The State of American Craft Beer – Utah

With our headquarters in Washington DC and the bulk of our correspondents found near America’s top producing craft beer regions on the coasts, it only made sense for us to create a series giving all the states their due, featuring breweries large and small, plus the histories behind them.

We’ve been on this journey for over two-and-a-half years now and have managed to alphabetically drink our way to the 44th state on our list, The Beehive State, Utah. Led by Brigham Young, The Church of Latter-Day Saints established the provisional state of Deseret (from the word “honeybee” in the Book of Mormon) in 1849. The giant swath of land encompassed modern day Utah, Nevada, most of Arizona, and parts of Southern California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico. Their hopes of having a Mormon state began to slip away when the Compromise of 1850 established the Utah Territory and even more so with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad which brought with it non-Mormon settlers.

Utah ranks 31st total population (roughly 3 million residents), ranks 41st in population density and houses 27 craft breweries as of 2016 (an increase of 11 since 2013) who are represented by the Utah Brewers’ Guild. The state ranks 40th in total breweries (including D.C.) and 38th in breweries per capita as of 2016, according to the Brewers Association.

History

In 1833, prior to the arrival of the Latter-Day Saints in their American Zion of Salt Lake City, founder Joseph Smith received a revelation from God known as the “Word of Wisdom.” Part of their religion’s Doctrine and Covenants, it’s effectively a health code that discourages their members from partaking in “strong drink, tobacco, hot drinks [coffee and tea]” and to consume meat “sparingly.” It is this pretext that has effectively moderated and often stifled the beer industry in the state, though it didn’t do much to keep breweries from opening.

The first brewery in the state, the Hot Springs Brewery Hotel near Lehi, was opened in 1856 by Orrin Porter Rockwell (a Mormon, numerous times accused and arrested for murder). Demand for beer primarily came from those working on the railroads and mines, often times outsiders and those left aimless after the mining booms on the West Coast. The first major production brewery in the state was the California Brewery, opened by German immigrant Henry Wagener in 1864 and was wildly successful due to it’s location in Emigration Canyon, a common pass by which emigres entered the area.

Yet in an 1873 gathering of the territorial legislature, a motion was passed giving only Brigham Young the authority to produce and distribute “spirituous liquors” in the state. Making it’s own wine, spirits and beer became a profitable industry for the church, yet they began to reduce their production and even stopped producing wine by 1887. While two other major breweries would start up and dominate the region before prohibition (Salt Lake City Brewing in 1891 and the Becker Brewing in 1908), following the Great Experiment only 4 breweries would remain and wouldn’t last much longer as the largest out of state brewers moved in. Today, all alcohol other than beer at 3.2% by weight (4% ABV), is controlled by state-run liquor store outlets, including all beers over 4% ABV.

The oldest craft brewery and brewpub in the state are both helmed by Wasatch Brewing, opening up shop in 1986. Founded by Greg Schirf in the resort town of Park City, he two years later proposed a bill to the Utah Legislature to make brewpubs legal, which went into effect in 1989. Later that year, Squatters Pub Brewery (aka Salt Lake Brewing) opened in downtown Salt Lake City and became production partners with Wasatch in 2002, becoming the Utah Brewers Cooperative. Squatters has won more GABF medals than any other brewer in the state with over 18 (an additional ~8 medals have been earned collectively with the Utah Brewers Cooperative) and there have been a total of 88 won by all brewers in the state.

Three More Utah Breweries we Like and You Should Check Out

Epic Brewing (Salt Lake City) – Touting Themselves as the state’s “first brewery since prohibition to brew exclusively high alcohol content beer,” they were co-founded by David Cole and Peter Erickson in 2008. Their specialty line of Imperial Stouts – Big Bad Baptist, Big Bad Baptista and Double Barrel Big Bad Baptist are the top three ranked beers in the state and all weigh-in around 12% ABV. They’ve also only brewed a few beers less than 5% abv, of the 100+ creations they’ve made thus far. Don’t forget that these winners of 4 GABF medals also have a taproom in the more friendly abv confines of Denver’s River North neighborhood.

Moab Brewery (Moab) – Founded in 1996 by John Borkoski and Dan Sabey in the outdoor and mountain bike paradise by the same name, the brewery is one of only two in the southern half of the state. While roughly half of the brewery’s output of beer lies at that golden 4% barrier, their restaurant, one of the largest and most popular in the city, also holds a State Liquor License, making their pub more “accessible.” Known for their Johnny’s American IPA, Dead Horse Ale and GABF medal winning Rocket Bike Lager, if you can get a hold of their beers, you’ll like they find them in one of their beautifully designed 16oz four-packs of cans. 

Uinta Brewing (Salt Lake City) – While roughly 40% of Uinta’s beers are at the easily accessible 4% tally, they’re also no slouch when it comes to big, full-bodied brews. Started by Will Hamill in 1993, Uinta (named after a Utah Mountain range that’s pronounced you-in-tuh) is known for their flagship Cutthroat Pale Ale, top rated Hop Nosh IPA and one of the best varieties of specialty and seasonal beers you’ll find under one roof. Currently distributing to over 30 states, they are the most readily available from the state and have won 15 GABF medals, both feats a testament to their consistency, year after year.

Find more Utah breweries via brewtrail.com

About Warren Wills

Warren is the former Assistant Editor & Portland Correspondent for American Craft Beer. Creator of "The State of American Craft Beer" series, he now maintains his own site at craftbeerscribe.com.
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