may be 2009, but did you know that beer brewed in Utah is considered
a myth beyond the state line?
...But we do. Dating back to the mid eighties, Wasatch Beers has been brewing and supplying the state with the finest lager and ale they can provide. Setting standards, rewriting laws along the way, and constantly raising the bar for other local breweries to achieve. Even merging with longtime friendly rival Squatters in 2000 to become one of the largest local alcohol suppliers in the state as the Utah Brewers Cooperative. With over two decades and several awards under their belts, it doesn't look like they'll be going anyway anytime soon. I got a chance to take a tour of the place for pictures, and chat with staff, management and the Wasatch founder about the brewery.
Greg Schirf, Adam Curfew, David McKean, Dan Burick and Cindy Patterson
Gavin: Hey guys. First off, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Greg: Well, I've been in Utah since 1974, I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and graduated from Marquette University. I think growing up and going to school in my hometown I had a pent up need to go west. As the story goes I tell my Mormon friends I didn't bring a pole cutter but I did hitchhike here, been here ever since. I started the Wasatch Brewery in 1986.
David: We are a solid crew of beer lovers who are obsessed with making consistent top quality beer! I honestly believe that I work with some of the most talented people in the business.
Cindy: I’m Cindi and I love Utah beer!
Dan: I moved here from Colorado in 1985 to ski for a few years and here it is 2009 and I am still here.
Adam: My name is Adam Curfew I am one of the brewers at UBC, I am a chemistry major at the University Of Utah and I love beer.
Gavin: How did you first take interest in brewing beer for a living?
Greg: It was a combination of being a beer enthusiast mostly on the consumer level and a home brewer, combined with a real drive to start a small business. I looked at a lot of opportunities but had never felt comfortable taking the leap. But then I was with some college friends who had invited me up to Seattle for Thanksgiving in 1984, they had heard me talk about wanting to start my own brewery for a long time and said they wanted me to meet somebody. They had set up a Thanksgiving dinner with guy by the name of Tom Barn who started the Pyrmaid Breweries up in the northwest. And after that meeting my plans to a quantum leap, I met a guy who was doing what I wanted to do, struck up a friendship with him and he helped make it all possible. After that I came back and started plans on building a brewery in Utah.
Adam: I started home brewing when I was 21 and loved it more than any other hobby have ever had. I pretty much read every book I could get my hands on and bugged the guys at the brewery until I finally got a job.
David: In 1995 when I was a student at the University of Utah, I took on a summer job at the Wasatch Brewery. I wanted to experience brewing on a larger scale than what I was doing at home. I loved the work and realized that my training in Biology and Chemistry was an appropriate fit for brewing as a career. I was hooked and there was no turning back.
Dan: Homebrewing in 1985.
Cindy: I’m not a brewer but I love selling the crap out of this delicious stuff. Nobody’s ever in a bad mood when they need to buy some beer and with sales you get the opportunity to further educate people on the process and experience that beer brings. Beer is a loving progressive community full of good times and sharing.
Gavin: Let's first start off with how Wasatch Brew Pub got its start. What's the story behind its creation?
Greg: I grasped on the process of starting a micro-brewery back when it was unique to Utah. And of course the question was “why would you want to put something that's already a dicey-business plan in an environment where people don't drink beer?” But I thought if it could work in Utah it could work anywhere by you take the hardest test market you can find. For a long time it was really a venture that relied heavily on tourism, made money in the summer and winter and lose it in the other seasons, but the demographics have changed dramatically in the state as it has grown.
Gavin: How difficult was it running a brewery in a state with such conservative liquor laws at the time?
Cindy: Very difficult and continually difficult. Legislation is a wild game of hurry up and wait.
Greg: It was difficult even though there wasn't a lot of hoops. When I started as a micro-brewery it meant we just made beer for distribution. When I went to the state for a brewery license they kinda looked at me strangely and said non one had ever asked them for a license before, but its in the state statute and legal. Just asked for the name and where we'd be located and when we got a federal license they'd give us a state license. Two years later I came back and wanted to do a brew-pub and instantly said no, and it had been on the books under Tide House laws. So I figured I should get the law changed here since that was part of the survival, and being young and stupid and p!$$ed off from being laughed at I walked out pretty motivated. I went back to my local representative at the time who had a dairy and I knew the laws would work for his distribution as well, he liked it but said he couldn't sponsor it, but told me if I could find someone to sponsor it he'd back me up. And suggested Mike Demetrick who was a crazy renegade democrat down in Price, he agreed immediately and said he'd push to get it passed. Back then no one knew what we were trying to do and it got in under the radar, today it wouldn't have made it through. But we waited until the end of session when they often group bills together and just pass them. So we were dumb and lucky and if it hadn't passed there'd be no Squatters or Red Rocks.
