It seems that finding a brewpub outside of Salt Lake City is starting to become a more common practice. It used to be that starting up this particular venture was a pain in the ass after you'd gone through all the hurdles of putting a restaurant in business, and then add in all the licenses and regulations you need to follow with having a brewery attached to the place. But after years of getting all the bumps smoothed out of the road, dozens of people are driving down it in cities you wouldn't expect. Like Tooele, who in the past year saw the opening of Bonneville Brewing, who are making some fine craft beers for their own pub while getting select brands out to other pubs around the state. Today we chat with the head brewer (and new father), Dave Watson, about his career in brewing and what he's done with Bonneville since joining them. (All photos courtesy of Bonneville Brewing.
(left with Jared Wright, right)
Gavin: Hey Dave, first thing, congrats on the newborn, and tell us a little bit about yourself.
Thanks! Little Imogen is keeping us very busy, but she's wonderful. I was born and raised in Los Alamos, New Mexico, home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. I probably owe my fascination with science to this unique place. In high school I developed a fascination with photography and later became a professional photojournalist. This was the first time I recognized my compulsion toward the intersection between art and science, as well as my bad habit of turning hobbies into jobs.
Gavin: What first got you interested in brewing beers?
I had developed a taste for craft beer in my early twenties, but I can trace my interest in brewing to a technical writing class I took in college. We had a group assignment in which we were asked to describe a process. I have no memory of what my group did, but another group did beer brewing. I was riveted. It would be several years before I finally started homebrewing – like many young people, I thought about it many times but balked at the expense and space commitments, but it was firmly planted in my mind. I spent my last year of college in Dortmund, Germany, where I did much "research" and even did a class assignment on brewing according to the German Purity Law.
Gavin: What was it like for you dabbling in it at first and learning the skills to creating a brew?
Like many others, my first touch of brewing was a Mr. Beer kit. It belonged to a friend of mine, and he asked me to help him with it. I didn't know much and we had the world's smallest kitchen, but it was still fun. Even at that point I was enough of a geek to insist we bottle one beer in a green bottle so we could note the difference between a skunked beer and one that was protected from light. When I finally got started homebrewing for real I ordered a beginner's malt extract kit for a German Altbier. Once that batch was done I decided I was all in. I put together an all grain setup and went at it. I did one clone recipe I found online, but I wanted to create my own recipes. When I finally found Ray Daniels' Designing Great Beers
I tore into it because it wasn't a book of recipes, but a book on how to make recipes. My local homebrew shop was a hot tub store with a few brewing supplies in the corner, so after a couple of disappointing trips there I started ordering ingredients in bulk and milling my grains by hand on the back porch. Shortly after this I started brewing in the brewpub where I worked as a bartender. These were heady days of the discovery of the brewer's art.
Gavin: How did you eventually get involved with The Beer Nut and how was it for you working there?
I moved to Utah when my girlfriend (now my wife and mother of my daughter) and got a job at the Salt Lake Tribune
. We had been dating long distance in New Mexico and I figured it was time to try something new and live in the same place. I peppered every brewery in town with my resumé and applied at the Beer Nut. When the assistant manager left to brew at a commercial brewery, Jamie called me and graciously gave me a job. Working at the Nut was a great experience. Salt Lake has a great homebrew community and being immersed in it like that was wonderful. I still think one learns a lot more working in a homebrew shop than in a commercial brewery, simply because you are exposed to so many different techniques, ingredients, and ideas.
Gavin: When did you transition over to Desert Edge and how did you get involved with their crew?
It was actually only about a month after I first started at the Nut that Desert Edge Brewmaster, Chris Haas, posted an ad for an assistant. I felt bad about it, but I really wanted to get back into the boots. I worked for Chris for about two years and I learned a ton from him. After that is when I returned to the Beer Nut to be Assistant Manager.
Gavin: Over the years, how did your skills develop and change when ti came to doing it professionally? Especially in Desert Edge where you're making a new batch daily for the pub.
I have become much more aware of styles, raw materials and the art of formulating a recipe. The biggest thing, however, is the knowledge of process. The brewing part is the most familiar to someone coming from a homebrew perspective. It's all the other things that are different, like clean-in-place technique, keg cleaning and filling, DE filtration and so on. One of the most important skills a brewer can develop is thinking on one's feet. When everything's going well it's fine, but things do go wrong and thinking quickly can mean the difference between saving the batch and wasting a lot of time, material and money.
