Giving You the Business: A Look at Growth Within Utah’s Craft Beer Industry

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L-R: owner Dave Cole, head brewer Kevin Crompton and owner Peter Erickson of Epic Brewing pose by their newly installed tanks. Photo: Peter Anderson

Craft beer is business, and these days, business is good. As the national economy swings dangerously above a pit of crocodiles on a rickety rope bridge, the craft beer industry is up ahead, bushwhacking its way forward. Why so recession-proof? They say folks spend more on their vices when the chips are down, but I’m going to have to call bullshit on that theory. Craft beer is far too delicious to be considered a transgression. You will not find Salt Lake’s craft beer fanciers catching a self-loathing buzz in an alleyway after spending their last three bucks on a Pfeifferhorn Lager from Epic Brewing Company. These well-made beers aren’t popular because they take the edge off your shitty life—they’re popular because they’re well-made to begin with.

As Utah Brewer’s Cooperative Brewmaster Dan Burick puts it, “We make great beer here and we have the best customers in the world. There are a lot of young, active people in this state,” he says. “For the most part, that is our demographic. Those that are not young in age are young at heart.” It’s true that Utah’s population is young and healthy, and we do love us some beer, but as Bohemian Brewery’s Marketing VP Pete Petras notes, the trend is national. “Right now we’re in a national boom with crafting,” Petras says. “It’s not only craft beer, it’s craft cheeses, craft whatever—there’s more transparency with the manufacturing process so people are really looking at what they’re putting in their bodies.” Talk about upending stereotypes: The pot-bellied drunkard in a stained wife-beater can keep his Budweiser—craft beer is the interest of a fit, health-conscious and younger generation. The brewhouses I toured are manned by friendly, often tattooed and often bearded young men. The business models are always vested in product quality first and foremost. Each person involved in the craft beer industry gives off that sense of job satisfaction you rarely see anymore. Brewers, owners and front desk attendents are all enthusiastic, back-patting, cheerful and very much in love with what they do.

Over this last year in Utah, the craft beer industry’s enthusiasm has translated into serious growth, improvements and modifications to some of our valley’s prominent breweries. One year ago, Bohemian Brewery completed construction on a huge addition to its brewhouse. “This [addition] was meant to be a packaging and canning facility, but now because of our growth, it had to [become] an extension of the brewery,” says Petras. As recently as 2007, Bohemian’s annual production was 1,200 barrels of beer. With the addition of a half dozen 60-to-90-barrel massive indoor stainless steel silos called lagering tanks or fermenters, Petras says, “We’re projecting this year’s annual production to be about 5,000 [barrels].” Plans are already in place to double the new building’s fermentation capacity again, adding four more 90-barrel lagering tanks and two more 60-barrel fermenters (each of which puts a $20,000+ dent in the wallet). Despite this success, the boys at Bohemian keep it humble. “We have a national demand for our product right now, but we’re taking it slow. We don’t want to get too big for our britches.”

Epic Brewing Company has also exploded since its infamous debut in March 2010. Over this last year, they’ve doubled the size of their building to keep up with demand, adding over 5,000 feet of floor space for new equipment. They filled the space with 20 new bourbon barrels and two 40-barrel fermenting tanks, and there’s still room for future expansions. The new brew space and equipment increased Epic’s fermentation capacity from 70 barrels to 360 barrels. As head brewer Kevin Crompton says, “We knew this expansion needed to happen about two weeks after we opened.”

The Utah Brewers Cooperative (UBC) is Salt Lake’s heavyweight craft brewery, producing all of the packaged beer for the Wasatch and Squatters brands. Last year, Burick’s major addition to his operation was a new bottling line. “[It] handles the beer more gently, adding to the quality of the product while allowing us to achieve more throughput,” Burick says. During 2011, he hopes to expand with enough fermenters to raise overall capacity by 20%. “We have made many adjustments to the brewhouse to increase its speed and cool the wort faster, thus increasing wort quality,” says Burick. “Better wort quality equals better fermentations, better fermentations equal better beer.”

All said, we ought to be proud of our local breweries—and not just the ones highlighted here. Having as many options as we do for quality local beer in this valley is fucking neat. The UBC won Mid-Size Brewery of the year at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival. Bohemian’s Czech Pilsner and Viennese Lager are the first (and, surprise, only) beers to have been to the top of Mount freakin’ Everest. Epic’s beers are, well, you’ve tried them: they’re awesome. The Internet agrees with this assertion: Epic was just named the third-best top new brewery in the world by ratebeer.com.

This is the part where I’d tell you to go out and support local business and blah blah, but it’s obvious we as a population have been doing just that—and in record numbers. Keep up the good work, boys.

Photos:
L-R: owner Dave Cole, head brewer Kevin Crompton and owner  Peter Erickson of Epic Brewing pose by their newly installed tanks. Photo: Peter Anderson