Dan: To brew great 4% beers you really need to be on your game regarding all flavor aspects of the brewing process. I think having to brew a lot of 4% beers has made us better brewers in our higher alcohol line. As far as "running a brewery" with strange laws, I don't think it is a big deal.
Gavin: How did you know the guys from Squatters?
Greg: Funny story, my Squatters partners control Peter Cole and Jeff Polychronis and I, before we even dreamed of starting a brewery, worked together in the same real estate office in Park City. They later got into the brewery business not long after I did, and we had been competitors! But we had been able to stay friends.
Gavin: Did it make things easier for Squatters after Wasatch set the bar, or was it just as hard running a brewery in the state?
Cindy: Wasatch made it easier for Squatters to acquire the license to start a brew pub since Wasatch developed the legislation for brew pubs to first exist. After Wasatch was established, Squatters only needed to apply for the license and start rolling in the business of beer slinging. Yet, the commercial beer business is full of obstacles and challenges. Nothing is easy. It’s all ball busting work.
Gavin: Was there any hostility between the two companies or more mutual respect?
Greg: Oh it was definitely mutual respect.
Cindy: Friendship is rare and we’re all lucky to have the benefit of working with such wonderful, progressive, political and caring owners. Respect all around! There’s no I in Team and we’re constantly learning life/business from both sides of ownership.
Gavin: How did the discussions to merge them both start, and what was it like for both when the merger was finalized?
Greg: In 2000 we all got together to have lunch, just to see how we were all doing. And we got onto the idea of possibly having a third party bottle our beers during one of those economies. We started talking and realized it was too competitive of an industry to have a third party ride along and be part of our priorities. So why don't we go back and look at the numbers as if we had just doubled in size? After we ran them we realized that it make a lot more sense than what we've been doing. Shortly after that we joined the two breweries together in this facility and agreed to keep our pubs separate. It was the best thing that could have happened to us, combined all the resources and stay profitable. Amazingly seamless.
Cindy: Money! And now it’s about money. This business is very costly especially when you’re planning to take over the world. The merger allowed both breweries to healthfully supply the demand for their products without going broke by being able to share debt.
Gavin: What was it like for everyone when the merger finally happened?
Greg: There was a lot of excitement and a little bit of trepidation, but we really worked it out. Its basically like a marriage, you jump in with someone, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But ours worked because we had so much shared passion about beer. We had a pretty clear direction that we wanted to make the best beers we could and anyone who could make a contribution to that was welcome. Its amazing that its been nine years and the honeymoon is still in tact, I'm still waiting for the first spat but so far we've been lucky, probably because its been fun.
David: It was a very exciting time for us to become a larger and more capable company.
Adam: It was great we doubled our resources both physically and intellectually.
Cindy: It’s like being a polygamist. We all got to get in bed with each other and share the chores except we’re all over 18 and consenting adults. Awesome!
Dan: It was a bit strange. In my opinion it took about two years for the cultures to come together, but it went fairly smoothly.
Gavin: Without giving away major details, how do you go about making a new brew from start to finish?
Greg: Well it depends on what the brew is. One example of a recent brew, The Devastator, I was over at the Red Iguana with Cindy and Adam for lunch, and we said “We should make a really @$$-kicking beer, the younger adults are really into the high alcohol beers. We should just come out with one and sell it to the liquor stores.” And I thought it was a great idea. Shot a tequila and a beer later we came up with the name. I told the brewery guys to go back there and make the best beer you ever wanted to make, no guidelines and have fun. They put all their knowhow together using two different kinds of yeast and the beer was born. Cindy knew an artist and I had a concept for the label art, he came over and jumped all over it. And we took it from lunch idea to on the shelves in two months. Consumers jumped on it right out of the gate, its one of our best sellers.
Cindy: It all starts with lunch at Red Iguana and finishes with cocktails. The next thing you know you have another amazing beer on the shelf. Immaculate Conception.
Dan: We look at our line from a beer style point of view, find a style we are lacking and that we like to drink and brew it. (And then... Drink Our Share!)
Gavin: Is it difficult keeping the brewing process a secret?
Dan: I don't think the brewing process is all that secret but there are some ingredients and use rates we try to keep close to our vest.
Adam: The process is no secret everyone pretty much makes beer the same. The real thing that distinguishes one brewer from the next is the attention to and understanding of the details. Its the little things that take a good beer and make it great, there are a lot of little things and they all add up.
