When I reached the legal drinking age, I joked about aspiring to have a beer gut. I have always been a real scrawny guy with the metabolism of a hummingbird, so I figured I’d never consume enough beer to develop any visible bulge in my midsection. Half a dozen years later, the Utah craft beer scene directly correlates with my budding beer belly. Always eager to try new booze, the Kirkland brothers hit the road to see what’s brewing out in the desert of eastern Utah, on the edge of the Great Salt Lake and up the hill in the Avenues.
First on the list was Vernal Brewing Company. I’ve been through Vernal a few times before and my only memories are dinosaur signs and fast food “restaurants.” Understandably, I was surprised by the massive slate, glass and copper façade of the town’s brand-new brewpub, which opened on April 26 of this year. Owners Ginger and Eric Bowden had the place built from the ground up and spared no expense—they brought in Bart Bullington from Laguna Beach to serve as brewmaster, hired a gardener to cultivate hops for specialty beers and produce for their pub menu, installed a poured-concrete bar and commissioned Napa artist Penelope Moore to make paintings for the dining room.
The place feels very un-Vernal, but the Bowdens are lifelong locals. Both Ginger and Eric have worked, like many Vernalites, in the petroleum industry, from the permitting office to the equipment fabrication shop, respectively. On the side, the Bowdens have homebrewed beer for the last eight years, after Ginger’s homebrewing father got them hooked. With aspirations to someday open their own brewery, they opened a brewing supply store called The Bucket on Vernal’s Main Street in September 2011. The next month, they successfully lobbied for a local ordinance to allow the opening of a brewery, since such legislation didn’t yet exist in Vernal.
The locals proved to be very receptive of the new restaurant’s burgers, pizza and French onion soup that is made with smoked porter. “We were packed every night. We had people coming in that we would have to turn away,” says Ginger. There was only one problem, though—they didn’t have any beer brewed yet. Vernal Brewing Co. beers are scheduled to flow this July, but until then, an extensive selection of Epic and Wasatch beers have been the stand-in suds. When they do get their own beers perfected, their names will represent the culture and landscape of Vernal—Dinobite IPA and Kokopelli Kölsch are obvious, and Directional Porter is named after directional oil drilling.
The Bowdens aspire to the success and quality of breweries such as Epic, and they built their brew house accordingly. With plenty of room to expand and a bottling line ready to be maxed out, Vernal Brewing Co. is poised to make a name for itself, both in the 4-percent ABV and full-strength markets. After proliferating their beers throughout Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, “We plan, eventually, to go global,” says Eric. It would be surprising if they didn’t—Vernal Brewing Co. is built to last.
On the other end of the brewpub spectrum—and just down the street from Vernal Brewing Co.—is Hop N’ Keg, inside the Quarry Steakhouse. The Quarry, a homey mom-and-pop joint, is housed in a 100-year-old building that is filled with rafting photos, old beer signs and standard steakhouse fare. Matt and Kathleen Hacking, also Vernal natives and owners of both the Quarry and its recently added brewing operation, opened their doors four years ago. “It was something we always wanted to do […] There are very few places you can go and have a good beer with your dinner,” says Matt. Now a grandfather, he’s been homebrewing since he was a sophomore in high school, and says that they wanted to make sure that the restaurant would work before they started the brewery. It did, and in April of 2012, after the Bowdens helped legalize commercial brewing in Vernal, the Hackings opened up their little brew house. Now, in addition to the 15 Utah beers they have on tap, they serve three Hop N’ Keg beers in their pub.