Late September, the Brewers Association (BA) announced that the number of breweries in the United States had surpassed 4,000, which is nearing the historical high of 4,131 in 1873. The report also reiterated the fact that 75 percent of adults in the United States now live within 10 miles of a brewery.
A week later, I thought about these numbers while exploring the southern Utah desert with my wife. At the time, from where we were in the Escalante area, the nearest brewery was almost 3 hours away – whether we went west to Zion Canyon Brewing in Springdale, east to Moab Brewing in Moab, or north to Groggs Pinnacle Brewing in Helper (which only offers beers that are contract brewed by Uinta Brewing, which is 111 miles north of Helper).
It was a disconcerting feeling, but we were prepared. Before leaving Salt Lake City, we made sure to stock up on beer at a state-run liquor store – the only type of store in Utah where you can buy full-strength / “heavy” beer.
Utah is one of the five states with ridiculous “3.2 beer” laws. In short, all draft beer cannot be stronger than 4% ABV, equal to 3.2% ABW, and grocery stores and convenience stores are not allowed to sell heavy beer.
Of course, the main purpose of our trip wasn’t for beer. It was to visit National Parks, hike desert trails and do slot canyons. But I always seek out new beers to try and breweries to visit wherever we travel, and nothing beats a good beer after a long day of hiking.
Unfortunately, it rained the first two days of our trip, which, in the Southwest, often results in flash floods and washed-out roads. So, relegated to our hotel room in a small, one-restaurant town, we spent our first couple days doing more beer sampling than hiking, which caused us to quickly deplete our supply.
Sadly, liquor stores are far and few between in south-central Utah, and they all have limited hours. In many of the towns we passed through, liquor stores were afterthoughts inside gift shops and hotel lobbies, and most were no larger than closets. Not surprisingly, the full-strength beer selection in these places was pathetic. Some gas stations offered decent selections, but it was all 3.2 beer.
On the upside, I found lots of new beers to try, and I quickly learned to focus on the lighter styles, such as kolsch, session IPA, hefeweizen and light lager, because these styles better “fit” the low-ABV restriction. Although, many still seemed vapid, thin and watery.
As we explored the region, I was constantly reminded of how good we have it in Bellingham, beer-wise, and the Northwest in general. It also supports the argument that the U.S. can surely sustain many more breweries — especially in areas that are completely devoid of breweries.
According to the BA, there are nearly 1,000 U.S. cities with populations of more than 10,000 that still do not have any breweries, and I think I traveled through at least a dozen of them.
When you read all the stories about the exponentially increasing number of breweries opening up across the country, most of these new breweries are small and local, so there’s plenty of room for more.
“Most of the new entrants continue to be small and local, operating in neighborhoods or towns. What it means to be a brewery is shifting, back toward an era when breweries were largely local, and operated as a neighborhood bar or restaurant.” -Bart Watson, chief economist for the BA
If the ratio of breweries per capita in 1873 were the same as today, we’d have 30,000 breweries. In other words, the saturation point is a long way away, and many places around America are ripe for having more breweries. Or, in south-central Utah’s case, having just one brewery would be a good start.
Our trip ended back in Salt Lake City, where we visited the Wasatch Brewpub (part of the Utah Brewers Cooperative along with Squatters) in the Sugarhouse neighborhood. It made for a perfect stop, as it offered a great atmosphere, service, food and beer (including some full-strength options). Conveniently, this brewpub has a special liquor license, so it is allowed to sell full-strength, to-go beer in cans and bottles.
Among the beers I bought to go, I really wish I had picked up more bottles of Black O’Lantern Pumpkin Stout. It was a delicious beer, and a great way to quench my thirst after spending a week in a beer desert.