A constant hum, like an airless wind, echoes through towers and canyons. Men toil in this place, skiers, runners, and mountain bikers alike. They work together for a noble cause between the imposing forms, each tower as cold as a granite wall in shadowed morning. The men move like scientists; mixing, pouring, and analyzing. Instead of lab coats, they don work shirts and jeans while taking precise notes and measurements. The men keep vigil in this sacred place, where any deviation from ritual will affect the outcome of their labor. Though they love the outdoors, an artificial interior is their daytime domain. Water, grain and iron are their elemental companions, and together, they make beer.
Welcome to the Utah Brewers Cooperative, a cavernous warehouse filled with machinery and metal tanks entangled amidst a network of pipes and valves. The men who work here are brewers, and their creation is the thing we enjoy most after a hot day spent recreating outdoors. Beer.
For a beer lover, stepping into the brewery feels like Charlie winning a golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory. Everywhere you turn, a magical step in the brewing process is afoot: grains are milled, mash is soaked, wort is boiled, beer is fermented, and the final product is bottled. My purpose in this moving, liquid workshop is to immerse myself in some participatory journalism, and feel what it’s like to be one of the lucky dudes who get to make beer for a living.
The Utah Brewers Cooperative was born from the combined forces of Wasatch and Squatters. Its history begins in the late 1980’s when Greg Schirf migrated to Utah from Milwaukee, and lamented over the lack of good beer in the state. So he gave birth to the Wasatch Brewery, which had its humble beginnings in an industrial area on Iron Horse Drive in Park City, then later moved to its current brewpub location on Main Street.
Meanwhile, Squatters founders, Peter Cole and Jeff Polychronis, began pouring beer in downtown Salt Lake City. This new brewpub was so successful that they opened a second restaurant in Salt Lake called Fuggles. But the entire microbrew industry saw a big contraction in the late ’90s, and that’s when both Wasatch and Squatters began to underperform. So to survive, they combined forces and started what is now known as the Utah Brewers Cooperative. The co-op is located in a warehouse at 300 West and 1763 South in Salt Lake City. After a recent expansion of the facility and the purchase of a new bottling line, the co-op now produces up to 400 bottles per-minute of tasty Wasatch and Squatters beer that is easily one of the most recognizable brands in Utah.
“It’s huge to have that brand recognition. We rely on it a lot and it means a lot to us,” says Dan Burick, the Brewmaster at the co-op. “We’ve done a good job making well made beers, and I think people know that and they know they’ll get a nice beer from us.”
Burick moved to Utah from Colorado, and like many modern emigrants to the state, he came for the skiing. “When I moved to Utah, it was all about having beers and doing outdoors stuff. I gravitated towards transplants, and those transplants were making homebrews. So there’s really something about people who enjoy the outdoors that beer is their drink of choice. It’s not just a regional demographic of outdoor people who enjoy beer. It’s all over the place. It’s worldwide. It’s part of the culture.”
Nothing illustrates that worldwide culture of outdoor sports and beer better than the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Burick says the Wasatch and Squatters brands were the talk of the town in those days. “The Olympics were crazy. We got a lot of attention with Polygamy Porter and St. Provo Girl; all these great names and great beers. The international crowd loved our beer and we sold a lot of beer at that time, we sold every drop. It was a 21-day party.”
Stepping into the brewery is like being wrapped in a blanket of humid, earthy smells, like oatmeal cooking on a stove. The tangy scent transmits images of me being elbow-deep in piles of hops, tossing bags of grain from a truck, and watching thousands of long-neck brown bottles whisk by on a clanging assembly line.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
You see, brewing beer is a slow process. Each batch, whether a lager or ale, takes weeks to become beer that’s ready to drink. Sometimes that means there’s a lot of standing around and watching brew ferment. So my time spent in the co-op consisted of simply observing the downright magic dance of water becoming beer… fine by me.
The first stop in the Utah Brewers Cooperative is, fittingly, stage one in the brewing process, where all four ingredients that make beer come together. It’s called the brew house, which instead of a namesake shack-in-the-woods with a still, is actually a sterile-looking metal platform surrounded by rotund tanks and control panels linked by pipes, pumps, mixers and strainers.
Head Brewer, Jon Lee, rules this steel castle. He’s a snowboarder and mountain biker who’s worked here since the co-op’s inception. “We’re essentially chefs for yeast.” Lee jokes after I climb a grated staircase to his small platform. “Yeast makes our beer and we simply give it what it needs.”
Lee turns to a deep cauldron and opens a round door. “It all starts with the malted barley, and in order to utilize the malted barley, we have to crush it and turn it into grist.” I look inside the gigantic cauldron where steam pours out. Inside is a dark, frothy witch’s brew where malted barley swirls in a hot water bath. “We turn it into a mash in the mash tun. It’s where we mix that dry grist with the water, and it turns into this kind of hot cereal.”
Lee goes on to explain how he holds the mash to a certain temperature, which burns the large sugars in the grain to small sugars that yeast can eat during fermentation. He then leads me to the ladder tun, where mash is separated from the liquid, which is then pumped to the wort kettle. “That’s where we do our boiling, and during boiling we add our hops. Wort at this point is very sweet, and so the reason we add hops is to balance the sweet and sour.”