Greg: You know, we're not terribly paranoid. Some brewers tend to really have a protective nerve with their beer. At the end of the day its a crafted product, you wanna use quality ingredients and the proper processing. We don't advertise it, but we have brewers come and go, but we're really not that paranoid. We do the best we can, all our beers are unique from each other from one level to the next. We don't openly advertise it but we're not shredding our recipe after every brew.
Cindy: There are no secrets. If you had our recipes you still couldn’t duplicate what we do. You’d have to clone Jon Lee and Adam Curfew first. Good luck.
Gavin: How have the beers caught on outside of Utah?
Greg: You know, we've only had limited success outside the state, and I don't think it has anything to do with the percentage. But its hard for any kind of micro-brewery to change its local appeal. Because as the industry has expanded over the past twenty years you have more focused regional appeal, where every city and state has its own brewery. And even businesses like Pyramid and Sam Adams have gone national in distribution, to which they take up a good portion of the market share. So for us to go out of state is just a big challenge and we'd have to make a considerable effort at branding. We changed our business plan after merging with Squatters that we wanted to own our backyard.
David: The 4% beers as well as the higher strength beers have all proved popular in other markets.
Dan: We are just now reaching markets further out. We don't sell our entire lines in the out of state markets, but the beers we do sell do well.
Cindy: We have some of the best feedback you can receive about our beers from non Utahn’s. People constantly want to carry our products out of state. Sadly, at this time, we cannot support the demand for large out of state sales. Give us a few years and you’ll see us everywhere. We’re in the maturation period. We’ll grow up shortly.
Gavin: Do you ever retire beers from the line? And if so, is there a secret supply of that sitting around for prosperity or to bring it back later?
Dan: That's a secret!
Adam: Yes we do, there may be a stash sometimes but it does not last long.
Cindy: We do and it’s a sad fate. Yet, what we replace our retired beers with something even bigger and better.
Greg: We've had to, in fact its always kind of a sad day. The first beer we ever came out with was Wasatch Premium Ale back in 1986, ran with that for a decade or so, but felt we were losing some momentum so we changed the name to Wasatch Superior Ale. Made a bunch of attempts to refine the recipe and I believe we confused the consumer by changing it around too much and trying to tweak it. And we lost enough momentum to where it wasn't doing us any good on the shelf. The way shelf space works is if your beer isn't selling you're going to loose that space, so we just decided to stop making that. We did the same thing with another beer called the Slickrock Lager. They come and go and you try to stay consistent, but trends and tastes and creativity changes so its kind of an evenflow. The old stuff isn't exactly red wine, beer is a fresh commodity and the sooner you can drink it the better. People used to tell me after Christmas season they'd keep the season ale, they'd have some left over and kept it with the decorations to drink next year, and I was telling them it wouldn't be any good then.
Gavin: What are your thoughts on the awards and recognition you've gotten over the years?
Cindy: We love it and hope it keeps up. Recognition is always a good thing but awards don’t mean that you’re the best, customer opinions do.
Adam: It is really great to get awards it really helps to fight the “Utah beer is not real beer” stigma and it is nice to be recognized by our peers. However at the end of the day it is our customers that really count we make beer for beer drinkers not beer judges.
David: It's always great to receive awards, but the highest honor is bestowed by our loyal customers who make it possible for us to keep doing this.
Dan: We are very fortunate to have been recognized by our brewing peers in regional, national and international competitions. It keeps you excited about brewing great beers.
Greg: I think being in a state where the beer was supposed to be 4% or less has forced us to be some of the best brewers to get that alcohol content. To get it to 4.0 you have to be really creative and committed. But we compete in open categories in the world beer cups and The Great American Beer Festival and there is no 4% categoty. So we're winning gold metals against higher percentage beers and I think that speaks to competition here in Utah and that we've been able to survive long enough to get better and better at what we're doing.
Gavin: A little state-wide, what's your take on the liquor law changes made this past session, both good and bad?
Greg: Not too much on the bad side, I think getting rid of the private clubs is going to have a pretty profound effect. Particularly on tourism which is our #1 industry. Huntsman being a smart guy and a world traveler and very educated decided to say “look guys, if you're going to continue to have kids in mass numbers where our schools are going to be taxed, this is our best chance to pay the bills.” Like let's not shoot ourselves in the foot and make tourism a welcome industry here. So persuading the legislators was a big positive. Essentially this last change was mainly about the clubs and the Zion Curtain. I have no real issue with the added enforcement that's coming along as a tradeoff. The two-million insurance policy is going to be a concern and a real cost. There is one downside, and I don't know if they'll ever go back and adjust this. And that's if you're a new business you have to go through this design phase where you mix the drinks out of sight. Its a huge disadvantage to anyone new coming into town, so if a new cookie-cutter place come into town they end up having to change business plans. I think that will affect the growth of new restaurants.
