Note: This profile originally appeared in Issue 55 of BeerAdvocate magazine
Water, barley, hops, and yeast; like the natural elements of the ancient world, these four components are the natural driving forces of beer. Through these simple ingredients, the brewer creates something special that can connect its drinker to nature, with each sip promoting the nuances of the individual ingredients, or perhaps their harmony as they work together to create something new.
Hyperbolic praise of beer’s natural properties aside, beer is undoubtedly a product of the natural world. Unlike so many human inventions that seek to control and conquer nature, brewing beer serves as a way for mankind to live in harmony with its natural surroundings.
In Springdale, Utah, which rests at the entrance of the glorious Zion Canyon National Park, lies a small brewery with an eye toward connecting man and nature through beer. Zion Canyon Brewing Company has been operating out of the small town in Southwestern Utah for longtime local Dale Harris, and the people there are starting to understand just how special beer can be.
Perhaps the most dangerous enemy to the natural world is humankind. Global warming, oil spills, deforestation and extinctions of all kinds have been caused by humans. In Utah, men have devised yet another way to stymie one of the natural wonders of the world—a 4% ABV cap on beers sold in the state.
Breweries can make beer above the cap as long as it is sold in state-run liquor stores, but can’t distribute kegs of those beers on draft within Utah. The result is that breweries like Zion Canyon must decide if their beers will fill the tiny niche market for higher-ABV beers, or focus their attention on brewing a well-crafted small beer that packs full flavor with low alcohol.
Harris and Zion Canyon chose the latter route.
“Folks think that Utah beers have a real weak finish to them, not all of them, but some of them,” Harris said. “My thing was to make sure that you didn’t get water, you got beer. You get punched in the middle, the beginning, and the end.
“I’ve had people argue with me angrily that it’s more than a four percent beer.”
While Harris has been able to craft good examples of traditional styles (more on that later) under Utah’s strict guidelines, he hopes to exploit recent legislation that allows for breweries to sell strong beer in their own pubs by expanding his operation and moving to a new location that would house the brewery and pub.
The move would take Zion Canyon out of the low-ceilings of its current basement residence, and into a larger space that would give Harris the freedom to provide locals and the thousands of tourists that come to the National Park a place to sit down and enjoy craft beer without government regulators nit picking the numbers.
“A pub is critical for guys like me,” Harris said. “I’m at the mouth of Zion National Park, and we get thousands of visitors… I’ve got drinkers and fans from all over the world because of the tourist community here.”
Harris is looking forward to the opportunity to introduce the local community, which had grown accustomed to mass-market light lagers, to the wide array of flavors and qualities from the natural world that good beers possess.
“To make a Dopple, to make a Barleywine, to make these beers that I want to have at any given time, the only place you can get those in Utah is to come into my place and get it,” Harris said. “(The pub) is going to be pushing that foot traffic, and pushing different styles of beer that people in Utah haven’t even heard of.”
The Natural Man
To some, a brewery in a restrictive state like Utah seems like a contradiction of terms. For Harris, he can’t imagine being anywhere but at the mouth of Zion Canyon National Park.
“If I would have tried to do this in any of the surrounding communities around me, it would have never happened,” Harris said. “They would have looked at me, I’ve got a beard down to my stomach and hair down to my waist, and they wouldn’t have had anything to do with me.”
Springdale embraced its own when Harris and his brother helped draft the local brewing ordinance (as there had never been a brewery in the region before), and has been a major factor in Zion Canyon’s burgeoning success.
“There’s good people here and good times,” Harris said. “Springdale is another Utah experience than Utah. We’re a bunch of liberal fucks here. It’s a good time out here.”
Frankly, Harris is having too much fun to leave. Although strangely enough for a brewer, he wasn’t having too much fun drinking beer. He stopped drinking it altogether when he was young, as the local stores didn’t carry much outside of the big boys, and Harris simply wasn’t interested in yellow water.
But when a new beer with a squatty bottle and a green label showed up in town, Harris’ opinion on beer shifted dramatically.
“It was a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and it was orgasmic,” Harris said. “I couldn’t believe somebody was creating something like that and putting it in a bottle. Everything else I had been exposed to was low-grade piss-water for lack of a better term… it probably took me the longest to drink that beer compared to any other beer I had ever drank because I couldn’t believe what I was drinking.”
That beer lit a spark in Harris that took him around the western United States touring breweries and brewpubs. He began sampling new beers, unique beers, popular beers, and a few bad beers. He fell in love with the people who made it and the community that supported it.
“I wanted to be a part of the culture,” Harris said. “I really wanted to be part of this revolution that’s happening… what it’s doing now is insane. I hope that some day these commercial breweries are faded out and you can get a great full-flavored beer everywhere.”
After years of dreaming, Harris was able to gather investors and the equipment necessary to build his dream.
Within The Rules
Rather than attempt extravagant recipes that mask the limitations of a 4% ABV beer, Harris has tailored his beers to shine under the restrictive scrutiny of government regulations. He brews a Pilsner, an Irish Stout, and an Amber Ale that are examples of finely-made American Session beers.
“I haven’t found that lagers are generally heavy alcohol beers, so four percent fits like a champ, and my Stout fits like a champ too,” Harris said. “My Amber is a higher-selling beer, and I have folks who drink that over Fat Tire. The four percent as far as being in state, I don’t feel that it’s hurting me at all.”
Harris admits that the one beer that could be better outside of the limiting restrictions is his Hop Valley India Pale Ale. Most brewers he meets are shocked that he even attempts to brew an IPA under Utah’s laws, let alone that he has found a way to make one tasty and interesting.
“Not having that alcohol, it’s hard to mesh that front part of that beer and get that smoothness, so I backed off with my first hop addition that gives me a good punch of hops, but get that good blend of malt flavor with Cara Munich that comes in,” Harris said.
Although it has been successful under these limitations, Zion Canyon is also looking to expand distribution to neighboring markets where Utah’s strict laws don’t apply. Especially after the pub is completed and he will be able to sell stronger beers at home, Harris plans on brewing special beers solely for the purpose of distribution outside of Utah’s borders.
“I’m looking to spread Zion loving all over the planet,” Harris said. “That’s for sure. The pub thing is a big money maker, but gosh if you can get good lines of distribution you can make a lot of money with distribution that’s for sure, and I get a lot of interest because of the tourist traffic I get through here.”
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and is currently working on his first book.