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Gavin's Underground

Uinta Brewing Company

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2011-11-11 -
When independent brewers have a disagreement, they usually end up in court challenging each other for the rights to whatever idea sits in the middle, and in many cases it ends up going nowhere. But in the early '90s, when Will Hamill and Del Vance met up over wanting to use the same brand name, the two spawned a friendship that brought about one of the most popular and influential breweries in the state.
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Over nearly two decades, Uinta Brewing Company has helped set the standard for microbrews as well as providing some of the best-selling lines across the Wasatch Front -- expanding their business beyond what many believed they could do in a state like Utah, as well as winning international awards for a variety of brews. Rather than give you a history lesson in two paragraphs, we chat with president and owner Will Hamill about his career in brewing, bringing Uinta up over the years, thoughts on local brewing and a few other topics along the way.

Will Hamill
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Gavin: Hey Will. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Will: I am a father, husband, and beer lover who enjoys recreating in the great state of Utah -- primarily skiing and mountain biking. I am originally from Maine, and discovered the Mountain West on a trip during high school. I came back for college and stayed.

Gavin: What first got you interested in brewing and what were some of your favorite brews early on?

Will: I remember becoming infatuated with brewing beer in college and pursued brewing as a hobby when I lived in Portland -- both Portlands: Maine and Oregon. A number of craft-brewed beers were emerging into the market and I loved trying them. I remember when I tried Portland Porter, I was excited by the freshness and originality. It opened my mind to the possibilities that exist in brewing.
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Gavin: What was your first venture into home brewing like and what lessons did you learn?

Will: I began brewing high-gravity beers that didn’t fully ferment, resulting in too sweet of a product. I loved to read about brewing, buy the ingredients and to get to know others who shared the same interest in beer. There were a lot of late nights comparing beers, recipes and analyzing techniques.

Gavin: During this time, you came up with the recipe for a microbrew that would later become Cutthroat Ale. How did you come up with it and what was it like developing it?

Will: I kept a journal to record every step of the brewing process. Note keeping was critical -- and so were my friends who sampled the beer. Over the course of many, many batches of beer, I got the recipe where it needed to be. I wanted a consistent-tasting pale ale -- clean, fresh, and flavorful. I am grateful to my friends for sampling my beer and sharing their ideas.
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Gavin: What made you decide to take the leap into professional brewing?

Will: I couldn't stop thinking or dreaming about beer. Beer consumed my thoughts and dictated what I did in my free time. I decided to go for it -- there are always reasons NOT to do something. Deciding to go for it was exciting -- and a relief -- because I could now put all my energy into my passion. I also created a job for myself, which I needed.

Gavin: How did you originally meet Del Vance and what persuaded you to partner up with him?

Will: We had individually registered the name Great Basin Brewing Company. He beat me in registering the name by two weeks. I couldn't believe someone else wanted to start a brewery AND had the same name. I found out where Del lived, knocked on his door and that began the conversation that led to us becoming partners.
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Gavin: What was it like for you both building up Uinta and launching the brewery in 1993?

Will: Exciting. Nerve wracking. A lot of work. I don't remember getting a full night's sleep that first six months. Sleep didn't really matter -- I loved being immersed in it all.

Gavin: What made you decide to roll out Cutthroat as your first brew?

Will: While Cutthroat Pale Ale was the first beer I brewed for Uinta, our Hefeweizen -- now Golden Spike -- was released two days later. In my opinion, pale ale was the right style to introduce to the market under Uinta’s name.
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Gavin: The line did exceptionally well, to the point where you couldn't fulfill orders. What was it like for you to have a successful brew immediately?

Will: Humbling. Thrilling. Satisfying. It became evident that I could very well make a living doing what I loved.

Gavin: Down the road, Vance allowed you to buy him out as partner when he moved on to other projects. What was it like parting with him on a business level, and how do you interact these days, with him owning the Beerhive?

Will: Del was always interested in the bar business. He has done well with the Bayou and the Beerhive and they've been great additions to SLC. We share a beer together when we can and he often visits the brewery -- it's all good.
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Gavin: What made you decide to build a brand-new facility and what was it like having the place constructed specifically to be a brewery?

Will: UBC was ready to move; we outgrew the old facility. Purchasing our own land and building a brand-new brewing facility in 2001 gave us a blank canvas. We were able to design a brewery that allows us to be more efficient and organized. Gone are the days where we stored our finished product outside and loaded trucks on the side of the road.

Gavin: When did the idea come about to install a brewhouse pub, and what was it like going through the process of getting it approved and eventually added to the facility?

Will: The old brewery had a tasting room that could accommodate a few close friends. The current location has a small pub and can comfortably seat customers who wish to enjoy a pint of beer rather than just a sample. We had to obtain a tavern’s license, and the process in obtaining the license went relatively smoothly. We originally didn’t want to have a “restaurant” on the premises. However, during the first couple of weeks of being open to the public, we had scores of people showing up mid-day looking for a meal to pair with a beer. It didn’t take long to realize we needed to offer lunch fare!
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Gavin: What's the process like for you when creating a new brew, from the idea to the final product?

