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Strange Brew

Del Vance’s Beer in the Beehive blows the foam off utah’s brewing history.



Del Vance’s 300-page tome Beer in the Beehive is probably about 280 pages longer than anyone would expect the first book about Utah brewing history to be'including Vance himself. The one-time co-founder of Salt Lake City’s Uinta Brewing Co. padded the book only slightly with a breakdown of beer itself (“It’s essential to know something about the greatest beverage ever created”) and a brief history of brewing (“One of the major cornerstones of civilization”); the rest is all about Utah suds, from Brigham to Bohemian.


City Weekly sat down with Vance recently for 20 questions over 20 (-ish) beers. To the best of our recollection, this is how it went

City Weekly: Why write a book about beer? Doesn’t that just take time away from drinking beer?
Del Vance: Because I’m a greedy bastard and I love to make money off drunk people. [Laughs] No, it’s because I like history and I like beer'I drink so much beer that I need to write everything down so I don’t forget it.

At first, I just wanted to write down all my ideas about the brewing business. I think Utah has some of the best breweries in the world; every brewery here has a wall full of trophies and medals to prove it. And there are so many misconceptions about the history of Utah beer'Brigham Young’s brewery, the whole 3.2 beer thing. I just wanted to get it out there that Utah beer is just as good as any you’ll find anyplace else. And to support the local breweries, because they have an uphill battle: They have to fight the very people whom they pay taxes and fees to and who license them and make the laws, and then fight the stereotypes of Utah liquor laws.

I thought, I’ll do a little research into the history the Utah brewery business; it’ll take me a few minutes. Once I started digging, it blew me away how many there were. And I keep finding more all the time. I brought the book over to the Red Rock Brewing Co. and said, “Here it is, every brewery that ever opened in Utah.” The guy says, “Hey, I just found this bottle in a house I’m renovating.” Never heard of it; brewed in Utah. So the book’s already outdated.

CW: Did you have any idea there was this much Utah brewing history when you started?
DV: I was so shocked to find out how many breweries there were in Utah'and even more shocked to find out how many of ’em were owned by Mormons. It was a kind of a “Do as I say, not as I do” thing back then. They ran all the breweries but at the same time, said, “Don’t drink.” When the Fisher Brewing Co. closed in 1968, there was no beer brewed in Utah between then and the ’80s. When Greg Schirf went to open his brewery [Wasatch] in 1986, they didn’t even have forms for it'they said, “No one’s ever asked for it.” And then a couple of years later when he wanted to open a brewpub, it was illegal, so he had to hire a lobbyist and submit a bill to the state Legislature just to open a brewpub. Greg did a lot of work; he’s pretty much the godfather of Utah brewing. He opened the doors for all us winos.

CW: The underlying tone of Beer in the Beehive is pretty antagonistic toward Utah’s culture and liquor laws. Are you out to make a change or just blow off steam?
DV: You know, people have been griping for so long about the liquor laws, and it seems like the more they complain, the more the laws get tightened down. I’ve been involved in the beer business for almost 20 years locally, so I had to vent a little bit. I don’t think the book will change anything. If anything, the state will probably read the book and get some new ideas about how to screw us over even more. They can call it the Del Vance Beer Tax Bill. They just raised brewery licenses from $500 to $4,000. You know how Utah works: “We need the cash'bend over, you heathens.”

And it doesn’t burn everybody equally: All the brewers who are shipping their beer from out of state don’t have to pay that; they’re getting a huge advantage over the local guys. You’d think they’d want to support the local companies, but I don’t think they like having breweries in the state, don’t want them.

CW: What’s the strangest or most surprising thing you learned while researching this?
DV: How big some of the breweries were, post-Prohibition. Utah, of all places, had some of the biggest breweries in the Western United States. I thought Uinta and Wasatch were fairly big, selling about 15,000 to 20,000 barrels a year; post-Prohibition breweries were selling over 100,000 barrels a year'out of Utah. That even more so than the number of breweries, and how many were owned by Mormons.