Today, Lee is cooking up some Hop Rising, a double IPA that requires a monster load of hops. “Depending on the different beer styles, we add various quantities of hops. Smaller quantities go into a beer like the First Amendment Lager, which doesn’t have a lot of hop flavor. We taste the finished beer on a regular basis so we know it’s all welding well together, and if we need to make any adjustments to have a unique, rounded profile.”
Tasting beer for work, that’s the life.
From the brew house, the wort goes on to be fermented in what they call “the cellar” and is characterized by rows of tall, metal tanks. “This is my favorite area,” says Head Cellerman, Adam Curfew. “I love fermentation, being at the front lines of tasting and monitoring beer.”
Curfew slides through slot canyons of tightly packed tanks as he constantly watches temperature readings, takes measurements, filters beer, and gets tanks ready for the next batch to pour in from the brew house. “The brew house brings us wort, which is unfermented beer,” Curfew says. “That gets cooled and we put it into fermenters where we pitch yeast into it. Over the course of the next three to eight days, the fermentation happens. Once it’s fermented, we’ll cool the tanks to ready the beer for filtration.”
Part of Curfew’s job is to ensure that the brew is fermenting properly, so he’s frequently testing the product by pouring beer from the tanks into scientific-looking plastic tubes, which are then taken to the lab for specific gravity measurements. “We’re making sure the fermentation is going the way it should, because fermentation is what really makes beer taste like beer.”
Once fermented and conditioned, the beer is filtered down to 8 microns. Some filters are even made from fossils of prehistoric crustaceans that were mined from the ocean. “It’s pretty amazing,” Curfew says. “When you look at it through an electron microscope, it’s like these tiny holes that we’re filtering the beer through.”
After filtration, the brew is channeled to the bright beer tank where carbonation can be adjusted as needed so the beer is ready to be bottled. Curfew grins uncontrollably when he talks about it. “This is the best place to drink beer, right out of our bright tank. It doesn’t get any fresher. It’s like drinking out of a 6,000 gallon keg.”
After sitting in the bright tank and being tasted for “quality control,” the finished beer goes to the bottling line, the most noisy, active place in the building. A brand new bottling machine hums in the middle of the cavernous, concrete-floored room where tens of thousands of brown bottles are whisked through the machine at a rate of 400 bottles per-minute. Each bottle is quickly filled with beer, capped, labeled, packaged, and readied to be shipped out to us thirsty consumers of quality, local microbrew.
And nothing proves the quality of the beer produced at the Utah Brewers Cooperative better than the Mid-Size Brewer of the Year Award the co-op won at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival. It’s an honor these guys have been working toward for years, and Burick considers it a pat on the back from the industry, especially since beer from Utah gets a lot of undeserved flak around the country. “To walk away with that kind of award in a highly competitive venue is a huge thing for us, and we’d like to repeat it,” Burick says. Meanwhile, Lee is thrilled, yet knows the pressure is on to maintain that standard. “Now we got a target on our backs. We get these awards and it just broadens people’s awareness of us across the entire beer landscape.” But he adds, “That was a big accomplishment and something we’ve tried to do for years and years. So when we finally hit it, it was pretty cool.”
But the Utah Brewers Cooperative doesn’t just make beer to win medals. They make beer for their customers, and those customers are increasingly discerning when it comes to what they drink. Burick recognizes this, and thinks the Wasatch and Squatters brands will continue to lead the way, despite a recent increase in competition from new Utah breweries.”I think the whole ‘better beer’ scenario across the country, coast to coast, border to border, just feeds on itself. Small breweries are opening up around here, but we don’t see ourselves going down. Nowadays people drink Squatters, they drink Wasatch, they drink Red Rock, they drink Uinta, they drink them all, and that’s fine with us. We just like them to drink better beer and more flavorful beer.”
And with an eye to the future, new flavorful beers will be coming out of the co-op, and Burick says they always have a few things up their sleeves. In fact, as of this writing, Utah beer drinkers have been enjoying a new brew from Squatters, an American Amber Ale called Big Cottonwood. It’s all part of a plan for the brewery to continue growing, improving and expanding into other markets around the country. “We will continue to embrace our wonderful home market of Utah while nurturing the new markets we’re opening,” Burick says. “In twenty years, it’s my hope that we will have a well run brewery making wonderful beers where the employees are happy and maybe one or two still remember my name.”
As I exit the Utah Brewers Cooperative past shiny tanks filled with fermenting beer, past the bouquet of milled grains and boiling hops, and past the rattling bottles that will soon be chilling in my refrigerator, I think of the passionate people who work here every day creating cold-bottled beer that drips with condensation when pulled from coolers all over Utah by those of us who throw ourselves into nature all day, and enjoy a well-deserved cold one back at the trailhead in the evening. So next time I pop the cap off my next Wasatch or Squatters brew, I’ll know how much careful work is put into it, and the beer will taste more delicious for it.