Great Beer Against the Odds in Utah

May 29, 2017

By Andrew Parks, May 29, 2017

There's something about buying a six-pack in Utah that feels a little illicit, as if the high-gravity stouts and heavily hopped ales sold in state liquor stores were a closely monitored stockpile of OxyContin. It certainly doesn't help that nothing is refrigerated, or that every dimly-lit location feels dingy and dated – a strip mall simulacrum of the sketchy bottle shop that unloaded Natty Ice on anyone with a fake ID and threadbare facial hair in high school.

"Did you feel like you were being bad by going in there?" asks Uinta Brewing Company co-founder Will Hammill when I mention a recent trip to Kanab, and the mix of elation ('Hurray for bombers over 4% alchol by volume!') and shame ('Do I really need this many double IPAs?') I felt while standing in line with an armful of lukewarm singles.

"That’s by design," he says. "The state of Utah is in a very awkward position because they’re addicted to the money generated from alcohol sales. For them to look the other way is unacceptable, so they pretend they don’t embrace it while taking half a billion dollars in taxes."

Utah's complicated relationship with alcohol has been a central, wildly contested issue ever since it joined these United States in 1896. Joseph F. Smith was the sixth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints then, and the last to have known the Joseph Smith. (The one who published and popularized The Book of Mormon, only to have it become synonymous with South Park 181 years later.)

Much to the chagrin of his fellow devout Mormons, Joseph F. Smith actually opposed initial temperance talks. Moral quandaries aside, the stance made perfect sense financially; local fixtures like Ogden's Becker Brewing Co. and Salt Lake City's A. Fisher Brewing were big players out west, catering to lonesome cowboys and thirsty miners en masse.

And so it went until August 1, 1917, the day Utah became the twenty-first state to back Prohibition. They were the last to repeal it 16 years later.

The political environment felt really corrupt and unfair.”

Local officials actually let an extra month pass before they let anyone have even a drop of devil juice in their state, and in a telling left turn, the Liquor Control Act was signed into law the next year. That's the start of the Beehive State's bigger problems if you ask the area's more informed drinkers—the main reason it's all but impossible to buy a decent beer above 4.0% ABV.

"Anything stronger must be sold at state stores at retail prices, even for us retailers," explains Del Vance, the influential bar owner (Beerhive Pub, The Bayou) who sold his co-founding stake in Uinta Brewing 17 years ago. "On top of that, we have to load up our own cars at the liquor stores, then drive back to our establishments and unload them. I guess the upside is all the exercise I get!"

One Salt Lake City staple that doesn't have to fill its coolers with state-controlled suds is Epic Brewing Company. For nearly a decade now, it's benefitted from a reform bill that allows local breweries, distilleries, and wineries to sell artisanal products right on their premises. More importantly, a Type 5 package agency license allows for the DIY distribution of beer that's refrigerated and fresh rather than room temperature and becoming flatter by the minute.

Epic co-founder David Cole says its small downtown shop was "just about all the sales we did" at first. Its 2008 launch did so well, in fact, that Cole claims other Type 5 agencies tried to broker a ban on Sundays and holidays, its main days for moving complex 12 oz. cans (like a sour IPA and solid Mexican-style lager) and a more sought-after Exponential Series of bold imperial stouts and fruity Belgians.

"At the time, we were one of the only recourses for people who wanted cold, fresh, high-point beer to-go," he explains, "so the political environment felt really corrupt and unfair."

While the state ultimately ruled against a Sunday shutdown – Epic's open from 11 till 7 in case you're looking for the latest limited Big Bad Baptist release – the damage was already done. As Epic's commercial success continued to grow, Cole says they "decided to not invest anymore money in a state where someone can pay a lobbyist to get the Church’s ear and direct [a bill] right at us."

Potential expansion plans were diverted to Denver instead. And not just because Epic could feature 25 seasonal taps there instead of none. (Epic runs a "tap-less" taproom – where samples of bottled beer are sold alongside bar food basics – in Salt Lake City to skirt its laughable draft laws.)

"Our [Denver] customers sometimes seem surprised to hear us speak highly of other breweries in the area," explains Cole, "but if they want to drink craft beer, we want them to drink craft beer. Those breweries send customers our way too; it’s really collaborative here in Colorado. That culture doesn't exist in Utah because of the political environment; it’s harder to foster such a tight-knit community."

If anyone's trying to find common ground among all this red tape, it's the extended family behind two of Salt Lake City's top watering holes, the cocktail-driven Bar X and its younger sister next door, Beer Bar. The latter unveiled its lengthy drink list in the spring of 2014, earning the national attention of everyone from the Los Angeles Times to Page Six for the involvement of Modern Family actor Ty Burrell. (His brother Duncan, and Duncan's brother in-laws – Jeff Barnard and Richard Noel – are its three co-owners.)

"I'm a proud Salt Lake resident," says Ty, "and part of that pride comes from the unassuming nature of our city. I think the beer scene mimics that quality. It’s quiet, it's unpretentious, and it's growing every day."

While that may be true, Beer Bar had its fair share of logistical and legal hurdles before its high profile opening. For one thing, they had to convince out-of-state breweries that their most coveted bottles and cans would survive their arduous journey across state lines.  

"Dunc and Rich drove all over – and still do – to personally assure that the beer would be handled well," explains Ty. "I believe they hired refrigerated trucks to pick up the beer personally. I can't tell you how many times people have come up to me to say they were shocked to see a certain beer at Beer Bar. I, of course, take full credit every single time."

"While some of the [press] about Utah's liquor laws is overblown," adds Duncan, "the legislature seems to take a step or two forward in some ways, then a step back. Like how they dropped the 'Zion Curtain', only to replace it with the 'Zion Moat'. In some ways, it's better, but it really messes with a lot of places and makes running a business even harder."

I don’t care what it is; if you can’t do it in Utah, it must require an ocean.”

It also keeps Utah on the receiving end of all-too-easy punchlines about its overprotective approach to underage drinking. Or as The Wall Street Journal wrote in one recent headline, "Mommy, Where Do Cocktails Come From?" The story described Utah's infamous "Zion Curtain" in detail, explaining how it's a partition keeping young people from even seeing a bartender pull a pint or shake a martini. All of that could change overnight if Governor Gary Herbert upholds the "Zion Moat" agreement Utah's state legislature reached last March.

"If they want to put in a real moat with water, that's their business," Senator Jerry Stevenson told the paper, after being asked what the bill meant by its 10-foot buffer zone between a restaurant's bar area and unsuspecting children. "If you want to put in some potted plants that's okay [too]. Or a row of tables."

Whatever happens in the months and years ahead, Utah's leading craft brewers sound undeterred by any looming challenges. Or maybe they're simply unphased at this point?

"Utah still gets a bad rap," says Moab Brewery co-founder John Borkoski. "People will be like, 'Utah? You can't even get a drink there!' But that's absurd; it's just not true."

When I ask him why he's been in the business for more than two decades, Borkoski responds with a common refrain: Utah is rife for reinvention and its scenery is absolutely beautiful. "The diversity of what Utah offers as a state is a great opportunity – one of the best in the nation, whether you’re doing whitewater rafting, biking, skiing, or hang gliding. I don’t care what it is; if you can’t do it in Utah, it must require an ocean."

Uinta's Will Hamill takes this attitude one step further, saying he still tries to hit the slopes every morning. "I guess I'm living the life," he says, "And I'm kind of loving it… I can work a full day at the brewery here, and still get 8-to-10 runs of powder skiing in."

He pauses and continues, "What's important is my surroundings are amazing, and Utah is a great place to brew beer. Everyone has their own weird laws after all."

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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