Will: Creating a new brew is fun. New recipes are always rattling around in my head. I’m influenced by the flavors I encounter when I travel and dreaming about making it a reality. Others at the brewery share their ideas, too. From there we get an idea of the direction we want to go, create a starter-recipe and then we brew small batches. Finally we taste, share our opinions and tweak the recipe before going to production.

Gavin: Do you create any lines specifically for the pub, and if so, how long do you keep them for?

Will: We have brewed specialty beers for the pub or brewery only. We’ve most recently offered a black bier served in the pub and the Crooked Line’s "Oak Jacked Imperial Pumpkin Ale" only available in the on-site Little Big Beer Store. Otherwise, specialty beers emerge because we are inspired to do so. We serve it until it's gone!
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Gavin: What's it like for you to take these brews to competitions and end up walking away with some top honors?

Will: Uinta has been fortunate over the years, winning medals from World Beer Cup, Great American Beer Festival, and the North American Beer Awards. It is an honor to know that Uinta Beers are recognized in regional, national and international competitions. Next week, Uinta will receive an award for the Labyrinth Black Ale at the European Beer Star Awards in Germany. Like many different kinds of competitions, there is a team behind the winner, and in this particular case, a team behind the beer. I take great pride in the Uinta Team -- great people committed to brewing world-class beer.

Gavin: A few years ago, you started a line of organic brews. Where did the idea come to start that new line, and how has it worked out making those as compared to your regular process?

Will: Uinta produces an organic line of beers that is USDA certified. Wyld Extra Pale Ale, Baba Black Lager and Monkshine Belgian Blonde are all organic beers. There is a growing awareness about food production. If pasta primavera can be prepared with organic vegetables, why not the barley and hops in a beer?
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Gavin: You released the Crooked line back in 2010. What was it like creating these new brews, and what made you choose local artists for the labeling?

Will: The Crooked Line beers are big beers -- in taste and in alcohol content. Served in larger 750 ml. cork-finished bottles, Crooked Beers are meant to be shared, and preferably over a meal. They simply aren't, or shouldn't be, the beer to tip back after mowing the lawn. In exploring ways to present the beers to the market, we wanted a unique label and our thoughts went to local artists. We interviewed three artists, thinking we'd work with one. After spending time with each artist, it was clear that each could bring a unique twist to the beers. Since each beer is wildly different from the other, it made sense to have the labels reflect this difference. We liked the idea that the labels reflected the individuality of the beers. Thanks to Travis Bone, Leia Belle and Trent Call!

Gavin: Without revealing any grand secrets, what have you got in the works for 2012 for Uinta?

Will: Hmmm. 2011 was a big year due to the time dedicated to our redesign of labels and logo. We reorganized all of our beers into three different categories: The Classic Line, The Organic Line and the Crooked Line. We also introduced a proprietary "compass" bottle that integrates compass markings around the shoulder of the bottle and echoes the compass located on Uinta's logo. It took about 14 months of focused work. As for 2012, we hope to enjoy the redesign in the marketplace. We will continue to dream of different beer styles, and work to provide consistently high-quality beer for our customers. Certainly, there are other ideas floating about the Uinta Think Tank, but they will need to gel a bit before an announcement is made.
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Gavin: Moving on to statewide stuff, what's your take on the current liquor laws, both good and bad?

Will: The good is all Uinta beers, ranging from 4% to over 13% ABV, may be purchased at the brewery! It seems absurd that for years we were not entitled to sell some of our own products. Also, the beers are ready to be served as they were intended to be enjoyed -- COLD. The not-so-good: The Zion Curtain. Customers have the choice of entering a bar or restaurant, and a restaurant should have the right to display its offerings, as do other businesses. Also frustrating is the end to “happy hours” which allowed business to promote themselves through offering a discounted beverage and/or food pairing. Why are businesses not permitted to offer discounts for alcoholic beverages while state liquor stores discount their products? The availability of liquor licenses also needs to be increased.

Gavin: What's the biggest obstacle, in your eyes, when dealing with the state, and what do you wish were changed?

Will: I wish that the state would better recognize the tax dollars and jobs generated by the growing local beer industry. Again, liquor license availability should reflect the demand.
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Gavin: What's your relationship like with other breweries and brewpubs around the city?

Will: We are friendly competitors. There is often communication between the breweries. Presently, I am working to organize and set up a Utah Brewers’ Guild.

Gavin: What can we expect from Uinta and yourself over the rest of the year?

Will: A new Website reflecting our redesign, a new Crooked Line beer is in the works and we are finishing up the blueprints for a 22,000-square-foot addition to the brewery, which would double our capacity.
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Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

Will: Uinta has been brewing for nearly 19 years in SLC! We are grateful for the local support and the opportunity to work and play in the great state of Utah. We continue our environmental stewardship with our new rooftop solar system and continue to develop new ways to be community builders.


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