Craft beer cowboys

By on June 30, 2015

How Wyoming breweries are concocting superior tasting suds

Flash Parker

Wyld Ginger Organic Pale Ale care of Jackson Hole Brewing Company.

When fledgling brewers Tim and Charlotte Jenkins won their first award at Old West Brew Fest in May, they walked away with more than an accolade. In their debut, the Jenkins’ Jackson Hole Brewing Company won Best of Show for their late son Matt’s Wyld Ginger Organic Pale Ale.

Matt had a dream to compete in the Old West Brew Fest in May 2013 and debut Jackson Hole Brewing Company’s first beer. But his life was tragically cut short in a car accident in Victor, Idaho, in July 2012. At the time of his death, Matt, a geologist, had concocted recipes and a full business plan for Jackson Hole Brewing Company. “He had taken scientific notes on everything; he left us with great tools,” Charlotte said. To fulfill their late son’s dream to start a brewery in Jackson Hole, Tim and Charlotte uprooted their lives and left their home of 29 years in Bothell, Wash. Moving to a mountain town 1,000 miles away and entering a physically demanding industry typically run by burly bearded guys half their age, the Jenkins embraced a drastic life change; a far cry from the retirement plans many their age are eyeing.

Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, Tim and Charlotte come from an area brimming with robust small breweries and were impressed by the beer scene in Jackson Hole when they arrived to take on their son’s business. “Jackson is a great place to come for the outdoors,” Charlotte said, “and after your adventures you can enjoy great beer. Many locals and tourists also appreciate and want to try local flavors and products that are unique to Wyoming.”

With Matt’s Wyld Ginger Organic Pale winning Best of Show, and Roadhouse Brewing Co. winning Best Brewery at the Old West Brew Fest, Jackson residents have made it clear that they support new breweries and local beer. There were many other seasoned breweries from around the country competing, yet newfangled Jackson Hole breweries prevailed.

Good water + good buddies

When asked why he thinks Wyoming breweries are enjoying success at national beer competitions, Auggie Katzer, vice president of Black Tooth Brewing in Sheridan said, “plain and simple: good water.” Katzer says his passion for beer began shortly after his 21st birthday (though we can assume he enjoyed his fair share of illicit beers prior to that). Katzer worked at Snake River Brewing for years and when asked to join Black Tooth he didn’t hesitate in moving to Sheridan, becoming involved with a growing craft beer operation with national promise. “For a sales and marketing guy, I had that night before a powder day excitement about joining Black Tooth, knowing that the new facility can produce 50,000 barrels of beer annually. The opportunity to make a big splash in the beer world was too much to resist,” Katzer said of his move from Jackson to Sheridan.

Jeremy Tofte, owner of Melvin Brewing in Jackson (and soon to be Alpine) seconded Katzer: “It’s the water. Also, we all communicate with each other and push one another to be the best. Snake River and Grand Teton have been a great resource for years.  Whenever we had questions, we would call them up.  It’s how our industry works and it makes us all better.” Tofte frequented the infamous Male Rail at the Snake River Brew Pub before opening the downtown Jackson eatery Thai Me Up, the current headquarters and birthplace of Melvin Brewing.

Strangely enough, it’s difficult to find folks in the industry who see competition as anything but friendly. The Jenkins felt this support from other breweries when they took home their Best of Show medal in May. “It was heartwarming,” she said. “Most of the local breweries sent someone over to talk to us. They were very kind and offered words of support,” Charlotte said, adding that the small Jackson Hole Brewing Company’s goal is to compliment what larger outfits like Snake River are already doing.

The late Matt Jenkins crafted Wyld Ginger Organic Pale Ale, the 2015 Best of Show winner at Old West Brew Fest. His parents have taken on Matt’s dream of brewing beer in the Tetons.

The late Matt Jenkins crafted Wyld Ginger Organic Pale Ale, the 2015 Best of Show winner at Old West Brew Fest. His parents have taken on Matt’s dream of brewing beer in the Tetons.

Wyoming brewers seem even more of a family when they travel away to competitions together. There’s a solidarity and camaraderie that is unique to such a small state, where all the brewers know each other. In fact, Wyoming is the only state that gathers all its brewers together annually to brew a collaboration beer. For the last four years, all Wyoming brewers have been invited to convene at one of the state’s breweries to discuss a recipe for a Wyoming Collaboration brew. This year, Snake River Brewing hosted this partnership event. The resulting beer is a Czech-Style Imperial Pilsner with the Beastie Boys inspired name, License to Pils.

When asked about his trip to Black Tooth’s new Sheridan facility, Tofte continued in his praise of other breweries. “They are such a class act of brewers and a good example of how to do it right.   They are taking a chance by distributing outside the state and getting their beer in the hands of craft drinkers that have never had a Wyoming beer.  Once Black Tooth wins, we all win.”