Gavin: When did you first hear about the changes happening at what was then All-Star Brewing before it became Bonneville? And what did you think of Tooele having a new brewery?
I happened to be the guy who answered the phone at the Beer Nut when brewery consultant Eric Dunlap called looking for Rio Connelly. Rio was just getting started with the Avenues Proper Publick House and wasn't interested in the job, but he told Eric to talk to me. I was skeptical at first, for I had heard the horror stories of the later days of Tracks Brewing Company, but after being informed of the new situation I thought this thing just might have some legs.
Gavin: How did the opportunity come about to become part of their team and take on the role of Head Brewer?
Eric was kind enough to bring me on and for a while we worked together getting the brewery set up and formulating recipes. Once our brewing license was granted we put in some long days brewing a lot of beer. As I took on more responsibility and Eric moved on to other projects, I found myself in charge of the place.
Gavin: When you came in, did you have an idea of what you wanted to create or was the ownership pushing a certain beer they wanted you to come up with?
There were a few things we had to do to satisfy ownership. We had to have something to compete with Shock Top, for example, but we were given a lot of freedom to generate a stable of good craft beers.
Gavin: What was it like early on developing the recipes and figuring out the right taste, as well as the production time with the equipment you had in house?
We weren't looking to turn the beer world on its head-just make solid, drinkable craft beer. Because of this, Eric and I were able to combine our experience to come up with recipes rather quickly. I have made some tweaks, but there was nothing that was too far off the mark from the beginning. The brewery that was in place was a pretty nice, though dated, system. It needed a lot of TLC to get it back to business, but it's not a bad brewhouse to work in.
Gavin: What were some of the first beers you made that really took off?
The Silver Island Hefewiezen was an instant success, especially with the bowlers. To put in in context, I've made nearly 50 batches of hefeweizen and about 13 batches of pale ale since we started brewing. The Redline Irish Red was our first seasonal, and was almost instantly demanded to be year round.
Gavin: Right now you have seven drinks, most of them Ale's, and a couple seasonals. How is it for you making new flavors and testing them out to see what works and what doesn't?
We've got eleven beers on right now. I really enjoy creating new beers. There have been some misses, for sure. One thing I learned early on is that people can be very sensitive to names. The Railton Special Bitter was a great beer, but many people just couldn't get over the word bitter. I blame those old "bitter beer face" commercials.
Gavin: Right now the only places outside the pub where you can find them are four SLC bars/pubs. What made you choose those places and do you have any plans to expand the distribution?
The first place to serve our beer outside of the pub and All Star Bowling and Entertainment was the Avenues Proper, mostly because Rio kept bugging me about it. I, in turn, bugged ownership until they let me sell him some beer so I'd shut up. Once we got a request from Del Vance at the Beer Hive, we went on top there and at the Bayou, then Beer Bar once it opened. I have to handle the distribution myself, so I went to places that were craft beer destinations. There is a distribution deal in the works, but I'm not totally sure of what it will be just yet.
Gavin: Usually when a new brewery opens, the biggest question is “when can we buy it at the store?” Any plans yet to start bottling and getting it out to stores?
It's definitely something that comes up a lot. There is nothing in motion quite yet, but it's certainly something in discussion.
Gavin: Considering how brewpubs have steadily risen in Utah, would you say we're finding our stride in crafted beers or do we still have a ways to go?
I think Utah has a great beer scene. Lots of great product and more on the way all the time. Although I'm a staunch defender of the quality of four percent beer, I also would really like to see that law go. Just like everywhere else, let beer be beer and not "Three-two beer" and "high point beer." It's unfortunate how many people won't even try our beer because they've bought into the myth that it's not "full strength" (another term that gets my goat - what is the definition of that?). The restrictions places on Utah brewers have led to some of the best brewers in the world, but we don't need them anymore to produce world-class beer. As you can perhaps tell, I have some strong opinions about this subject. I'd better move on.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and the brewery over the rest of the year?
We're just going to keep focusing on producing the best beer we can and getting it into the glasses of people who like drinking great beer. I'd like to promote the enjoyment of good drink, good food, and good company.