CW: There was actually a beer brewed from beets?
DV: Most of the information I found for the book came from old meetings’ minutes from The Great Salt Lake City, as it was known back then; handwritten notes from meetings about licensing. One guy received a license to brew beer from beets. You can brew beer from just about anything as long as it ferments out, gets the job done and gets you drunk. I don’t think I’d want to drink a beet beer, though.

CW: Your book says that LDS Church-owned ZCMI sold beer, wine and liquor in its downtown store in the late 1800s and the Mormons produced an exclusive'and reportedly strong'brand of whiskey called Valley Tan. Is this acknowledged in church history?
DV: I don’t know where to find church history'if it’s documented, it’s probably hidden in a cave up Little Cottonwood under a ton of granite. Brigham Young passed a law that only he could produce whiskey in the Utah territory then known as the State of Deseret. It was called Valley Tan; pretty strong stuff'they didn’t mess around. “Drink enough of this, and you’ll sign 10 percent away.

CW: Plus, Brigham Young said he despised whiskey makers more than thieves but made money off taxing and controlling booze'a precursor to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control?
DV: What a shock'the church being hypocritical? Never would have seen that coming. That seems to be their philosophy: Make a lot of money off something while condemning it. They’re walking a fine line; they’re making so much money that they have to promote it just a little so they don’t lose revenue. How do you balance that?

CW: Do adverse conditions and restrictions make for better beer?
DV: It definitely makes it more challenging. You can hide “defects” in beer with high alcohol content, so it’s harder to make a good 3.2 beer. When the Utah breweries submit their beers to the national and world competitions, it’s a blind taste test'judges don’t know the beer is from Utah. If they knew, Utah probably wouldn’t win anything because of the misconceptions they have.

CW: Does Utah’s legendary 3.2 beer actually give you that much less buzz and flavor?
DV: Not really. It’s like measuring speed by miles per hour versus kilometers per hour'one seems faster than the other, but there’s no difference. You can measure beer by weight or volume. If you measure beer by volume like the rest of the world does, Utah’s is 4 percent, not 3.2. They should call it placebo beer; everybody thinks they can drink as much 3.2 beer as they want and not get drunk, but it’s really not much less than a mainstream beer outside of Utah. A regular Bud, Coors or Miller is about 4-and-a-half percent by volume'half a percent is not that big a deal. You just have to drink an ounce more to make up for it, and I don’t think people mind doing that.

CW: With so much good locally brewed beer, why would anyone still order a Budweiser?
DV: Marketing is everything'the best marketing and advertising brings in the most beer drinkers. That’s why Budweiser sells 50 percent of the beer in the country; Anheuser-Busch has been a marketing giant since the inception of the company. A good book to read is the biography of August Busch'he couldn’t get anybody to carry his beer until he started marketing it, paying people to walk into bars and ask for it.

Nowadays, people see a dark-colored local beer and think something’s wrong with it. I’m not dissing Bud, Coors or Miller. They’re good beers for what they are; I just think they’re boring. And beer isn’t like wine'it doesn’t age well, you want it to be fresh. That’s why local breweries are the best to buy it from, because you get it fresh. To have those imported beers sitting unrefrigerated in the liquor stores'and usually right out in the sun by the window'is just crazy.

CW: Do you consider drinking beer just to get drunk, as opposed to enjoying flavor, heresy?
DV: Can you separate the two? It’s not like wine tasting, where you spit it out'which I don’t understand. I’m not a wine aficionado, it’s all sour grapes to me, but the majority of taste buds are on the back of your tongue'you have to swallow to get all the flavor. They don’t waste beer at the festivals by spitting it out.

CW: Is there any danger of home-brewing, which is becoming more popular all the time, cutting into the brewery business?
DV: Well, it’s not as popular now as it was during Prohibition. Most of the current local breweries were started by guys who were home-brewers'it’s a way to get your foot in the door. It won’t cut into brewery business because you can only make small amounts, and it takes time. But, if you can make a good beer that your friends like without puking all over the carpet, give it a shot.

CW: The brewing company you started, Uinta, gets an extensive section in the book. It’s an epic struggle against local liquor laws'any exaggeration there for drama?
DV: I had the firsthand experience with Uinta; for the other chapters, I could only ask questions of the other breweries I used to be in friendly competition with. I remembered as much as I could, even with my loss of long-term memory thanks to beer. Starting Uinta was a huge pain in the ass'we almost went out of business before we even began. We were set back so many times by zoning laws, liquor laws, you name it.