Dan: I think for the most part its been good. Being a Colorado transplant, the private club thing never sat well with me. I will totally enjoy stopping by a non-private club on a whim from time to time.
David: I think that restaurants should keep ice cream out of sight from children, so that they are not encouraged to become obese.
Cindy: Who cares. They’ll change again in another session. Just adds onto the paperwork pile and hoop jumping skills.
Gavin: What's your relationship like with other breweries around the state?
Adam: Very good!
Dan: Great, we get along like cats and dogs. Just kidding, our relationships are all very good. From a production point of view the entire industry, around the globe, shares information and is very helpful towards one another. I think the sales guys may be a bit more competitive.
Cindy: Beer is a very supportive line of work. From my experience, we all love and support each other as much as possible. We all have the same goal = drink/make kick ass beers! All ya have to do is share and any brewer anywhere will have your back.
Greg: Cordial. Some come and go, some used to be employees here for a year or two and go off to start their own breweries. They go on and add to the competitive spirit. There's a professional distance but a courtesy, if you will. We're pretty close with the guys from Red Rock, we get together and do tastings. Its like any other friendships, you see some more than others but its pretty civil.
Gavin: How do those new changes affect you both as a business and as a patron?
Greg: As a patron, because I have to go into all the clubs and sell them beer, I'm pretty much a member everywhere. It'll be easier and much less of a hassle. As a business, our Wasatch Brew Pub in Park City I think is really going to benefit. Because we had areas where it was a Tavern License, where you could just sell beer, and now we'll have a full service bar throughout the restaurant, call it a Class C Private Club license. When the economy starts to come back we think it's going to be a win for the restaurant/club business and the state revenue.
Cindy: I don’t kiss and tell!
Dan: I think my wife and I will be better patrons and enjoy the city a bit more.
Gavin: Are there any plans to expand the company beyond what you're doing now?
Cindy: Oh yeah, but we got to take baby steps and get into more debt. The economy slump has our expansion plans set back a bit. We’ve got to pick and choose the most effective rout, especially with loan applications, but we shall hold tight to the rod and make it out on top.
Dan: From the Brew-hall... Some new, more efficient equipment and systems.
Greg: We are close to expanding this building, we're going to add to the south end for some new equipment we're bringing in. No new brew pubs planed but we are going to expand this production facility here at 17th South.
Gavin: Being a local business, how is it running the company in this current economy?
Greg: My mother told me when I started the brewery “You got a lot of crazy ideas but I like this one because it might just be recession proof. People drink in the good times and celebrate in the bad times to forget their troubles.” This was 1985, long before this recession, and she had gone through the Great Depression. So we're giving that the full test and she was right, people continue drinking. Especially beer drinkers because its their last luxury. So we're not breaking any records like we would in a healthy economy but we're doing okay. Our pub restaurants have been more impacted because that's a different experience going out to eat. But overall given the sad, sad state with so many businesses and so many people losing their houses and jobs, we're actually doing okay.
Cindy: We’re very lucky that Utahn’s have desire for local commerce. We fit right into that trend and do our best to support local business as well. We purchase all we can locally to supply our needs and our options are growing. I think with the economy slump people would rather give what dollars they have to someone other than big business. Big business has lost some trust in American hearts and we’d rather help out a friend or local family than throw our money at something that doesn’t give back.
Gavin: What can we expect from you guys the rest of the year?
Adam: A lot of great beer.
Dan: More great seasonals.
Cindy: Twenty more years of damn fine beers.
Greg: We'll be pre-occupied with out building expansion and new equipment, and will definitely be coming out with new products. Not just new beers but new container sizes. Larger. Jenny at Squatters Downtown has inspired us to come out with a bigger size bottle compared to the 12 ounce, and that will be coming out the end of the year.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Cindy: Give me liberty or give me a cold one!
David: Science and rational thinking!
Dan: Fresh local beer, fresh local beer, fresh local beer. Did I mention fresh local beer?
Greg: We really like doing business in Utah, we really like the consumer base and how its grown and responded to what we're doing, and we feel fortunate. Its not the most robust beer drinking group in the world, but those who do drink treat us well and we're real appreciative.