The State Of Brewtah

The formal servers brought the first course: twin hemispheres of apricot, as brightly orange as farm egg yolks, roasted, sprinkled with candied marcona almonds and resting in a nest of arugula. A hum of approval came from the food writers gathered in the private dining room at Bambara.

So what would you pair with this? A gewurtztraminer? An unoaked chardonnay?

How about Wasatch Brewery’s Apricot Hefewezen?

Okay, a little obvious (apricot with apricot), but
very successful.

This five-course pairing dinner—there have been others like it at fine restaurants all over Utah—is an example of beer’s ascendancy in the ranks of gastronomy.  Beer is being taken so seriously that beer snobs have become as insufferable as wine snobs.

Beer is not Utah’s favorite alcoholic beverage.

Wine is. But beer is one of the fastest growing if you’re not judging by DABC dollars, but by output. Utah breweries produced more than 200,000  barrels of beer last year. Craft beer in Utah is about to be an economic triumph. Utah is 27th in the nation in beer production—not bad for a state renowned for its negative attitude towards alcohol. 16 independent breweries have opened since 2010. More have debuted in 2018, and another four are supposed to open in 2019. Here’s a useless statistic: Utah has 1.3 breweries per 100,000 adults over the age of 21.

But we still have the 3.2 stigma. As often as it’s been explained that if the alcohol content in Utah was measured the same way it is most other places (by volume) then it would be 4 percent and lots of beer, especially light beer, hover around 4.2 percent, there’s still a perception that all beer in Utah is wimpy.

And recently, that’s become more of a potential problem than in the past. With the change of laws in Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas: Minnesota and Utah will be the only states that require that beer sold in grocery and convenience stores be limited to 3.2. Kathy Stephenson, in a Salt Lake Tribune article, pointed out that “the majority of beer sold in Minnesota is high-alcohol or “production line” beer sold in private liquor stores.” Utah sells most of its beer in grocery and convenience stores.

Last year, the big beer guys, MillerCoors (Molson, Blue Moon, Foster’s, Red Dog and Hamm’s, to name just a few) and Anheuser-Busch InBev (Corona, Stella Artois, Beck’s andModelo, etc.), suggested it might no longer be feasible for them to produce 3.2 beer for such a small market, throwing the press and the public into a hand-wringing frenzy. In Utah, it literally requires an act of the legislature to allow that 3.2 number to jump to 3.8 like the big brewers want. The grocers want that too, of course—raising the legal limit for sales in groceries and convenience stores would allow more product on the shelves and would be good for their bottom line.

Local craft breweries aren’t so sure. The Brewers Association requires, among other things, that a craft brewery be small—producing less than 6 million barrels per year—and independently owned. Big breweries are gobbling up craft breweries for their credibility and still have the muscle in the marketplace. More brands means more shelf space.

“The big guys march in lockstep. I’m in favor of no change or no limit,” says Jon Lee, chief operating officer of Utah Brewers Cooperative (Squatters and Wasatch). “First, I think the big guys are kind of bluffing. It’s no trouble for them to make 3.2 beer because of the way they brew.” He’s talking about high-gravity brewing, the process used by many mega-brewers. Basically, it means you create a concentrated wort (the ground malt or grain) that has a higher gravity (that’s the total amount of dissolved solids) higher than you really want, then you dilute it to the desired strength with water.  Kind of like when you buy root beer extract from Hire’s, then add water and dry ice. Or how they make Coke. To make a less alcoholic beer, says Lee, you just add more water.

That’s not how craft breweries generally make their beer, whatever the strength. Almost all local breweries in Utah make 3.2 beer, because that’s the only beer allowed to be on draught. But, “Locals brew to a specific alcohol level,” says Jeremy Ragonese, chief marketing officer at Uinta Brewing. “We’re more concerned with flavor.”

“Upping the alcohol to 3.8 percent just means a lot of headaches for craft breweries,” says Lee. “Removing the limit altogether makes more sense.”

But, he says, that’s not going to happen. “Why would the Legislature decide to move revenue from the DABC to grocery stores? And that’s part of what would happen, if the alcohol level is increased. Product now only sold by DABC could be sold in Smith’s and 7-11.”

