The Plight of the Utah Bar Owner

: Del Vance, an important part of beer culture in Utah for literally decades. Photo: Sam Milianta

Del Vance has been an important part of beer culture in Utah for literally decades. Vance has helped found both Uinta Brewing Company and The Bayou bar in Salt Lake City—aficionados and casual drinkers alike have benefited from his love of beer. His latest project, the Beerhive Pub, opened up last August on the north end of Main Street and has been bustling ever since. SLUG sat down with Vance at the ice-ringed bartop (which is effing sweet!) inside the Beerhive to talk about the everyday challenges Vance’s business faces in a state notorious for its lack of alcohol selection, the future of Utah nightlife and that most frustrating obstacle, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC).

The rapidly expanding “Downtown Rising” projects on Main Street were a major motivation for this new undertaking. “I wanted to be downtown,” says Vance, “Everybody seems to be getting out. With the church spending a couple billion dollars downtown, we want to get on their coattails. Not everybody there is going to be shopping for garments.” Unlike past projects, the Beerhive is just a bar, though if you are hungry, a rich menu provided by The Vienna Bistro next door is available. Vance’s favorite is the Jägerschnitzel. Boasting over 180 available beers, the menu at the Beerhive is ridiculously swollen with tasty brews, but where do they all come from? “Our emphasis is American craft beer,” Vance says, “We do have imports, but about 80 percent of what we carry is domestic.” From the latest huge bottles of barleywine from Sierra Nevada to draught seasonals from most of the local breweries including Hopper’s and Rooster’s, there’s guaranteed to be something to satisfy any beer drinker.

Perusing the pitiful selection available at our state liquor stores, you might think bar-owners have some kind of secret stash of all the good stuff.  To the state, they’re just bums like you or me. Downtown bar owners must have licenses and then use their own cars to pick up their beer from a special warehouse-like liquor store. “For the privilege of that,” says Vance, “I get to pay retail. That’s the real killer. I and all the other bars and clubs have to pay retail price, so it’s really hard to make a little money on it without pissing off the customer.” In fact, the ordering procedures for a club are exactly the same as for you or me. If you’d like to special order some beer, simply ask for a form to do so at your local liquor store. The main difference is volume. It may be expensive, but the entire range of product is theoretically just as available to the public.

This still doesn’t explain why our selection is so limited. Why don’t we humble Utahns get access to national staples like Fat Tire, Arrogant Bastard, or 40oz-ers of Colt 45? What is preventing us local beer nerds from enjoying the riches of Dogfish Head, Stone, Odell and other exceptional craft beer brands? The answer, Vance tells me, lies in the state’s monopoly. “I call it ‘the single payer alcohol system,’” he says. Apparently the major problem is that many producers refuse to do business with the state, and for good reason. “First of all, the state doesn’t have any refrigeration,” says Vance, “Beer needs to be refrigerated—it’s not like wine, it doesn’t get better with age, it goes stale. And secondly, a lot of them are really freaked out by the monopoly of state control.”

Part of understanding why Utah’s system is broken is knowing how it’s different. In most of the rest of the country, beer is distributed through what is called the “three-tier system.” Breweries, distribution companies and retailers make up the three tiers and each has its role to play in getting the beer to the consumer. In Utah, there are only two tiers: breweries and the DABC. The strength of the three-tier system is free-market competition. If a brewery doesn’t like how its beer is being stored at retail locations, it can switch companies. “They’re used to being able to keep a little control over their product, how it’s handled, how it’s distributed,” says Vance. “When they send it to Utah, it’s ‘hands off.’ If they have a concern or complaint, the state can say, ‘Tough shit, take your product and get the hell out.’” Whereas complaints and concerns have at least two levels of accountability to address them in the normal system, none exist in ours. “They don’t understand beer has to be kept cold, kept out of sunlight, its stock rotated—it has an expiration date for a reason!” If the DABC existed in a normal market, it would have gone out of business long ago. “China and all those socialist monopolies are jealous of the DABC,” says Vance with a laugh.

Vance has a solution though: “I think the state needs to get out of the beer business.” He makes a good point. By Utah law, everything over the notorious 3.2% alcohol content (4% alcohol by volume) is classified as liquor, which is ridiculous because a bottle of beer and a bottle of whiskey are not the same thing. States like Washington maintain state liquor stores while having beer and wine available in groceries stores and gas stations. The state retains control over liquor, but lets the market decide how beer is distributed. So while Salt Lake City nightlife is a thousand times better than it once was, until our alcohol distribution system changes, it will be unlikely for an outsider view of Utah to improve. “It’s hard to change perception,” says Vance, “There’s no public pressure. All these conservatives are anti-monopoly, anti-Obamacare, but not the DABC.” It might be a cold day in hell before we say goodbye to the DABC, so until then, I’ll take comfort in local watering holes like the Beerhive where I can look at the beer menu and almost forget that we live in Utah. Thank you Del Vance.

The Beerhive is located at 128 S. Main St. in downtow Salt Lake City.

: Del Vance, an important part of beer culture in Utah for literally decades. Photo: Sam Milianta