“Utah Beer Festival” just sounds fake. Fantastic, even. Paradoxical, too, because Utah is the last place one expects to find an event celebrating alcoholic beverages. In fact, more ridiculous events or establishments sound more probable. Perhaps something like a book burning—The Annual Liquor Spill and Kool-Aid Swill? Museum of Unnatural Hedonism, where a single can of beer sits on a pedestal encased in glass, protected by laser beams? And yet, there is a festival. Brew aficionados can rejoice!
The interior of Del Vance’s Beerhive Pub in downtown Salt Lake City, is actually a lot like a microbrew church, with the high ceilings and darkly stained mahogany bar and furnishings. Squatters and Wasatch banners hang in the lofty east window, framed by tempered glass. The noon-ish sun shines beatific rays around them, and there is an actual stained-glass Epic Brewing Company sign by the alley door. More holy, though, are the pint glasses, steins and bottles behind the bar. They hold the even more sacred ice-cold, life-giving nectar that connoisseurs crave like sinners lust for absolution.
Vance leads City Weekly past several short vinyl pews—er, booths—to a couple of black leather couches. Reminded of our recent “Coldest Beers” issue, he wonders aloud how the Beerhive fared. Neither of us can recall, and Vance resolves to dig up the issue and find out. “38.1 [degrees],” he proclaims. “I thought we did a lot better than that.” He’s satisfied with the explanation that his temp was about average. He’s less happy to hear CW’s official testers are prohibited from drinking the beer for legal/safety reasons. He understands, of course, but, to a man who has devoted his existence to a liquid ladylove—and authored Beer in the Beehive (Dream Garden Press), the Utah brewing bible—beer is for drinking.
Incidentally, that’s why, when 2011 wraps, 954 beer festivals will have been held around the world—many of them in the United States. One of those happens to be City Weekly’s own Utah Beer Festival, happening this week. Vance is looking forward to it. “Just one recommendation?” he offers. “Do more than one tent.”
Access was the big problem that attendees and brewers alike lamented when the 2010 fest was all over. There was one tent “jammed into the corner,” and infinite, indeterminate queues, where the beer at the end of the line might not be the one you’d hoped to try. “[The festival] was modeled well,” says Mike Riedel, who writes a Utah beer-centric blog (UtahBeer.blogspot.com). “But in the long absence of beer fests—four years—the popularity of craft beers in Utah exploded. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the amount of people that showed up looking for something besides fizzy yellow beer.”
Riedel, whom Epic brewmaster Kevin Crompton calls “one of the most knowledgeable and passionate beer bloggers in the nation” and “Utah’s beer guru,” has attended local beer festivals since the mid-’90s. “Back then, there were only two or three breweries pouring two or three beers, but nobody cared because they were different and local. Ever since then, I’ve tried to go ‘Deadhead’ on any beer fest in the state as I can.”
The first local beer festival was in Deer Valley in 1991, organized by Wasatch’s Greg Schirf and Squatters’ Jeff Polychronis. “It was a huge hit,” Schirf says. Within two years, the festival outgrew Deer Valley and was relocated to Franklin Quest Field (now Spring Mobile Ballpark), with United Concerts’ Jim McNeil assuming control. With more brewers, bands and tons of food vendors, Schirf says, “It would have been huge if we had continued.” But it wasn’t Utah liquor laws that stopped it—it was a disagreement between McNeil and some brewers Schirf won’t name.
“McNeil thought we, as a group, the participating breweries, were too high-maintenance,” says Schirf. “We had too many people driving him crazy, and some wanted a cut of the profits. We should have kept our eye on the ball and just been happy promoting our industry. A real bummer … Jeff and I really liked having McNeil do it, because we knew how much work it took to pull off. Not every brewery agreed.”