CW: You credit Wasatch Brewery’s Greg Schirf for kicking off the modern microbrew craze in Utah in the ’80s. Whose beer was better, yours or his?
DV: [Covers recorder, whispers] Ours. [Laughs] I can’t say ours, because I don’t have ownership in Uinta anymore. Squatters’ [which joined with Wasatch to form the Utah Brewers Cooperative in 2000] India Pale Ale is probably one of the best IPAs I’ve ever had, but Uinta makes the best porter by far, King’s Peak. Every brewery has one superior beer'like Red Rock has a really good harvest ale right now. But no one local brewery has the best all around; they all have a particular brand or style they’re good at … I think I weaseled my way out of that one pretty well.

CW: Are there any local beers out there currently or in the past that you wish you’d come up with?
DV: Only about 1,000. I’m jonesing to get back in the beer business, so hopefully I’ll think of something no one has done yet. If you have any ideas, let me know.

CW: Once you start bottling, how difficult is it to get a new beer on the shelves at local supermarkets and convenience stores?
DV: Unless you have a distributor, it’s really tough. We were lucky to get Anheuser-Busch as a distributor'how many stores don’t have Budweiser? Unless you have something like that, you have about an iceberg’s chance in hell of getting on the shelves. Bohemian Brewery started canning their beer, a really good Czech pilsner'they don’t have a distributor, been trying for six months now and they only have it in the Emigration Market. It’s hard. Getting it into a bar, you just get the owner drunk and he says, “Oh, I love this stuff.” With stores, it’s a whole different ballgame.

If you want to grow your business, there are only so many bars that carry draft beer'you can’t really grow unless you package your beer. Squatters canned their Chasing Tail Ale to get into golf courses, because you can’t have bottles out there. I said, “You’re going through all that trouble just to get in golf courses?” Then they told me how much they sell on the courses'it’s a lot of beer! It makes sense: I suck at golf now, but I’d really suck without beer. I need my liquid handicap.

CW: You were one of the co-founders of The Bayou, which has the largest selection of beer on-premises in the state'most of which has to be bought first from a State Liquor Store. How do they keep the stock up?
DV: I lost about half my vertebrae lugging beer into that place. Luckily, Mark Alston is a computer genius and designed a system to keep track of all the beer. They have to get all that beer from the State Liquor Store, just like anyone else. I’d be driving back to The Bayou with my bumper scraping the ground because of all the beer in the back. They also have to pay retail; there’s no wholesale price'it’s the same with restaurants and other clubs. It’s hard to make a profit paying retail like that; you can only mark up a beer so much without pissing people off. It’s easier with wine; wine snobs are used to getting shafted.

CW: Most of the breweries’ reviews are fairly even-handed'except for the Marmot Mesa Brewery, which was on Pierpont Avenue between 2000 and ’02. You really hated them, huh?
DV: They were real jerks. The first time we [Uinta] went in there, all they did was tell us what was wrong with our beer and how it could be better. They were just a bunch of cocky punks who thought they’d make their business better by badmouthing everyone else’s'and every brewery in Utah made better beer than they did. It was awful, like bathtub gin.

CW: Was Squatters’ St. Provo Girl the best beer marketing gimmick ever, or what?
DV: Oh yeah, the St. Provo Girl was good. So was Wasatch’s First Amendment Lager, when they dumped the beer in the lake'that was a good one, too. Greg [Schirf] is good at knowing what buttons to push in Utah to get free publicity, without going over the limit. Wait, I should take that back: Polygamy Porter really pissed off the powers that be, so they raised the beer tax'which inspired First Amendment Lager.

CW: Is your book designed to be a better read after a few beers?
DV: Before, during and after. My intent was to make you thirst for a good local beer while you’re reading it. If that happens, my job is done.

Beer in the Beehive is published by Dream Garden Press in Salt Lake City and is available at bookstores (and bars) all along the Wasatch Front.