History of Beer in Utah

In 1833, Joseph Smith received a “revelation” known as the Word of Wisdom: the famed doctrine that prohibited members of the LDS faith to intake wine, hot drinks, tobacco and— strangely— the flesh of wild animals (which could only consumed in times of winter cold and famine). In Volume 12 of Brigham Young’s Journal of Discourses, Young describes how early church meetings were held at Joseph Smith’s house, the elder converts often chewing and smoking tobacco, occasionally spitting on Smith’s floor. Not pleased with the lingering “cloud of tobacco smoke” that he usually found himself in (coupled with his wife’s complaints of having to clean a tobacco-riddled floor afterwards), caused Smith to make an “inquiry” to the Lord, eventually leading to the Word of Wisdom. Today, Church members adhere to this doctrine quite strictly … but it wasn’t always that way. Back when Salt Lake City was in its infancy, the church and its members proved to be both active and vital in the movement to keep Utah soaked in booze. Economically, it was a great way to attract people to Utah’s ever-growing populace.

Photos: Courtesy of Utah Historical Society

A Mormon (one that was oft accused of killing people) started the first Utah brewery. Indeed, the infamous Orrin Porter Rockwell established the Hot Springs Brewery Hotel in 1856 (Valley Tan; November 6, 1858). Rockwell himself was a colorful character: he was the personal bodyguard to both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and with his Manson-like beard and intense, thunderous eyes, he turned out to be as intimidating as he looked. During a speech given by Vice President Schuyler Colfax in 1869, Porter was noted as to have blurted out “I never killed anyone who didn’t need killing.” This certainly makes sense when you take into account the fact that he was arrested for the murders and attempted murders of multiple men, including such notable Western figures as Lilburn W. Boggs (arrest reported in The Wasp; August 13, 1842), Lot Harrington (arrest reported in The Deseret News; January 22, 1862) and John Aiken (arrest reported in The Salt Lake Tribune; September 29, 1877).

Now why, pray tell, would we give this man, much less any man, the means to distribute beer to the common folk? The answer is simple: because of our railroaders and miners. It didn’t take long for people to find out that Utah had rich mineral deposits, and mining soon became the beating heart of Utah’s early economy (besides, there were still many unemployed people wandering around the West after hopping on the California Gold Rush train too late). Naturally, the prospect of new jobs immediately made numerous people perk up in excitement, and it wasn’t long before this little settlement was flooded with immigrants. Many of them (especially Germans) still had cultural drinking habits from their homelands, and the LDS Church greatly needed their labor. In fact, the first truly major brewery to be established in Utah was in 1864 by a German immigrant named Henry Wagener (Beer in the Beehive, 2006). The California Brewery grew to great prominence in a short amount of time, no doubt due to its prime location: right at the mouth of Emigration Canyon (in fact, it was only a couple hundred feet away from where the This Is the Place Monument now stands).

Yet there were problems still. Being a new territory, Utah was largely dependent on outside sources for certain goods like whiskey and cotton. According to an October 1995 History Blazer article, it was in 1861 that Brigham Young established the Cotton Mission in a little place called Toquerville, its ultimate goal being for Church members to raise enough cotton for Utah to break off its expensive importing ties. Yet the fertile fields that the Church members worked in soon provided something more: grapes. Lots of grapes. In fact, the wine that was derived from these grapes soon became hoarded by the LDS Church, largely because they were still using wine in their sacraments until the 1870s, when the teenage boys of the Aaronic Priesthood became allowed to prepare the sacraments themselves (soon replacing wine with water for their own protection, citing D&C 27:2 [“… that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the Sacrament”] as the reason for the switch). The Mormon-owned and operated Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution outlet (ZCMI for short) soon began selling wine and beer to the general populace at its downtown location, providing much joy to the hard-working residents of Salt Lake City.

Yet there is more to this story than just buds drinkin’ suds. According to Mark Twain’s hilarious 1871 Wild West travelogue Roughing It, “Valley Tan is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah. Tradition says it is made of (imported) fire and brimstone.” Indeed, the Mormon-curated Valley Tan was soon sweeping the west by storm, with prominent figures like Twain and Porter Rockwell drunkenly singing its praises. Yet the big turning point for Utah’s brew dance came in the form of an 1873 session of the (Mormon-dominated) territorial legislature in which a motion was passed that gave Brigham Young and only Brigham Young the right to manufacture and distribute “spirituous liquors” in Utah. Though this wasn’t the first time that an individual or group has tried to monopolize the Utah liquor market (a decade prior, the Provo City Council petitioned to be the only group responsible for Provo’s liquor output, but their petition was ultimately denied by the Utah County Court [J. Marinus Jensen’s Early History of Provo, Utah]), it was the first time that said individual succeeded. Now why, pray tell, would Brigham Young do that?

Though we can only theorize about what motivated Young’s wheelings and dealings to qualify the statement, it’s safe to make the assumption that Young – already known as a smart businessman – was in it for the money. The whole point of establishing Utah breweries (and cotton missions and factories) in the first place was to cultivate business and – more importantly – to prevent Utah from wasting money by importing valuable items like beer, whisky and fabrics. Young saw an economic opportunity and immediately seized it, even though he never drank the stuff. So, in an unofficial sense, the Church controlled all of the liquor in Utah; an 1874 edition of The Gazetteer of Utah even has a listing for the Salt Lake City Brewery being housed in Salt Lake’s Tenth Ward! Yet beer and whisky weren’t the only dealings that the Church had with “spirituous liquors”. It wasn’t very long until the Valley was swarming with beer and wine. There was so much, in fact, that some Mormons actually began paying their tithing in wine (a report from the St. George Tithing Office [later republished Leonard J. Arrington’s 1966 book Desert Saints] showed that the office had collected more than 7000 gallons of wine by early 1887). Everyone had their own idea of how much wine constituted a full tithing payment, eventually leading a Church tithing-clerk to issue instructions on how to standardize the wine/tithing process in a letter dated September 20, 1879.

The fact of the matter is, however, that the abundance of Utah breweries were gradually leading to frequent displays of public drunkenness, and soon the Church was growing worried about the affect that mass public intoxication was having on its image. According to Jerald & Sandra Tanner’s 1979 book, The Changing World of Mormonism, it wasn’t until 1887 that the church stopped making its own wine, soon followed by a greater pressure for people to adhere to the Word of Wisdom, a move, which would no doubt quell the drunkenness among Church members. The Church’s saving grace came in 1919, when Utah ratified the Eighteenth Amendment, putting prohibition into full effect. In 1921, it was Heber J. Grant that ultimately made adherence to the Word of Wisdom a strict requirement to enter the Temple, thus forcing many faithful members to clean up their acts whether they liked it or not.

These newly enforced Church rules, coupled with prohibition, proved to be a tough break for local brewers (forcing Mormons who owned them to jump ship point), but things got even tougher when the Great Depression hit in late 1929. In fact, only four local breweries were standing after the Depression, but their survival signaled better things to come: today, Utah hosts over thirteen breweries (according BeerExpedition.com, that is), all of them working ever-so-hard to hook you up with the drinks you love. Indeed, the Church’s ties with the Utah brewery scene ended shortly after the turn of the 20th century, but we will always cherish those memories, still as vivid and fascinating as ever.

In fact, I’m gonna toast to that right now. Cheers.

SLUG offers a special thanks to University of Utah Assistant Professor of History W. Paul Reeve, author of Beer and the Beehive, Del Vance and living legend Ken Sanders for their invaluable help on this article. If you happen to run into them, make sure you buy ‘em a beer.