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Utah: The microbrewery boom

The booze stock-up in Las Vegas was deemed a necessity before heading into Utah. The Mormon State would be no place to get hold of a decent beer, so a whip round the liquor store to fill the boot with previously undiscovered craft brews seemed like a superb plan.

Utah: The microbrewery boom
Wasatch Brewery Image: Justin Fincher / CC BY 2.0.

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The first one, guzzled in a motel room, proved the wisdom of this approach. The Wasatch GhostRider White IPA — brewed with coriander and with the suggested food pairing of ‘squirrel over an open fire’ — went down majestically.

The real surprise, however, came while checking the label more thoroughly. The Wasatch Brewery, it turned out, is in Park City, Utah.

Just before the 2002 Winter Olympics, Utah’s laws on serving alcohol were loosened considerably. Visitors no longer have to temporarily sign into private members’ clubs to get a drink. There are still myriad regulations about different kinds of licences, how many drinks you can have in front of you at one time and the alcohol percentage in tap beers, but Utah is no longer a drinks desert.

Indeed, a microbrewing scene that had been chugging along quietly before the rule changes has recently exploded in the state.

One of the stalwarts is the Moab Brewery in adventure sports hotspot Moab. Set up in 1996 by Idaho native John Borkoski, the likes of Porcupine Pilsner and Dead Horse Ale are created inside the sprawling brewpub. But rules limiting tap beers to 4% ABV spurred an expansion in 2011 and now stronger brews are canned, before being supped following the magical sound of an opened ring pull.

Tasting flights (a taste test of several different beers) are also verboten by state law, so sample-size beers are sold for a token 65 cents each. The refreshing Moab Especial and complex Black Raven Stout are particular winners.

The Utah microbrewery scene, however, is centred in the state capital, Salt Lake City. Jason Stock, the brewmaster at Squatter’s, says emerging breweries such as Red Rock and Epic are helping to create a beer culture to rival that of more famous craft-brew states. And, bizarrely, he claims Utah’s unusual alcohol laws help.

“I’m grateful to have learned my trade in this weird culture,” says Stock. “The limitations of the 4% law have actually worked to my advantage. I had to learn to make really good beers at 4% — you can’t just hide behind high alcohol levels.”

The rule also helps in creating a market. “The law discourages a lot of international brands, which would have to change recipes or create new products to service the Utah market,” says Stock. Most of the time, the big brewing giants — and established smaller brewers such as Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams — decide it’s simply not worth the hassle.

“This allows Utah brewers to dominate the taps,” says Stock. The same applies to the non-specialist stores, such as 7-Elevens and petrol stations, which sell beer but have to stick to the 4% rule as well.

The biggest surprise, however, comes in how lively Salt Lake City is at night. Mormon fustiness is cast aside at the likes of Bar-X, where cocktails are served in a Prohibition-style setting, and a door unexpectedly leads to the most recent addition. The long communal benches and sea of taps behind the bar give it away, just in case the name doesn’t. Beer Bar serves up dozens of microbrews — and a quick look at the menu shows that the local boom is more than handsomely represented.