Big beer seems to be taking Utah by storm. By “big,” I mean beers that come in large formats—big bottles and even mini-kegs—and also “big” as in full-strength, high-alcohol beers. Utah brewers seem to be jumping on the big-beer bandwagon with abandon.
Of course, big bottles of beer have been around for a long time. But until recently, they were from out-of-state brewers. Now, Epic, Squatters, Uinta and Wasatch all produce large-format beers. I’m not certain, but I believe Squatters might have led the way with Hell’s Keep, which was released in the summer of 2009. At Epic Brewing, all its beers are big—packaged in 22-ounce bottles. And Uinta has joined the fray with its Crooked Line series. Here are some best bets for big beer.
For beer lovers, the opening of Epic Brewing in 2010 was a godsend. At first, the beers were so popular that Epic brewers couldn’t make the beer fast enough. Shelves were empty. But that issue has been resolved with expanded brewing facilities. Epic designates its beers by category: Classic, Elevated and Exponential. Classic is just that: good, everyday brews in common styles like lager, pale ale, porter and IPA. The Spiral Jetty IPA ($3.76) is excellent, with aggressive, but balanced hops and a nice bitter finish (yes, bitter beer can be great).
The Elevated beers are kicked up a notch, showcasing the brewmaster’s creative talents with extraordinary, hand-numbered beers. Of these, I really like Copper Cone Pale Ale ($5.89), a deeply colored, dry-hopped beer brimming with Centennial hops’ herbal notes. For those who prefer a more malty brew, I’d point you towards Epic’s Brainless Belgian-Style Golden Ale ($5.89) with its complex malt flavors.
Epic’s Exponential series is aimed at beer aficionados. They are curiosities, and at last count, there were 15 different styles, so I haven’t tried them all, yet. Of those I have, my favorite is the Imperial Stout ($8.29), a really big, malty beer balanced with Cascade and Chinook hops.
In spring 2010, Uinta launched its Crooked Line series—full-strength brews packaged in 750-milliliter, cork-sealed bottles (wine size). The beers range from a 9 percent alcohol Tilted Smile Imperial Pilsner ($6.95) to the 13.2 percent Labyrinth Black Ale ($11.95). Cockeyed Cooper ($11.95) is a barley wine that rests in bourbon barrels before bottling, giving it subtle vanilla flavors along with hints of dark chocolate. You could sip this late at night like port or even pair it with chocolate desserts. Since I’m an India pale ale nut, the Crooked Line Detour Double IPA ($6.95) hits the sweet spot for me. For serious hopheads, this beer is well worth a detour, with a massive hop profile.
Squatters’ Hell’s Keep Belgian-Style Golden Ale ($9.95) is 25 ounces of glorious golden ale, weighing in at 7.75 percent alcohol. It’s no wonder this tasty brew won a bronze medal at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival in the Belgian strong ale competition. I also love Outer Darkness ($9.95), the biggest, baddest beer Squatters has ever made—an intense Russian Imperial Stout to brood over with Dostoyevsky.
But, if you really want to go big, you’ll need to get a "Chubby"—at least until Oct. 1, 2011, when a new Utah law will limit containers to 2 liters. In summer 2010, Squatters and Wasatch launched what they call the “Chubby.” It’s a 5-liter mini-keg (the equivalent of 14 12-ounce beers) that sells for $23.95. “The name Chubby,” Greg Schirf, operating partner of Squatters and Wasatch Brewery explains, “was just a fun name we came up while brainstorming one day. No, it was not named after me,” he deadpans. The Chubby comes in two flavors: Squatters’ award-winning India Pale Ale and Wasatch’s excellent Golden Ale. They’re perfect for a backyard barbecue.