Chances are, you’ve noticed a couple new beers in the cooler at grocery stores and gas stations. The bold red, white and blue bull’s-eye of Johnny’s American IPA and the vintage, checkered turquoise-and-white Rocket Bike American Lager stand out on the shelf, both in appearance and size. If you looked closer at the four-pack of 16 oz tallboys, you may have been surprised to see that they were from Moab Brewery. But this surprise, as I learned from a long chat over too many cans of Johnny’s down in Moab, is what Head Brewer Jeff Van Horn was counting on when the company decided to revamp its brewing operation, along with its image. Besides being a drinking and dining institution among locals and tourists, Moab Brewery is steadily garnering its presence in the Salt Lake craft brewing scene.
The brewery has been around since 1996, and Van Horn was hired as head brewer in 2002. Van Horn, who began home brewing in the late-’80s, worked his way from keg washer to brewer at Uinta, brewing and bottling in Salt Lake until taking his Head Brewer position in Moab, going on to win several North American Beer Awards for his Scorpion Pale Ale, Dead Horse Amber Ale and others. But after nearly a decade of making the same handful of beers, however excellent, Van Horn felt that the brewery had lost the public’s interest. Last year Moab Brewery established a line of canned 4% ABV beers and started working to establish new additions to the quart-sized 8.59% ABV bottle-conditioned Desert Select Ales. In the cans are the Rocket Bike steamer-style lager and Johnny’s IPA. The Desert Select line includes a Scotch ale, a tripel and a black imperial IPA. According to Van Horn, this leap was just what the brewery needed. “How do you change your face after you’ve disinterested people in your product to a certain degree? It was kind of a gamble to just bring out all new stuff, but I think it was the right gamble because it changed people’s perception that we’re just doing the same old thing,” he says. The package re-branding was done in-house and took approximately six weeks to complete.
The move to add a canning line in the brewing facility was also an essential part of Van Horn’s plan. A large part of the decision to put beer in cans, says Van Horn, was “the recyclability of cans—once it’s aluminum, it’s aluminum. And it works great for the river.” Moab is, of course, a mecca for outdoorsy types—if you’re going to bring beer, cans have obvious advantages over bottles in terms of durability and packability, whether you’re camping or rafting. Luckily for Moab Brewery, new and affordable canning equipment lets them do what was formerly reserved for much bigger breweries. “Cask [Brewing Canning Systems], which is the line that we have, made it possible for small guys like us to be able to produce cans,” says Van Horn.
The Desert Select Ales signify Moab Brewery’s push toward the high-end beer market. “The bottle conditioning was what we were really trying to set ourselves apart with. The idea behind it was so that we could sell it here at the restaurant with food. We put it in the huge bottle so that you were technically forced to share it. It’s an excuse to not buy a bottle of wine with dinner,” he says. Though both the canned beers and the Desert Select line have been well received at the brewery’s restaurant and take-out counter, the DABC is making it very difficult for the company to distribute their high-alcohol Desert Select beers throughout Utah. “The liquor stores have been tough. They’ve only got us in seven or eight stores,” says Van Horn. For now, Salt Lakers can drink the Desert Select beers at The Bayou and The Beerhive, but to take a bottle home, you’ll have to look in the West Valley, Holladay or Park City liquor stores.
Despite the state-imposed roadblocks, Moab Brewery is thriving. “Last year, we did about 200 brews, whereas this year, in the first quarter, we’re at about 100,” says Van Horn. Selling more suds isn’t their only goal for 2012, though. Van Horn is working on full-strength versions of Rocket Bike and Johnny’s, as well as two new Desert Select offerings—an export stout and a hopped rye. Long term, Van Horn has even bigger plans for the brewery: “When we did this expansion, part of the plan was to end up distilling—putting out a gin, a vodka and eventually a whiskey. I’d still like to see that happen, but we’ve got our hands full with what we’re doing right now.” Expect Moab Brewery to hold its own among Salt Lake’s top breweries this year. In the words of brewmaster Van Horn, “I’m not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel with beer. We just want to be part of the game.”