July 3, 2014

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Bottoms Up

Utah’s Beer and Wine Industry is Heating Up

Devin Felix

July 3, 2014

It was the mid-80s, and Greg Schirf had just moved to Utah. He came from Milwaukee, arguably the most beer-loving city in the country, and was dismayed to discover that his new home had no local breweries. So he came up with an idea that seemed downright silly at the time: He would open a brewery in Utah.

“Everybody said, why would a guy leave Milwaukee, in the state with the highest per-capita beer consumption, and try to open a brewery in Utah, the state with the lowest consumption?” Schirf says.

But Schirf is the kind of person who is more motivated by the phrase “you can’t do that” than by just about anything else. In 1986, Schirf opened Wasatch Brewery in Park City. It was the first licensed alcohol manufacturing operation in Utah since the 1960s, and it marked the beginning of a new age of brewing, winemaking and distilling in the state.

Since then, a growing number of brewers, distillers and wine-makers have set up shop in Utah. They face a set of challenges unlike anywhere else in the country, largely due to Utah’s atypical laws and the negative attitudes toward alcohol held by state lawmakers. But making booze in Utah also has a few unexpected advantages, including a sophisticated and impassioned customer base.

Brew Something Up

In the years between the arrival of settlers in the Salt Lake Valley through the beginning of the 20th Century, dozens of small breweries operated throughout what is now Utah, according to the book Beer in the Beehive by Del Vance. Among the first locally documented breweries was the Hot Springs Brewery Hotel in Bluffdale, which was run in the 1860s by Porter Rockwell, the legendary bodyguard to Brigham Young.

When Prohibition took effect in 1920, many breweries tried to adapt by making either non-alcoholic beer or other types of products, but by the time the Prohibition was repealed in 1933, very few breweries remained. The ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s were a time of massive consolidation in the brewing industry nationally, and by 1968, every Utah brewery had either gone under or been acquired and shuttered by one of the huge national companies.

When Schirf opened Wasatch Brewery in 1986, he quickly saw that Utah’s reputation as a tourist destination could play in his favor. When people who came from out of state to ski or visit Utah’s national parks asked bartenders about local beers, their only answer could be Wasatch. In 1988, Schirf successfully lobbied the state to change a law banning brewpubs, and opened the Wasatch Brewpub on Main Street in Park City the next year.

Wasatch wasn’t alone on the scene long, however. Salt Lake Brewing Company, better known as Squatters, was founded in 1989 by Peter Cole and Jeff Polychronis. It was the first brewery in Salt Lake City since 1967. In 2000, Wasatch and Squatters merged to form the Utah Brewers Co-op, though both Squatters and Wasatch beers are still made, now in Salt Lake City. More breweries followed throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s, including Uinta Brewing in 1993, which is now one of the largest brewers in the state. Twenty brewing licenses issued by the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) are currently active, including multiple small brewpubs and larger operations like Uinta Brewing and the Utah Brewers Cooperative.

Utah’s breweries are part of the craft brewery movement, which began in the 1980s and is in full force today. Craft breweries tend to focus on creating beers of a wide variety of types that are usually more complex than the offerings of massive brewers such as Coors, Miller and Budweiser. Craft brewing has thrived in part because of the rise of “foodie culture” and the focus in recent years on food and drink that is produced locally.

Utah is well-suited to the craft brewing movement “due to a mature, sophisticated consumer base,” Schirf says. He speculates that drinkers in the state may have something of a “minority complex.” Because alcohol in Utah is such a divisive topic, and because the majority doesn’t drink at all, “those who do drink take their beer seriously,” he says. Also, Utah’s booming economy and growing tech sector have brought an influx of workers from out of state. They are often young and have spent most of their drinking lives with craft beers.

Utah is well known for its law dictating that beers sold in stores must have no more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (or 4 percent by volume). Anything with higher alcohol content is only sold by state-controlled liquor stores or on the premises where it is manufactured. While the regulation is much maligned by beer lovers in Utah, it has played an important role in enabling Utah breweries to create high-quality products, says Dan Burick, director of brewing at the Utah Brewers Co-op. It’s easier to hide imperfections in beers with lots of alcohol that masks the taste, Burick says. Working with lower alcohol content forces brewers to be disciplined with the beers they create. “It’s like going to the beach in a Speedo,” Burdick says. “You’ve got to make sure everything’s in order.”   

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