How Utah Changed My Approach To Homebrewing

Squatters Pub

Squatters Pub, Salt Lake City, UT -- image by "cadiana88" from virtualtourist.com

I grew up in Taylorsville, UT.  It’s a suburb of Salt Lake City, located in the southwestern part of the I-215 loop.  We moved away when I was 12, so youthful innocence prevented me from fully appreciating the genuine absurdity of Utah’s blue laws — most notably the state’s 4% ABV restriction on beer.

This past week, my girlfriend and I spent a few days snowboarding in Park City, and I got a chance to spend some time in my old stomping grounds.  I’m happy to report that, despite restrictions, there’s some really great beer being brewed in Salt Lake City.

The 4% Giant Killer
When Kendra and I stopped at Ski ‘N See to pick up our lift tickets, we asked about the local beer scene.  The guy behind the counter gave us the obligatory 4% ABV disclaimer, and then told us we should head over to Squatters Pub.  We had an early morning flight, so we arrived before they were open.  This made things even more fun, because the only thing better than drinking beers in UT, is drinking beers before noon in UT.

While perusing their beer menu, I couldn’t help but notice all of their GABF, WBC and NABA accolades.  Various award banners hung from the rafters as though they were a hockey team, flying a flag to commemorate a championship season or retired jersey.  I ordered their bourbon burger with steak fries, and an Emigration Amber Ale draft, and murdered both with great delight.  I’m not a fan of verbose and self-indulgent beer reviews, so I’m just going to tell you that Squatters’ Emigration Amber Ale is effing delicious!

Squatters completely dismantled my expectations.  It seems like the only way to make waves in the current craft beer market is by brewing up huge ABV beers with as many IBUs crammed into it as possible.  Consider brews like Stone’s Double Bastard Ale or Dogfish Head’s 120-Minute IPA.  These are fine beers, and I enjoy them both.  However, I’ve certainly encountered my fair share of unappealing resinous atrocities or fusel concoctions that were undrinkable at best.

I understand that a lot of homebrewers might consider working within a 4% ABV restriction to be completely unrealistic.  My own brew log reveals that, in the last 5 years, I’ve only brewed 4 batches that were 4% or less — and none of those beers were particularly memorable.  So how is Squatters able to do this?  The answer is pretty simple: meticulous attention to technique.

Brew With Purpose
There’s a common homebrew myth that stouts and porters are two of the easiest beers to brew because the robust flavor of the roasted barley will hide the flaws in your beer. Whether or not this argument is valid isn’t the point.  It’s simply a bad idea to reinforce sloppy brewing techniques by hiding behind, or attempting to pass things off as complexity. The same holds true with these insane hop-bombs and giant gravity beers.  A homebrewer that uses two pounds of hops and 15 pounds of 2-Row for a 5-gallon batch isn’t particularly worried about being in balance or brewed to style.  Most beer geeks will applaud the concoction based exclusively on the brewer’s ambition and willingness to ignore convention. However, this attitude doesn’t do homebrewers any good.  It simply trivializes the concepts of style, balance and good brewing techniques.  As a result, the “more is better” mantra is blindly reinforced, and I don’t believe that’s a good thing.

To be fair, I’m as guilty of these nonsensical homebrew indulgences as anyone.  I’ve bragged about my 12% Impy Stouts, 115-IBU Double IPAs and kitchen sink recipes that tout the fact that I used nine different types of grain.  It’s certainly not my intention to imply that these crazy beers are categorically not good.  I’m simply arguing that these extremes aren’t necessary, and certainly don’t make great beers by default.

Long story short — be purposeful and objective with your homebrew recipes.  Any asshole can brew a beer with a mile-long grain bill or a list of spices that reads like something out of a holiday cook book.  If it works out, congrats!  But if your beer sucks, nobody really gives a shit how many pounds of hops you used.

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