Craft beer is gaining a solid footing in Utah — no small task in a state where restrictive alcohol laws are slow to change. But progress is being made, and local breweries are leading the movement by producing high-quality beers.
Here’s what you need to know — and where you need to go — to pay proper respect to the local craft breweries of Salt Lake City.
Utah’s high-alcohol brewery: Epic Brewing
Begin early. Visit on a Friday or Saturday for a brunch beer at Epic Brewing Company. Epic exclusively brews high-alcohol-content beer.
You’ll see a taco cart across the street, but resist the temptation — under Utah state law, you’ll be required to order food with any high-alcohol beer. Enter the brewery on the south side of the building to visit their “tap-less tap room.” You may be asking yourself what a tap-less tap room is. Again, this is Utah state law and requires some explanation. Beers on tap are limited to 3.2% alcohol by weight — equal to 4% alcohol by volume (ABV). Pouring from the bottle allows Epic to serve beer that’s higher than 4% ABV.
Epic’s tap-less tap room is small. Really small. There are only six seats available. The smallness creates an unavoidable neighborly vibe that facilitates friendly conversation. On the back wall is a large collection of stickers from breweries across the country. Play a game while you wait and locate the stickers of all the breweries you’ve been to or drunk. Spend time chatting up the staff. Sam or Eugene will be more than happy to walk you through the Utah beer scene. Owners David Cole and Peter Erickson have also been spotted in the tap-less tap room doing office work, along with other administrative personnel.
Enjoy 4oz tasters of every available Epic beer, typically 20+, or enjoy it by the glass. Start with Epic’s award-winning Brainless Belgian-style Golden Ale and end with the behemoth Big Bad Baptist. The former’s name is a giveaway: golden color, brewed in the Belgian style, with a slight taste of hops and spices and toasty malt overtones. The stronger Big Bad Baptist will taste like your after-dinner coffee paired with a dark chocolate bar and a shot of whiskey.
Follow this routine throughout the day: Start with the lower-alcohol and less-hoppy beers, then move your way up. By doing so, your palate won’t get ruined early and the beer won’t taste watered down.
Utah Brewers Cooperative: Squatters + Wasatch
Head northwest toward Salt Lake — the actual lake — and Squatters, SLC’s most popular brewpub. Together with Wasatch Brewery, they make up the Utah Brewers Cooperative and share a brewery offsite. Being the friends they are, you’ll find both brewers’ beers at each brewpub. (The Wasatch brewpub is located in Park City, outside the scope of this guide.)
Squatters is a large, multi-level brewpub with outdoor patio seating. The place is crowded more often than not, but is particularly busy after concerts and sporting events. The crowd is mostly young adults; the vibe is loud and busy. Servers are constantly slammed, but they’re efficient and will chat you up if they have a spare moment. In the past, the brewpub had a popular flight of beers that was delivered on a ski. Word from Anna, a former Squatters bartender, is that they got in trouble for it a couple years ago because Utah doesn’t allow patrons to have more than two alcoholic beverages at a time.
Again, as per state law, for high-alcohol beer you’ll have to order it by the bottle. Ask for Wasatch’s Devastator (8% ABV). The beer has a cult following for good reason: It’s a creamy, caramelly double bock that avoids a strong taste of booze. Squatters’ biggest beer is the Outer Darkness (10.5% ABV), a Russian imperial stout with a colorful and complex taste palate that includes oaky notes with a touch of fruit.
Responsible brewing: Uinta
Next, take a taxi to Uinta Brewing Company’s Brewhouse Pub. It’ll be worth the trip out to the west side of town. Named after the northeastern Utah mountain range, Uinta brews over 20 different beers relying 100% on solar and wind power. Their flagship brew, Cutthroat Pale Ale, is a standard pale with a tasty malt finish. It’s named after the state fish of Utah.
Attached to the brewery is Uinta Brewhouse Pub, a classic bar with only a few tables. The focus is obviously on the beer, but they don’t skimp when it comes to the food. Tasters of beer are available but only two at a time. Don’t leave without shopping in their beer store, and take home some of the local favorites: Bristlecone Brown Ale, Baba Black Lager, or the heavy-hitting Dubhe Imperial Black IPA.
Small but fierce: Avenues Proper
Size and scope of reach isn’t the only thing important when it comes to craft beer. Utah’s smallest craft brewery, Avenues Proper, is located in one of Salt Lake’s oldest neighborhoods near the state capitol. If Salt Lake City has a Cheers, then this is it. For the residents of “The Avenues,” Avenue Proper is their bar.
Neighborly but small, it focuses on creativity and quality in both beer and food offerings. Munch on duck-fat popcorn as you sip one of the 10 rotating beers on tap. The flagship brew is the Proper, a smooth golden ale with a tangy, citrusy, zesty hop flavor. It’s on tap year-round. If you get lucky and the Oatmeal Red is back on nitro tap, don’t pass up the opportunity to taste this wonderful hybrid between an oatmeal stout and an amber.
Fortunately for Salt Lake City, gone are the antiquated days of “private membership” bars (where patrons had to pay a nightly “membership” fee), and here to stay are producers of excellent local beers.