Sometimes the old reliables need a break. Seasonal specialties, one-off experiments and one-time variations are part of what makes local brewing so fun. And Utah’s breweries have plenty for people looking for a beer that’s fresh and fleeting. See what’s on tap at your favorite brewpub or look for limited high-point bottles like the Squatters Small Batch Series and Epic’s wide array of limited editions.
There’s one creed to remember when it comes to small-batch beer: Drink up today, for tomorrow it may be gone. Some of us are still waiting for Bohemian to make more zoigl, and lovers of barrel-aged dark beer are struggling to survive the gap between batches of Uinta’s Sea Legs Baltic Porter.
For brewers, smaller projects are “really the outlet that lets us … explore and learn more about new ingredients and new processes and new beer,” says Kevin Ely, head brewer and production manager at Uinta Brewing Company. “You have an idea what it’s going to be like, but you don’t know until you do it.”
Uinta recently released a one-off hoppy wheat ale made with a proprietary hop blend from the Ales for ALS fundraising project. Ely says you can call it “a session white IPA or an American-style witbier.” Whatever you call it, it’s fun and refreshing to drink, and it won’t be around next month.
Uinta also collaborated with local homebrewer Chris Detrick to create Cahoots, a limited-edition double-rye IPA from Uinta’s Crooked Line. Uinta made a single-rye IPA with Detrick as part of the Great American Brew Festival’s Pro/Am competition, and decided to explore the style further. “We had actually never brewed a rye beer at Uinta before,” Ely says. “We have some brewers who had brewed with rye on a homebrew scale, but we’d never done one at the brewery itself.”
Utah breweries have started making small batches really small with one-day-only brews in firkins. Firkins are small barrels that hold around 9 gallons, and are typically used for cask-conditioned beer. Cask ales are made via a traditional method that uses only natural carbonation. “This refermentation in the cask, the lack of carbon dioxide for dispensing and the exposure to air while serving yields a very different beer than most Americans are used to,” says Mark Alston, owner of The Bayou. “The beer will be chock-full of flavor while being quite low in carbonation.”
Hoppers, the downtown Red Rock and Poplar Street Pub have been doing firkin specials, and in June, The Bayou brought in seven local breweries to launch its Firkin Friday series. Each week, one brewery supplies a special beer to be served on Firkin Friday. The program is now on its second rotation through breweries.
The aforementioned exposure to air means that a beer can change quite a bit between when it’s tapped (at 3 p.m. at The Bayou) and last call. After that, it’s gone. And when hops and/or other extra flavoring are added to the cask during the carbonation process, it makes the beers even more unique. “Even if the brewer tried,” Alston says, “it is almost impossible to reproduce the same cask twice.”
The cask could give new flavor notes to an old standby, like Uinta’s variation of its Trader IPA, or set the stage for an adventurous experiment, like Desert Edge’s Rosemary Blonde Kristal Weizen or Hoppers’ Wild Blueberry & Fresh Lemon Wheat.
“The cask beers are fun because you get a little bit different taste, a little bit different flavor profiles,” Ely says. “People seem to be a little more accepting of the traditional style. It’s going to be unfiltered and a little bit hazy.”
There are many more techniques to be explored. Alston says The Bayou is experimenting with a series involving a device called a Randall, which adds flavors to beer as it comes out of the tap. Alston says they’re still working out the bugs, but “we had some good success with a candied-ginger pilsner.”
And as long as there are unexplored ingredients and methods, local brewers will continue to search for new aromas and flavors. As Ely says, “We always just want to make another beer that we really like to drink.”