Until Salt Lake City’s draught-fest drought ended in 2010, beer lovers had to go out of state for a beer-fest fix. Lucky for them, there are 40 such barley carnivals in surrounding states: two each in Idaho, New Mexico and Wyoming, six in Arizona and a whopping 27 in Colorado. No one is surprised that Utah went a full presidential term without staging its own. Plenty of Utahns imbibe, but, thanks to peculiar liquor laws, we’re known as teetotaling prudes. It’s a wonder we have a beer festival at all.
Laws of the Land
The idea behind the laws is always framed as a safety issue by usually nondrinking, Mormon lawmakers, while the drinkers affected by such legislation interpret it as enforced morality. Certainly a case can be made for both, especially with 2011’s Senate Bill 314, which was proposed by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem.
Valentine says the bill was meant to clarify laws already on the books. For example, previous laws on the books had prohibited daily “liquor” specials; the new law expanded that to include daily beer specials. “We have had a prohibition of discounting liquor in the state,” Valentine says. “What we thought we were trying to do was to make clear what we thought was a long-standing policy.” To that end, “liquor” was switched out for “alcoholic products.” Polychronis says there’s more going on than that, and it’s another case of “two steps forward, one step back” considering certain changes—like the ones pertaining to restaurant licensing. Although the bill expands the number of restaurant licenses, it doesn’t allow for more club licenses. And the creation of new license categories (such as the “beer-only” designation) only complicates matters. “In my view, [that’s] definitely going backward,” Polychronis says.
One part of the legislation directly affected beer festivals. In 2010, Utah Beer Festival attendees paid one price for what amounted to an all-you-can-drink adventure. SB314 set three new conditions that must be met in order for alcohol to be served in an all-you-can-drink manner: 1. Alcohol is served to a patron at a seated event, 2. Food is available, 3. The fact that unlimited alcohol is being served is not advertised. Definitely not what you’d call a beer festival!
It would seem that the Legislature had noticed something it didn’t like about the festival and immediately moved to zap it, yet Valentine says that’s not the case. “I didn’t even know about the City Weekly beer fest until somebody raised it to me when I read the bill. I said I guess it would cover that, but it’s not really the inspiration of it.”
There’s nothing to keep Utah from staging an annual beer festival, so long as extant laws aren’t broken. City Weekly’s remedy for the situation is to do as other U.S. beer festivals do, which is to provide festival-goers with a certain number of tokens that they can exchange for beer—which is how most other festivals operate. (Only Idaho’s Mountain Brewers Festival and Denver’s Great American Beer Festival have unlimited programs.) Even Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, a strong liquor-regulation proponent, thinks beer festivals are “a lot better than private parties, because they get the proper licensure and the police are monitoring it. So it’s probably a good, healthy way to do it if you’re gonna have a drinking party.”
Not that Waddoups endorses alcohol consumption. He doesn’t think it should be tied to tourism, as he told the Associated Press in June. “We want [tourism] based on the things that make Utah great,” he said. “We are not going to become Las Vegas or New Orleans.”
This assumes that visitors don’t mind having their vacation activities limited. Common sense says nobody would appreciate that. And although there are no hard numbers to gauge the effect liquor laws have on tourism, they do have an effect. Laura Barnes, tourism communications manager with the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau, says she spends a lot of her time in tourism discussing Utah’s liquor laws. “The state has made a lot of progress over the past few years,” she says, “but when articles like the most recent New York Times one [about the Zion Curtain] come out, it’s hard to encounter much other than confusion and disappointment. Which says to me visitors’ perceptions, real and imagined, do impact tourism.”
Former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. seemed to think it was worthwhile when he eliminated the hoary private-club membership requirement—long-lamented by out-of-state guests—in 2009. If that’s on their radar, then it follows that a beer festival in a town that Waddoups insists has so much more to offer would attract beer connoisseurs from all around. Since SB314 leaves the door open, and provided everyone behaves, we’ll get to find out.
Maybe someday the saying will be, “Eat, drink and be merry—you’re in Utah.”