Last week I spent the three days in Salt Lake City at a conference for work. After a day of seminars it was time for me to hit the town and checkout the local beer scene. I heard that the famous and oft-awarded Epic Brewing was a mere 12min walk from where I was staying, at the Little American Hotel. I popped on my headphones and headed out into the 93 degree dry heat.
Epic Brewing was founded in 2009 after Utah changed their law and allowed breweries to sell “strong beer” (as they call it here) directly to the consumer. Strong beer is considered beer above 4%. The Mormon church restricts the consumption of alcohol to it’s members and this has influenced the laws in that state. Governor, Jon Huntsman (a member of the Mormon Church), reformed the law in 2009 because he felt it would be good for Utah tourism. Utah still doesn’t allow beer above 4% to be sold on draft. There were a few concessions that came along with the more lenient laws. First, they could serve strong beer, but it had to be served from bottles. Secondly, you can’t buy a strong beer without purchasing an entree. Lastly, they don’t serve full pints of strong beer. Only schooners and 2oz. tasters. Tasters go for as little as $0.40 each.
You enter into Epic via the “Public Sales Entrance.” The sign made it feel like I was walking into a Les Schwab Tire lobby, but my concerns were quickly set aside and forgotten when I was greeted by a full cooler of bottles and a cheerful staff person. There was a line of about 5 people waiting to purchase bottles of their many award winning brews. I was told I could drink tasters here, but I saw no place to drink. Toward the back of the public sales entrance I found a small serving room run by a great guy named Sam.
There were maybe 7-8 bar seats. After ordering and purchasing my mandatory caprese sandwich, Sam served me up a schooner of Spiral Jetty IPA and a taster of Brainless Belgian. He let me know that by state law beertenders can’t serve beer without a name tag. “No name tag, no beer.”
I struck up a conversation with the enjoyable couple in the bar and sipped away. Spiral had a nice piney, earthy nose. The head didn’t stick around the way I like, but it had decent lacing as it went down. The Belgian was tasty, but I didn’t take tasting notes. My intention was to understand how a brewery like their’s functions within the confines(?) of Utah’s interesting liquor laws. Apparently, they operate pretty well. They have numerous awards. In 2011, Epic was ranked as one of the Top 100 Breweries in the world (92nd.) They were also listed as having one of the Top 100 Brewers in the world in 2013.
I got to know Sam the beertender. He was a genuine guy who was very proud of Epic Brewing. He had been working at Epic for 3 weeks and when asked what other breweries I should try he said, “Epic is king, but….” He listed off a few others.
I tasted a number of their beers. I also had the curious Sour Apple, Capt’ n’ Crompton’s and Pfeifferhorn Lager. A new couple walked into the bar and sat down next to me. I was debating out loud whether to order an Imperial IPA. The husband told me to “sack up and buy it.” I cringed. Coming from someone who drinks 4% beer regularly, I felt his comment was a bit ironic, not to mention odd in general. After striking up a conversation with them he eventually let me try his Imperial Red and I determined that he was an alright guy and I liked his beer. I also learned that it wasn’t legal for me to tip Sam for his great service, but I could tip him by buying a bottle of Epic beer and leave it in the cooler for him. That I did.
I popped the headphones back on and continued my beer tour to a place called the Beer Bar. The Beer Bar has about 30 beers on tap (all 4%!) and about 60 beers from bottles. As you can see below, the bottled beers seemed very expensive. I really enjoyed the ambiance of the place, but didn’t find the complexity and depth that I had in Epic’s beers. The mouth feel was lacking and the body wasn’t there, but it had a decent nose.
Now, obviously, that isn’t to say that Utah breweries can’t brew beer. Besides Epic, I didn’t have a beer over 4% the whole trip, so I certainly didn’t get the full gamut. Occasionally, I was proven wrong. When I had a pint of Moab Red Rye IPA I was pleasantly surprised. The taste of the rye raised the depth of what would normally be an interesting take on a 4% IPA. Utah breweries brew beer above 4%, but, as I said, you have to buy them in bottles and they are expensive. I’d love to try strong beer from Moab, Uinta, Red Rock and others at some point. Time was my enemy for this trip. After finishing up my Wasatch IPA, I meandered through Salt Lake City. The city has some pretty awesome parks, food trucks and streets.
I made my way to Red Rock Brewing and saddled up to the bar. I ordered a Red Rock Pale Ale and struck up a conversation with a couple visiting from Colorado on a road trip to the West Coast. The woman was from Tasmania and we talked about Auz’s booming craft beer industry, the definition of craft and the state of Utah’s beer laws. Red Rock’s Pale wasn’t half bad. It still lacked the mouth feel and body that I enjoy in heftier beers. Higher alcohol beers aren’t just enjoyable because they get you drunk, they simply have more to work with, which gives them more depth and complexity.
I can’t really say I toured the beers of Utah, as I only went to three locations and two breweries. I drank beers from four different Utah breweries. There are so many more! Epic Brewing, naturally, stole the day for me. I really enjoyed the beers and the great variety they had. A few weeks ago, Epic Brewing released a Sour Brainless on Peaches. They made only 175 bottles and you were limited to 2 bottles per person. It sold out in 17 minutes. Utah’s breweries have a lot to offer and I look forward to trying more.
I went into the trip set on not letting one variable (ABV) impact my opinion of a beer. I left with the opinion that ABV matters, impacts many layers of the brewing process, not just intoxication. I was proven wrong on an occasion or two, but, generally speaking, giving the brewer the full range of tools at their disposal will help to elevate any beer. The restrictions that are in place in Utah have made breweries adapt in interesting ways and they are producing beers that you might not expect. Utah is a fascinating case study in history, culture and craft brewing adaptation.
You can try some of Epic’s offerings on the Tap Trail. Head to Elizabeth Station to see what Epic beers they currently have in stock.