The piece is intended to comment on temporality and loss. Others are laser-cut collages from digital drawings out of mirror acrylic and mounted on white acrylic that consist of former and current borders of the national monuments, however, these borders also hold the potential for shifting.”

Visitors can also expect various sound pieces, influenced or directly taken from the vibrational sounds from Moore’s study. In a separate, small room filled with a sculptural sandstone landscape, there exists a 45-minute sound sculpture with a high-tech subwoofer hidden under the rock formations. The sound sculpture contains vibrations from those onsite recordings after they have been modified with speed and amplification. “Viewers are allowed to touch the rock sculptures to feel the vibrations as well as gently sit on a sculptural arch that is part of the piece,” Wischer says. “The sound sculpture is both felt and heard.”

Wischer often uses her creative research to highlight environmental issues, translating data into personal understanding and creating artwork that moves the viewer in poetic ways. “Partnering with an artist like Wendy Wischer pushes us to think differently about our data and subject, and brings an emotional component to our work that is not typical for day-to-day science,” Moore says. “Wendy helps translate scientific data into something that people can experience and relate to broadly—scientists are pretty often bad at this.”

Moore believes that the spiritual and personal connection of this exhibition creates even more value than the data itself. “We initially thought there may be some scientific value helping us interpret these vibrations—rather, we’ve found that hearing the hum of the rock creates a meaningful experience for people, allowing them to connect with precious landscapes and features in a new, dynamic way,” says Moore. “We hope it inspires curiosity and a sense that these features are sensitive and fragile and need protecting.”

Creative and critical partnership between the arts and sciences, like with his partnership with Wischer, might be the key to raising awareness and protecting public lands, Wischer says. “Addressing our increasing global-climate crisis demands new ways of thinking and perceiving to find solutions to the ever-increasing problems we face,” she adds. “Interdisciplinary research between the arts and sciences holds the potential for informing new pathways of exploration and understanding, creating a beneficial flow in both directions.”

Ultimately, the installation, while overtly about ownership, stewardship and borders, is also about connection with the Earth. Wischer says, “I seek a wide range of information that can be used creatively to link nature with technology, science with mythology, and personal identity with universal connections in hopes of finding impactful ways to connect people more deeply with the environments they live in and with each other.”

Moore’s team is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation and Displacing Vibrations was generously funded by the College of Fine Arts Faculty Research Grant at the University of Utah. Displacing Vibrations is open to the public by appointment at Nox Contemporary from through April 5, 2019. To make an appointment, contact Nox curator John Sproul by call or text at 801.289.6268. Nox is located at 440 S. 400 West, Ste. H, in Salt Lake City. Displacing Vibrations is also open during gallery stroll on March 15 from 6 to 9 p.m., with a the closing reception on March 15.