If Utah liquor laws are made up of one part religion, and one part regulation with a dash of public education, then Utah brewers are making beer made up of one part oppression, and one part rebellion with a dash of irony. The beer produced by Utah breweries ferments out of the constant flux between the culture and the counter-culture and while many bemoan the oppressive and rigid restrictions levied by the State, the pressure exerted to squash alcoholic brewing and consumption in this state has done just the opposite. When daring to traverse the obstacles and speed bumps of Utah’s liquor laws one arrives at a sort of intersection of physics and culture. Newton’s 3rd Law of motion curiously illustrates the collective resistance of Utah beer lovers to the state’s pressure, and in their battle to exert their freedom to partake, they have responded with a force equal in magnitude but opposite in direction to it. This unwanted force by the State has produced an unforeseen and unintentional outcome: delicious, mouth-watering, taste bud delighting beer.
I was born and raised in Utah. Alcoholic beverages were not allowed in our house, but dad periodically drank near beer and that was my first experience with it. Yuck! I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to drink beer. When I reached the golden and initiation ridden age of 21 living abroad, my opinion of beer had not changed. I hated the taste, the smell, and the beer-can-crushing partiers that came with it. I hated beer. That is, until I went to Germany and had my first tasty beer at a biergarten in Heidelberg. It was a Kristallweisen and damn it was good. I took a second sip of that beer in awe. It was then that I realized not all beers are created equally. Like all things, quality makes the difference. That was the beginning of my beer tasting adventure that brought me from the time honored beers of Germany, home to the flamboyant and irreverent beers of Utah. To my chagrin, I found that Kristallweisen was hard to find in the states, so I started experimenting with all types of beers. As I started to discern the nuances, hints, and styles of beers, my palate began to change. It was at about this time, and more than a decade later, that the prodigal daughter returned home to Utah.
Since it was my first time living in the state as an adult the State run liquor stores, weird liquor laws, and seething conflict between non drinkers and drinkers was new to me. I couldn’t get around the fact that a six pack that used to cost me $6 now cost me $12. I felt the same anger I felt at the rising gas prices. But as I began to peruse the state’s liquor stores, interesting and funny beer labels started to catch my eye. The first such label was of course the Wasatch Polygamy Porter. There is no mistaking that label. On a trip out to the Grand Canyon for a quasi-family reunion, we stopped in Colorado City and bought a reasonably priced six pack of beer and two Polygamy Porter T-shirts from a first wife who complimented us on our choice of beer and fashion sense. The trip that brought me around a roaring campfire beneath looming Ponderosa Pines and twinkling stars at the Grand Canyon with my steadfast teetotaler mother and hearty beer drinking brothers marked the beginning of my love for dark beers. The Polygamy Porter naturally led me to The Devastator Double Bock, which is my beer of choice to date, with Outer Darkness Russian Imperial Stout and Dubhe Imperial Black IPA making the short list. Slowly I found myself in an underground, counter-culture, beer drinking community filled with other bohemian beer lovers in southern Utah. I started getting invited to beer tasting parties, and then inevitably, to home brewing parties.
Not surprisingly, it all started over a cup of coffee. I worked for a short while at Starbucks a few years back. One night two guys and a girl walked in and sat down at a table with their drinks. They kept looking at me, so I ignored them until one of the guys walked up and asked me if I had gone to Orem High School. “Why?” I asked. “Are you Greta Secrist?” he asked. “Yeeesss,” I said hesitantly. “We went to high school together,” he said. It was at this point that I got reintroduced to Jeremy Hopkins, an Orem Tiger like myself class of 1994, who had a medical degree to help him brew amazing beer. I’m of course kidding here, but he really is a doctor who funds his brewing habits as a radiologist. Not long after meeting him and his wife, my husband and I got invited to a beer tasting party at their house. Along with everyone else invited, we showed up with some beer for all to taste. What I discovered when I got there, however, was that we were also tasting Jeremy’s home brew. He handed me a glass, “Try this.” It was a watermelon flavored beer. I shook my head, scrunched up my nose, and declined, opting instead for the less fruity ginger beer nearby. Later in the evening he handed me another glass, this time not giving me the chance to ask what it was. I tried it and it was amazing. “What is it?” I asked. “The watermelon beer,” he said with a smile. As the night wore on I found that the best tasting beer at the party were Jeremy’s home brewed concoctions. So of course I had to ask, “Will you teach me to brew my own beer?” Little did I know at the time that home brewing had only been legal in Utah for a couple of years.
He gladly offered to help and after a short discussion of flavors we made a decision on a beer to brew. My beer tastes are very similar to my coffee tastes, the darker the better. So we chose to make an espresso stout. Like a modern Dionysus with his parade of nymphs, a procession of us followed Jeremy into his kitchen with hops, barley, honey, glee, and espresso. I watched his surgeon like precision with measuring, gauging, and sanitizing over the course of the process like a giddy groupie. After months of fermentation and sitting in a cool place, the beer was ready to taste. The end result was a sultry, rich, and dark ten percent stout that did not disappoint. Of course I had promised to share the batch with all my friends, but instead guarded my stash like a fiend and spent the winter relishing every last drop of it with my husband. There was something sweet and rewarding in drinking beer made from our own hands and as I enter another season of brewing, my mind turns to preparations for winter and having enough stored away for the season. Perhaps this year I will even share this batch, because sharing with friends is one of the great rewards of one’s labor (and of course ensures that they share theirs with you).
As fall descends on us and the evolutionary tendency to store fat switches on, my mind turns to cinnamon spiced deserts, hearty soups and breads, and seasonal flavored beer brewed with warm hues of autumn spices, hints of roasted nuts, and earthy harvest notes of maple and pumpkin. I can’t help thinking of all the kitchens warm with the steam of boiling hops and barley on the stove, filled with cultural ingredients as much as culinary ones. As we roll into the winter season it is a time of revelry, parties, and cheer. My calendar is already filling up with tasting parties, full moon bonfire merrymaking, and of course, brewing. Despite the Apollonian nature of the culture in Utah, there is a wild underbelly making plans for more bacchanalian-like festivities that include flannel shirts, roasted marshmallows, and the gathering of villagers from near and far coming together to celebrate the fall harvest with friends, food, and foamy beverages reminiscent of another time and place. If you are a beer drinker you know that navigating the frothy landscape of Utah beers is a culinary adventure of Odyssian proportions. The brew masters in domestic settings as well as breweries offer libations full of surprises that are just as daunting, titillating, and enchanting as exploring the desolate deserts, crisp alpine mountains, and whistling windswept canyon landscapes of the Beehive State. As for me, I hope to brew a batch of beer flavored by the desert that offers hints of cactus honey, sage, and monsoons and perhaps next year I will enter my very own hand crafted beer in the Beehive Brew-Off. In the meantime, as I continue to find myself at the intersection of culture and physics, I will happily carry on drinking local beers brewed to perfection like coal turned to diamonds under the pressure of the State, and smile every time I indulge in and enjoy the liquids produced by such strange ingredients.