© 2009 Douglas Pulsipher / Visit Utah
When I told friends I was visiting Utah to explore its beer scene, I got some strange reactions. It felt a little like telling people I was going to outer space to check out the oxygen levels.
“I don’t think they do beer in Utah, man,” they’d inevitably reply, in one form or another.
Well, guess what? Not only does Utah have beer -- the state has great beer. I spent nearly a week there drinking my way through as much of the state as possible. And yes, they certainly do things differently out there -- but none of these quirks make Utah a less worthy beer vacation destination than anywhere else.
But first, some legal notes…
Before we dive into all of Utah’s wonders, let’s first get the state’s arcane beer laws out of the way. Yes, they have rules. But no -- they don’t adversely affect quality.
“Welcome to Utah, the state of session beers!” says Shantel Stoff, the Sales and Marketing Director at Red Rock Brewery in Salt Lake City. That’s because all beer poured from a tap must not exceed 4% ABV. And yet, the state has plenty of high gravity beer to offer.
“You just have to put [high ABV] beers in a bottle instead of a keg,” says Kevin Templin, the brewmaster at Red Rock. “It’s not limiting. A lot of states have a capped ABV, but we don’t. You can make a 20% beer if you want to.”
Plenty of the beer I drank in the state was well over 10%, and sure enough, came from a bottle and not a tap. It’s not a big deal.
Additionally, the state controls all the liquor stores where said high-ABV packaged beer (a.k.a. “high-point beer”) can be purchased, and you can’t get more than two samples of beer at a time in a brewery. Furthermore, law dictates that you must buy food when ordering beer at a restaurant. But that whole “you have to buy a membership” thing when going to a bar is old hat -- and that hat has been mercifully thrown in the trash.
credits:"Lee Breslouer" align:center
Why Utah’s beer scene is different
With the laws out of the way, let’s talk breweries -- of which are there are approximately 30 in Utah. That’s not a ton of breweries for a state with a population of over three million people (for comparison’s sake, neighboring Colorado has over 350). As you might already know, this is mostly due to the fact that 60% of the state’s population is Mormon, a religion which forbids the consumption of alcohol. But plenty of the remaining 40% of state citizens (especially in Salt Lake City) like to enjoy a drink or two.
“The beer scene is growing and the demographics of the state are definitely changing,” Stoff says. “There’s so much growth from people moving here from out of state. You can ski 30 minutes from [Salt Lake City]. People come here for the outdoors, and they stay. There are so many transplants.”
And because there are so few breweries, Utahns rally around them. “When a new one opens, people get pretty excited about it,” admits Tom Riemondy, co-owner of A. Fisher Brewing Co. Fisher (as everyone calls it), for example, opened in Salt Lake this past February, and has seen plenty of love from the neighborhood since. Stopping by on a recent weekday afternoon, the bustling crowd was proof. (We promise not to tell anyone’s boss.)
About 40 miles north of Salt Lake lies Ogden. The city has a serious history of boozing (it was once a “lawless frontier town” full of bordellos, gambling, and the crime that seems to accompany bordellos and gambling). These days, it’s a charming frontier town that now hosts two breweries: while Roosters Brewing Co. stood alone for more than two decades, Ogden got its second brewery last year. “The [Ogden City Business Development] helped us with a business plan,” explained Joann Williams, who co-owns Talisman Brewing Co. with her husband Dusty, who brews. She said that they were encouraged to open despite neither Williams having any previous beer industry experience. In fact, Dusty was a passionate homebrewer (and retired Air Force officer) who left a job at Lockheed Martin to commit to brewing full-time when demand for his beer necessitated it.
I’ve spent time in cities with great beer scenes -- places like Bend, Oregon, Asheville, North Carolina, and Boulder, Colorado. When you spend a day or two in those places, the joy of drinking in one brewery is enhanced by the fact that you’re inevitably going to visit two or three more amazing ones later. Strangely, I got that feeling in an entire state -- Utah, of all places! From the OG breweries like Red Rock, Epic Brewing, Uinta Brewing, and Wasatch Brewery to relative newcomers like Fisher, Talisman, and Proper Brewing Co., there’s a real sense of community, pride, and family that I’ve only ever felt in small beer cities. It’s a distinct vibe worth experiencing for yourself.