Black Tooth Brewing’s brewmaster Travis Zeilstra in his Sheridan beer kingdom.

Black Tooth Brewing’s brewmaster Travis Zeilstra in his Sheridan beer kingdom.

Of the seven beer industry professionals interviewed, all of them encouraged the birth of more breweries. Each said they would offer advice and embrace a new project, just as many have with new arrivals to Jackson like Roadhouse Brewing Co. and Jackson Hole Brewing Co.

Wyoming also draws top brewers, pub owners, and all levels of employees of breweries. Jim Mitchell is the owner of Lander Brewing Co. He attributes the success of Wyoming breweries to, “the fact that our breweries and population are small. This gives us more time to concentrate on quality. There are a bunch of talented brewers and the quality of life keeps them here.”  Mitchell lives in Jackson, where his daughter Cora works for Roadhouse Brewing (and where he is a regular customer), yet another strong bond uniting Wyoming breweries.

Beer power couple Krissy and Neil Albert work for Snake River Brewing and Roadhouse Brewing respectively. People who don’t know the beer industry wonder how they’re able to work for “rival” breweries in the same town, as if they’re commission sales people for Verizon and AT&T. “It’s just beer,” Neil said, “we have fun with it.”  Both like to offer up help to the other for all beer related quandaries, especially Krissy. “It feels so good when [Neil] looks to me for advice about the industry,” she said.

The reality of this so-called rivalry is that on her way home from work, Krissy is at the Roadhouse five nights a week and Neil can be found at the Brew Pub just as much having lunch. “We’re in this for the same reason and are here to support each other. And if we didn’t work with one another, sometimes we wouldn’t see each other,” Krissy said of pouring beer at special events with the Snake River and Roadhouse tents often side-by-side.  It’s not uncommon for Neil to throw on a Snake River Brewing T-shirt and help Krissy run an event or vice versa.

Age-old bubbles

Beer is the world’s oldest and most consumed alcoholic beverage. It is the third most popular beverage in the world only behind tea and water. Written history can trace civilizations brewing beer as far back as 7,000 years ago, and it is likely that beer was discovered long before that. Yes, discovered, not invented. The reason beer was likely stumbled upon rather than concocted by a diabolical genius is simple science: any cereal grain that contains sugars is susceptible to spontaneous fermentation via wild yeast in the air. Once ancient civilizations began harnessing and domesticating these cereal grains such as corn, rice, wheat, barley, or oats, to name a few, it’s likely that accidental fermentation occurred at some point along the way, triggered by these wild yeasts blowing in the wind.

Unlike wine, which was first associated with religious cults, beer was an everyday necessity for people in cities that lacked hygiene. Access to clean water was a problem in many cities where people would use the same stream for bathing, washing, drinking, and disposing of waste. So beer was the only way to safely drink this water. Imagine that: drinking beer in order to survive; the good ole days.

Bo-Bo love

Michael Harkin is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Wyoming and has done some preliminary research on beer and its history. Professor Harkin attributes much of Wyoming’s rise to prominence in the beer world to its proximity to Colorado. When the law was changed in the early 1990s allowing for breweries to sell directly to the public, rather than through a distributor, Wyoming followed suit immediately. The earliest craft breweries were in the Pacific Northwest, but states in the Rockies quickly caught up. Harkin believes, “this can also be seen as part of the larger cultural movement involving artisanal, organic, hand-crafted products, locally sourced, such as cheeses, grass-fed beef, and so forth. It also was a product of the maturing of the boomer and X generations, and the creation of the ‘Bo-Bo’ lifestyle.” For those unfamiliar with Harkin’s use of the term “Bo-Bo,” it was a phrase coined by writer David Brooks combining the words bohemian and bourgeois. Essentially, the new-age yuppie concerned with buying expensive, exotic foods and claiming to have tolerant views of others. Harkin noted that, “in conversations with craft beer enthusiasts, I find that they take pride in their ability to distinguish various notes in beer, and to detect regional differences—something like the French concept of terroir in wine. Many craft beer enthusiasts are also brewers themselves, which fits into the general ‘Bo-Bo’ lifestyle.”

Big passion in a small state

According to the brewer’s association, Wyoming ranks fifth in breweries per capita among other U.S. states, nestled between Colorado (No. 3) and Montana (No. 4). Rocky Mountain living apparently breeds beer drinkers. The number of breweries in Wyoming has also increased more rapidly than any other state in the country over the last three years from 13 craft breweries in 2011 to 22 in 2014: a whopping 70 percent increase.

