Utah's local breweries are spreading the word that the Beehive State is turning out some tasty brews with out-of-state distribution. Illustration: Manuel Aguilar
For most of my adult life, I’ve been a beer guy—a craft beer guy, to be exact. I’ve always found beer to be simple, yet full of purpose. By that, I mean it works for nearly every damn occasion. Growing up in Utah, I never really knew about the differences between “Utah beer” and “regular beer.” Let’s face it, if you’ve had any youthful experiences with beer in Utah, you’ve likely heard the terms “piss,” “water” and “near beer,” especially from those outside of the Zion Curtain.
So why would anyone outside of Utah want to try any of this pissy, watery beer? The answer is simple. Utah beer is none of those things, and when concentrating on the beer and not the ABV, people are impressed and they want more.
In the last few years, many of Utah’s home-grown breweries have been venturing out into the continental U.S. and, in some cases, the world, exposing people to the award-winning suds we’ve always known and enjoyed. As of now, Bohemian, Epic, Uinta and Wasatch are selling outside of Utah, and in all four cases, it started because of word of mouth.
“I spend as much time selling Utah as I do the beer,” says Greg Schirf, the granddaddy of Utah’s craft beer scene and owner of Wasatch. Before Schirf tried to sell the U.S. on Utah’s beer, he first had sell the people of Utah on it. “It’s not easy selling people something that’s new, but when the quality is there, it makes things a hell of a lot easier.”
It seems like a weird thing to want to sell beers to outsiders who may look upon it as “less than beer,” but according to Schirf, it was the out-of-state distributors who came to him wanting Utah’s beer. He explained that Utah actually has a good reputation with the people who know and sell beer. “Our beers really do well in out-of-state beer competitions, and the fact that RedRock Brewing won Large Brewpub of the Year in 2007 and us winning Mid-Size Brewery of the Year in 2010 [at the GABF] didn’t hurt either,” says Schirf.
The other breweries had similar experiences. “We really weren’t looking to get out of the state, but we had people calling us up from all over, wanting to get their hands on our beer,” says Steve Kuftinec, vice president of sales at Uinta. Uinta obliged and was so well received that they’ve entered 21 U.S. markets and even Great Britain.
Listening to Kuftinec rattle off the names of the states Uinta distributes to was like listening to a first year’s substitute geography teacher on meth. I think he even knew every distributor by name. “We’ve had a lot of great national press lately, and we were getting calls from wholesalers from other parts of the country, saying, ‘We hear a lot of good things about what you guys in Utah are doing,’” says Kuftinec. “We just took on the challenge on a city-by-city basis.”
Midvale’s Bohemian Brewery has made their way to South Carolina, which marketing director Pete Petras explains happened after they were approached. “We had a group from there contact us from out of the blue. They were really interested in expanding their craft brew brands, and our canned beer fit their needs. So we took a chance, and it seems to be working out.” Petras says that at first, the call was a little surprising for them.
“For a small brewery, opening new markets is a little overwhelming. You worry about who’s going to have control over your beer,” says Petras. “Looking for distributors in places you’ve never been is kinda like online dating. You send emails back and forth, you think you really get a sense of the person on the other end, then you meet and it’s either great or you start looking all over again.”
Petras says that Bohemian will soon be looking at having “blind dates” with distributors in Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, California and Tennessee.
These three local beer makers have been in the beer game in Utah for quite a few years. It’s taken a while for these guys to find their way out into the world, but Epic Brewing Company, who has only been around for just more than a year, strapped on their “beer speedos” and dived head first into the icy waters of national beer distribution.
“We’ve been constantly expanding our facility from Day One. The demand for our beer was incredible. We thought, ‘ok, let’s give it a shot,’” says owner David Cole.
Another thing that separates Epic from the rest is its sole dedication to higher-alcohol Utah beers. According to Cole, the popularity of their high-gravity beers is attributed to their aggressive punch out of the state. “Since we only do higher-gravity beers, we don’t have the 4 percent brands to fall back on. The state of Utah can be pretty unpredictable when it comes to alcohol. One day, the tables may turn, and if that happens, we will need to diversify.” Cole says getting firm footing in states like Idaho, Colorado, Virginia, Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina, Wyoming and New Jersey will help them gain that diversity.
In every case, all the men I talked to wanted to make one thing perfectly clear—Utah is always taken care of first because this is their base and their home.
I think if there was one thing to take away from my conversations with these guys, it’s that this shit sells itself—along with the very dedicated people in and out of the brewhouse. With these four Utah breweries peppering states across the nation like some kind of beer shotgun, it will only be a matter of time before opinions and perceptions about the most misunderstood beers in the nation begin to change—hopefully for the better.