Quadruple Your Fun: Utah’s Four Freshest Brewpubs
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.
What Hop N’ Keg does is basically large-scale homebrewing. Commercial craft breweries typically start with whole malted barely, whereas Hop N’ Keg uses malt syrup, or extract, to produce their beer—a method usually reserved for homebrewing. The Hackings have procured three 155-gallon stainless steel vats made by Beadle Brewing, each serving as a brewing vessel, fermenter and keg in one unit.
They’ve been serving large-scale versions of their homebrew recipes collected over the last few decades, poured straight from the tanks. Matt’s pilsner/pale ale hybrid called “Palesner” was long gone before I got a chance to try it, and the Red Wash Crude, an Irish cream stout was a bit, well, syrupy. Their new batch of chokecherry pale ale, fermented with an addition of handpicked and hand-juiced local chokecherries, was surprisingly delicious. Although the Hackings and the Quarry patrons have enthusiastically gulped one batch after another, don’t expect to see Hop N’ Keg beers outside of the brewpub—the beers are strictly in-house.
Just over 200 miles west of Vernal, visible from I-80’s Tooele exit, looms Bonneville Brewery, its presence made known a few miles earlier thanks to a giant billboard off the freeway. Brad Shepherd, owner of All Star Bowling locations in Tooele and the Salt Lake valley, bought and remodeled the former Tracks Brewing Company building.
He hired Dave Watson, the assistant brewer at Desert Edge and assistant manager at The Beer Nut, as head brewer. Watson got his start brewing at the High Desert Brewing Co. in Las Cruces, NM. He started producing Bonneville beer in November of last year, selling it on tap at the All Star locations while the restaurant was being renovated.
The brewpub opened its doors to the public on April 26, 2013 and in May, just six months after Bonneville began brewing, Watson was already winning awards for the brewery. At the Mountain Brewers Beer Fest in Idaho Falls, the North American Brewers Association awarded Bonneville a bronze medal for their Bee Wild honey wheat ale—brewed with wild Utah honey—and a silver medal for their Goldenrod golden ale.
“What we’re doing here is definitely classic,” says Watson. “[For] a lot of locals, [a visit to Bonneville Brewery] is the first time they’re trying craft beer, so we’re focused on quality and approachable styles before we start gettin’ freaky,” he says. The same could be said about the food at the brewpub, which Watson describes as “elevated pub food.”
One of the standouts on their menu is the Blamb Burger, made from a mix of beef and lamb, served with tzatziki on a pretzel bun. Underage patrons can dine on the ground floor of the restaurant, but the spacious upstairs bar is the heart of Bonneville Brewery.
With all nine of their current beers on tap, a bar top made from crushed glass bottles, panoramic views of the Oquirrh mountains and dozens of photographs celebrating the racing greats of the Bonneville Salt Flats, the place is like a Utah visitors center with booze. Although the brewpub itself is a great place to try their first-rate beers (they sell 3 oz samples for 50 cents each), the Beerhive, Bayou and Avenues Proper feature rotating Bonneville beers on tap.
Back home in Salt Lake, Rio Connelly is raving about Bonneville Brewery. He’s the Brewmaster and Co-owner of Avenues Proper Restaurant & Publick House, a dedicated Utah beer advocate, and the first in Salt Lake to carry Bonneville. Avenues Proper was designed as a modern neighborhood pub, with a cubic glass brew house ensconced in a comfortable, wood-on-wood dining room.
At Avenues Proper, which opened on April 27, 2013, the beer menu displays an obvious theme: Every one of the beers was made in Utah. On the taps alongside Bonneville Brewing are picks from Bohemian, Unsacred, Desert Edge and Shades of Pale, among others—not to mention the 30-plus bottled selections, including Utah’s first hard cider from Hive Winery. Connelly, like every brewer I’ve talked to, began brewing at home.
While attending college in Washington state, the Murray native discovered a thriving beer culture that was lacking in Utah, and developed a thirst for the previously unknown beers he saw lining the supermarket shelves. When he was just 19, his father sponsored his first homebrewing venture with his older brother, Liam Connelly, now Avenues Proper’s Head Chef and Co-owner. His father “wanted to instill a respect for alcohol from having made it, having handled it, all the way from raw materials to glass,” Connelly says.
And handle it he does. On May 28, Connelly served his first three house brews: a dry Irish stout called Sláinte, a Belgian single called Patersbier, and their flagship English golden ale, the Proper Beer. Because Avenues Proper already stocks classic beer styles from all the best breweries in Utah, Connelly has the freedom to experiment with these more esoteric styles.
Though much of his experimentation comes from homebrewing, he gives much credit to his two years of brewing at Epic. “Working for Kevin Crompton at Epic was the best training I could have possibly had,” he says. Connelly must have pulled his weight at Epic—his namesake beer, Rio’s Rompin’ Rye, is still on their roster and is a mainstay in my refrigerator.
Connelly’s Patersbier gives his old rye beer a run for its money—it’s a “single” on the Trappist beer strength scale that goes as high as “quadrupel,” but the spot-on Belgian flavor makes any whining about its 4-percent ABV irrelevant. Liam, the other Connelly, reflects this quality in the kitchen’s seasonal, farm-to-table classy pub fare.
The restaurant’s sausages, pâté, pickles and fries are all made from scratch from local ingredients, as is nearly everything in the place. Welsh Rarebit and Utah Elk Carpaccio punctuate their dinner menu, and late-night beer and cocktail sessions can be spent snacking on Pale Ale Potato Chips and Duck Fat Popcorn. For now, the brewpub is the only place you can try the rotating cast of their house beers—Connelly’s solid classics and obscure brews are sure to make Avenues Proper a beer geek destination.
To join me in the art of beer-gut cultivation, visit Vernal Brewing Co. at 55 S. 500 E. Vernal, UT, and Hop N’ Keg is inside the Quarry Steakhouse at 29 S. Vernal Ave. Bonneville Brewery is located at 1641 N. Main Street in Tooele, Utah, and Avenues Proper can be found at 376 8th Ave. Suite C in Salt Lake City.
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