Even if you’re not from Utah, you might’ve already enjoyed beer from two nationally distributing breweries, Epic or Uinta (and if not, their beer is worth seeking out!). For my trip to Salt Lake, I wanted to learn more about breweries with which I was less familiar. Here’s a rundown of Utah breweries I visited that are definitely worth your time -- and tastebuds.
A flight of Utah’s best breweries
Red Rock Brewery
Beers to drink: Paardebloem, Zwickel Bier, Elephino
One of the first beers I had in Utah was Elephino, an 8% Double IPA that confused the hell out of me. A balanced, fruity, hoppy brew that goes down easy, Elephino is brewed in a state that brews more 4% ABV beer than any other place on earth. But talented brewer Kevin Templin helped the brewery win Large Brewpub of the Year at 2007’s Great American Beer Festival. That’s a hotly contested category, but Templin’s something of a perfectionist who can master everything from traditional German beers (the Zwickel Bier -- a crisp, refreshing brew) to the unusual (like Paardebloem, a rare, Belgian-style beer bittered with dandelion greens instead of hops!).
Talisman Brewing Co.
Beers to drink: The Kreation, Hazards, Iron Age
Water is the most important ingredient in beer, and often the least paid attention to. But Dusty Williams is one of those people who thinks about it plenty, as he changes the water profile of the beer he’s brewing to match different styles. Case in point: the 4% ABV Kristallweizen Kreation. “It’s in the Hefeweizen category, but it’s a lot more floral,” Dusty tells me. He ain’t wrong. The beer is plenty clean and crisp, with loads of balanced banana and clove notes. His Iron Age oatmeal stout is brewed using an English water profile, and the end result is a creamy, chocolatey light-bodied stout. While Talisman is currently only available in bottle-format, the husband and wife team who run the brewery hope to open a taproom in Ogden in 2018. It’ll be a must-visit during any Utah beer/ski vacation when it does.
A. Fisher Brewing Co.
Beers to drink: Citra Bomb Tom, Spontaneum, Nitro Coffee Stout
Gorgeous, modern, and industrial, Fisher’s taproom isn’t the tiniest I’ve ever been to -- but I did get sprayed with water from a waiting bench when they were cleaning the brewing equipment. Luckily, my delightfully hoppy Spontaneum Pale Ale was so good that I didn’t even mind the water damage to my phone and laptop (kidding! ....But I am suing them). And unlike other new breweries, this one has a history. “My great, great grandfather Abe Fisher started a brewery here in 1884,” explains co-owner Tom Riemondy. “Abe Fisher Brewery was one of the largest breweries in the state’s history, only surpassed by Uinta a couple of years ago.” Though closed during Prohibition, the revived brewery today displays donated historical Fisher swag, including an eye-catching neon sign and plenty of old cans.
Beers to drink: Squatters Hell’s Keep, Apricot Hefeweizen, any UTX beer
Wasatch and its sister brewery Squatters are among the first of Utah’s craft breweries (along with Uinta, Epic, and Red Rock). To me, the mark of a truly great brewery is innovation, regardless of history or legacy, and Wasatch / Squatters does just that. Wasatch recently transitioned to an all-can lineup; their canned Belgian Golden Strong Hell’s Keep just won a gold medal at GABF in the Belgian-Style Blonde/Pale Ale Category. You can immediately tell why when you sip the 7.75% ABV brew. It’s smooth, creamy, and packs plenty of banana and clove notes. I also sampled an experimental beer called UTX Eureka, part of a series that features beers with a single, rotating hop variety. I couldn’t believe how hoppy and satisfying a 4% ABV beer could be. It clearly takes this sort of quality beer to stick around that long.
Roosters Brewing Co.
Beers to try: Junction City Chocolate Stout, Hellevation IPA, Roosters Honey Wheat
When Roosters planted roots in Ogden in ‘95 in a space that housed a former bordello, there were exactly zero other brewpubs in town. Owners Kym and Pete Buttschardt were told that they were nuts to open one. Today, their hearty pub food pairs excellently with beers brewed on a tiny system that you can see from the bar. Their brewmaster is pretty unique, too: “I have a history degree and I once managed an auto body shop,” Jacquie King tells me. Jacquie is also one of two female brewmasters in the state! I enjoyed Roosters’ 4% Junction City session stout, the significantly boozier (and roastier) Femintation, and the refreshing Roosters Honey Wheat. All of these beers taste better after you’ve been skiing or snowboarding at Snowbasin Resort, conveniently located just a half-hour drive away.