So what has changed in Wyoming in the last 10 years to garner this newfound appreciation for craft beer? Some argue the Cowboy State is years behind the rest of the country concerning trends. But as history show, craft beer is hardly a trend. Right now, however, it does appear that we’re in the midst of a beer renaissance, a resurgence of sorts. Adam Chenault is an owner and brewer at Roadhouse Brewing of Wilson. The Ohio native cited education and innovation as key contributors to the craft beer revival.

“Consumers are more interested in small, independent and flavorful products,” he said. “It’s our generation, and the older generations are dying off. Industrial lagers became the norm because of refrigeration and prohibition. The only people who survived were the big guys. Refrigeration provided a way for the big guys to store the products longer and that innovation created the light lager revolution. Now with more manufacturers and better equipment, those innovations are producing another revolution for small brewers.”

Unique to the U.S.

Chenault brings up an interesting time in American history that has perhaps shaped many facets of beer and cocktail culture in America. Prohibition drastically affected how brewers were able to focus on their art, and as a result the market disappeared and with it most small breweries did, too. This craft beer revolution is unique to the United States likely due to the power prohibition gave to these mass-market lagers like Budweiser.

“Our taste buds have been suppressed for far too long in the U.S. Market. It’s not like that in a lot of other countries around the world.,” Chenault said. “And now Americans want great tasting, quality beer. What small brewers lack in expensive quality control equipment, they make up for with passion and work ethic to make sure they brew quality beer.”

Craft brewers are going back in time and creating local watering holes using age-old brewing techniques instead of mass-producing beers to put on shelves at supermarkets and liquor stores around the world. Excluding the large-scale packaging that exists today, the beer industry is taking a step back to a day when each town had a local alehouse with their own signature brew. Travelers would stop at these taverns and pubs on their journeys and taste beers they had never had before. Obviously with modern technology the way it is today, no recipe stays unique for long before others are attempting to make their own, but all this means is that each recipe is perfected by hundreds of other masters of the trade.

Eight years ago, craft beer only made up 0.7 percent of the beer market in the United States; this past March, craft beer comprised 11 percent, which translates to $19 billion in annual revenue, according to the Brewer’s Association. The easy answer to why Wyoming has hopped on the bandwagon is that there is a lot of money to be made, but that’s a small facet of what makes craft beer special in the Cowboy State.

Cutline #3: Adam Chenault, an owner and brewer at Roadhouse Brewing, has stirred up a love for Belgian beers among folks in the valley.

Adam Chenault, an owner and brewer at Roadhouse Brewing, has stirred up a love for Belgian beers among folks in the valley.

Pulling cowboys away from Anheuser-Busch

The challenge for many Wyoming brewers, especially in more rural areas of the state, is getting the less adventurous palates to drink craft beer. Tofte asserts, “to some people, beer is just beer.  For reasons unknown to others of us, beer is a way of life and a passion that bonds us.  As a collective group, it has been craft brewers’ and drinkers’ missions to convert the wayward and under achieving beer drinker. I even got my dad off Miller Lite and made him a 2×4 man.” (Disclaimer: Tofte says he still drinks Miller Lite.)

Mitchell has overcome similar obstacles getting his Lander clientele on board with change. When asked what he likes about the beer scene in Wyoming, Mitchell embraces “the challenge of getting cowboys, oil workers, and rednecks off their Bud bottle addiction.”  It just so happens that brewer Nathan Venner loves light, crisp beers, which is a perfect segue into craft beer for those accustomed to light lagers.

Wind River Brewing’s Greg Mottashed admits it’s a work in progress. They have worked on weaning people off mass produced lagers by making approachable, light ales, and then have fallen into their niche of brewing English ales. People trusted them after their initial experiences with Wind River’s craft light beers, like their award winning Blonde Ale, Kolsch and Weiss beers, and they continue to progress, experimenting with bigger styles.

Roadhouse Brewing specializes in Belgian beers and IPAs, though the Belgian beer scene wasn’t hugely popular in Jackson when it began operations in 2013. Luckily, Snake River Brewing paved the way with Le Serpent, creating a buzz around town when it was released. But Chenault wasn’t sure how Belgian beer would be received in the community. When asked about his proclivity for Belgian brews, Chenault explained, “it’s the flavors. I had that ‘wow’ moment when I first sipped an Ommegang Abbey Ale from Cooperstown, New York, in college up in Maine. Then I started looking into Belgian styles and other American breweries doing Belgian beers like Allagash. Then I began to seek out actual Belgian beers. These brewers have been brewing these beers for hundreds of years and a lot of times following the same processes they used at the start. I’ve always loved reading about and studying history, and Belgian breweries have amazing stories behind them.”

Chenault is excited about how these beers have caught on in the Jackson market and he attributes a lot of their growing popularity with the service industry professionals who serve them. He believes educating the bartenders and servers slinging beers and fostering their passion for brews has catalyzed the popularity of Belgian beers (and all beers in general) in the valley.

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