Saturday, April 01, 2017

Salt Lake's Beer Scene: Growing and Evolving

Walking into a bar or brewery in Salt Lake can be confusing - especially the first time you order a draft IPA, feel it's lacking body and then realize that nothing coming out of the taps tops 4 percent alcohol by volume, even if the bottled beer you order at the same location can be of any strength. But you'll get that pattern down a few beers in.

Once you've mastered the nuances of local alcohol law, there's a lot to like in Utah's capital city. Visiting there two weeks ago to watch my alma mater play in the NCAA tournament, I was pleased by the compact nature of its downtown, the proximity of several different breweries to major attractions and the long local beer lists I encountered even at sports bars. The scene as a whole is worth lauding.

Offerings from brewery to brewery and even among one brewery's portfolio were inconsistent (which, in truth, is not that much different than the Denver scene). But after a couple of days in which drinking was no less than a co-main activity, several things jumped out.

The stand-out brewery in Salt Lake is Red Rock Brewery, which was the 2007 Large Brewpub of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival. Its Lady Ga Gose, resplendent in its bright and lemony tartness with just the right amount of salt on the back taste, was a full-flavored treat even with its low ABV. And its Elphino Double IPA was one of the more complete hop bombs in the city, offering a big mouthful of grass and flowers, layered with a hint of a bitter bite and a fair cushion of malts.

Uinta Brewing's Detour Double IPA set an even higher standard for hop vehicles, seemingly assaulting your taste buds with a sticky, aggressive flavor that was slightly less than balanced but left a powerful aftertaste. But other offerings from the brewer varied wildly, from its much-hoppier-than-expected, refreshing 801 Pilsner to its terribly bland Ready Set Gose, which tasted more like a slightly kicky pilsner than a member of the sour family.

Wasatch Brewing, whose products are omnipresent on Salt Lake tap lists, also had more than one notable offering. Its Devastator Double Bock was one of the great surprises of the trip, pouring bold and smooth with an almost woody flavor but no residue of heavy alcohol in its 8 percent ABV body. And its Snap Down Header India Pale Lager was one of the perkier low-alcohol offerings in town, presenting a zing of hops in a light but enjoyable body.

Squatters Brewery also had a low-alcohol pleaser with its Apricot Hefeweizen, which was bright and decently fruited and, frankly, a perfect option for the 11 a.m pre-tailgate tasting. But its Hop Rising Double IPA was straight-out-of-the-early-2000s bitter without a lot of complexity. And its darker offerings, particularly Captain Bastard's Oatmeal Stout, were extremely light-bodied and forgettable.

Moab Brewery offered a couple of non-stand-out beers that seemed a bit light for their style, such as the Red Rye IPA that was an incongruous mix of a red and an IPA. And Proper Brewing tried to push the envelope on low-alcohol beers with offerings like its Salted Caramel Porter, but they felt slight when coming off the taps, seemingly lacking the full body they needed.

Finally, I will admit that I didn't seek out Epic Brewing offerings, since they are as available in Denver as they are across Colorado's western border. But the two-state brewery's Session IPA may have been the most sharply hopped lower-alcohol beer in the city, a reminder that big flavor does not have to come from big booze.

Salt Lake isn't Denver, and it doesn't appear to have the same reserve of caution-be-damned brewers like Crooked Stave or Spangalang Brewery that seek to  destroy taboos involving flavor experimentation. But its growing scene is filled with subtle gems, all of which bodes well for it to continue to expand and diversify in years to come.

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