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Oct 23, 2014

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Jackson Hole: American playland

By Gregg Smith

It wasn't a friendly place when John Colter, Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith and other "mountain men" first traveled through Jackson Hole. The severity of the winters made these early visitors declare the "hole" uninhabitable. But that was in the days before snow plows, resorts, nightclubs and guided mountain tours. Today it is a year round magnet for outdoor activity, and that has transformed Jackson into one of America's most photographed playlands. If that isn't reason enough to visit, there's the brewing.

Don't think of Wyoming as a beer desert. Catering to the evolving tastes of tourists brought imports to town long ago. Then in 1988 Otto Brothers Brewing introduced their local micro-brews to the area. They even set up a series of "Growler Filling Stations" around town. As other ski areas in the west began having brewpubs pop up near the slopes it was only a matter of time till the same would happen in Jackson. That time came when Albert Upsher arrived.

If you want to trace the roots of the brewery you're led back to New York where Al worked for twelve years as a securities analyst. Having enough of that he made a move to the Northwest. It was in McMinnville, Oregon where Al got his first taste of the beer business as owner of an Anheuser-Busch distributorship. But in the Northwest can anyone resist the call of micro's for long? In 1990 he sold his interest in the business and in 1992 started planning his own brewery. After arriving in Jackson, he purchased a former Coca Cola warehouse at 265 S. Millward street and renovation quickly followed.

In reality the modifications more closely resembled a near demolition, with the majority of it torn down to make way for - an old building. Or at least old looking. From outside the brewery appears very similar to what it replaced, an old fashion industrial warehouse. Inside the rafters of exposed structural steel, prominent brew kettle and stainless tanks not so subtly proclaim this a brewery, and the implication is not accidental. The intention is to reinforce that this is a place where beer is manufactured. Thus, when you first arrive the effect seems rather cold and sterile. However within a few minutes the finer details begin to emerge. Outside there's a large outdoor deck for the summer crowd, which is also the only place smoking is permitted. Inside there's piped in jazz, small potted trees and large windows which open on a vista of Snow King, Jackson's "other" ski area, all of which soften the harsh edge of industrial architecture. With brewery plans proceeding it was time to hire a head brewer and the search took Upsher to another mountain, in Colorado.

Curtis "Chip" Holland seemed almost destined to work here. He's lived most of his life in mountain resort areas and when not mashing moguls he was mashing in his homebrew. This is what landed him in a three year tour as assistant brewer at Breckenridge Brewery. Later he attended Seibel Institute and finally settled into his role at Jackson during the construction phase. This non-brewing time is always unsettling for a brewer, but Chip made the most of it and literally learned the system from the ground up. It paid off, a scant seven months after opening he was walking away with a silver medal from the 1994 Great American Beer Festival.

There's little doubt Holland has done a good job, so after taking in the view and brewery it's time to turn your attention to the beers. And worthy of it they are. There's a mixture of rotating regulars among the six taps along with seasonal features. Lightest in style is the Wapiti Wheat named for a specie of elk. Quite appropriate for Jackson is also home to the national elk range. The beer is generally in the American style with a prominent hop signature, low clove aroma and dry finish. Snake River Pale Ale is a bit more adventurous deep golden ale. A clean and inviting aroma of low fruit notes, it starts somewhat sweet before going to a grapefruit-like Cascade hops finish.

More intriguing is the Jackson's ESB which is a bit deceiving. The first impression is that this beer may be a little thin in body. Give it some time, the one problem with the brewpub's beers is that they are served too cold. This unfortunately masks some flavor if you rush into it. To give this beer a little time to warm, try ordering a pint at the same time you indulge in a flight of samplers. Then come back, as the ESB warms you'll find what originally appeared as thin is more than compensated by a complex mixture of caramel and low butterscotch with a nearly elusive hint of pear at the finish.

An oddity is what's called a Red Lager in the "Dort" style. This actually proves to be more a Vienna with a toasty malt and caramel middle and a hint of fruit. Don't be put-off by the misnomer, this beer is a good choice with some of the spicier menu items.

The heavy hitter among the selections is Bald Eagle Bock, a favorite in the winter season with a nutty, almost chocolate texture. The more balanced hops of the bock lets you savor the maltiness while the alcohol warms the spirit. It makes you want to take a glass over to the open hearth sitting in the corner.

As with many newer brewpubs there's significant emphasis on the food. Paula Dipaola formulated the menu which contains pasta, chicken, and vegetables along with pizza from a wood fired oven. Selections are rich and satisfying, and very skier friendly. Slope time is easily traded for a bit of this lunch, but it won't slow you down, except for maybe a couple of the dessert items. Need a recommendation for matching a beer with the food? Ask the staff, they're friendly and knowledgeable.

The worst part of leaving a brewpub is saying goodbye to the beer. This isn't a problem in Jackson, their "Snake River" brand of beers are packaged in a new bottling line located in the basement. You can find take out bottles throughout the valley and they are now available in your choice of 22 or 12oz sizes. There's a lot of things to do in the Jackson area, and good beer drinking is among them. See you on the slopes.

Gregg Smith

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