“In Utah, you never know,” says Ragonese. “Liquor laws change constantly.”

Beer Boom

Until late last year, the South Salt Lake code did not mince words: “Consumption of alcohol creates adverse secondary effects, including public drunkenness, increased violence and crime, impaired judgment in social interactions, injury and death to persons and loss of property.”

But at a meeting this spring, the South Salt Lake City Council reversed a slew of ordinances that had, a decade before, been enacted to stop the city from being the bar and strip club capital of the Wasatch Front. In reversing the actions, the city now hopes to become a hub for breweries, distilleries and wineries.

Seeing an opportunity to cut through bureaucratic red tape, the council unanimously voted to remove restrictions on buildings and, more importantly, lifted the quota on the number of alcohol-producing businesses allowed in the city—prior to the removal, the number was based on population, which meant the city was maxed out at two businesses. They also opened the door to smaller brewers and distillers by eliminating a previous law mandating a five-barrel minimum production.

The municipality has already seen the benefits of this action with the anticipated opening of a yet-to-be-named brewer on West Temple—underneath the city’s iconic water tower—in 2019, joining SaltFire and Shades of Pale in the South Salt Lake beer business boom.

Cans do it

Last year, Wasatch Brewery made the decision that all their packaged beer will be canned, not bottled. Bohemian Brewery was the first in Utah to exclusively use cans for packaging, but now, canning lines are showing up in craft breweries all over the country. Cans, which used to seem declasse, are now millennial chic (Remember what we said about beer snobs?). But there’s a reason beyond the cool factor to can beer. “The biggest enemies of beer are light and air, both of which cause the beer to deteriorate more rapidly,” says Lee. Cans keep the light out and the hermetic seal of a can’s lid protects the beer against oxidation and loss of carbonation. The can preference is growing.

We all know what a glass growler of beer is and love the refilling ritual. Now, some breweries are offering crowlers as well—sealed giant, 32 oz. aluminum cans of beer, filled from any tap and sealed with a special machine. Buying the blank cans in bulk and slapping on their own sticker labels makes it convenient for breweries to adapt their designs to the crowler. The typical glass growler only keeps beer fresh and carbonated for about three days before it really starts to degrade, a crowler is good as long as it’s sealed.

Sober up

Nonalcoholic beer is having a moment.

Second Lady Karen Pence told the press that her husband, evangelical Christian Vice President Mike Pence, likes to toss back a near-beer or two with his pizza.

At the Olympic games earlier this year, the German team seemed to be drinking beer everywhere—but it was later revealed that it was n/a beer, which athletes in their country drink like Americans drink Gatorade. Whether it was the beer or not—the country walked away with 31 medals.

It was announced that the company that owns Blue Moon is developing a THC-infused nonalcoholic beer to sell in Colorado.

Suddenly the old joke about nothing making you look more like an alcoholic than a non-alcoholic beer seems less resonant—while Germans have over 400 brands of n/a beer, Americans have far fewer options. The major breweries all make a non-alcoholic option but none are taste-forward and it seemed like the ever-expanding craft beer market was leaving out a big segment of the population.

But, when The Washington Post profiled the only two breweries ( and in America that are exclusively crafting nonalcoholic beers—and doing so without boiling the alcohol off and diluting the taste—it sent the breweries’ production lines into overtime to keep up—a sign of the demand right here in the U.S. of A.

Manwhile, in Salt Lake options for n/a beer are still limited,  but you can find a step up from O’Douls if you know where to look. We recommend these three. 

Utah’s Newest Breweries

  • RoHa Brewing Project 30 S. Kensington Ave., SLC, 385-227-8982
  • Fisher Brewing Company 320 W. 800 South, SLC, 801-487-2337
  • Kiitos Brewing Company 608 W. 700 South, SLC 801-215-9165
  • Strap Tank Brewing Company 1750 W. 596 South, Springville, UT
  • SaltFire Brewing Company 199 S. West Temple, SLC 801-661-1947
  • Two Row Brewing Company 6856 S. 300 West, Midvale 801-987-8663
  • T.F. Brewing 936 S. 300 West, SLC 801-232-0936

See all of our adult beverage coverage here.

Salt Lake Magazine
Salt Lake Magazine
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