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Oct 25, 2014

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Salt Lake salvation

By Gregg Smith

Standing at the four corners you turn northwest and start moving. As you travel there are symbols of bee hives and sea gulls, references to a settlers land of milk and honey and the salvation from a grasshopper swarm of biblical proportions. A tourist's vision of this region is either a Great Salt Lake or a desert city with strange outdated laws, like only allowing sales of domestic 3.2 beers on Holidays. Despite this there are places to go for fresh and satisfying brew.

In Salt Lake your oasis is Squatters. The significance of the name is a mystery even to the staff, but there seems to be no connection with anything to do with the rest rooms. Located downtown, and a three block walk from the old Salt Palace, the building is an old turn of the century hotel which catered to the working man. In its day it rented 9X12 rooms for 25 cents a night. The upper floors remained a hotel of this type until 1960 when a mishap in the dry cleaner\laundry on the main floor caused extensive damage. Following the accident several business cycled through until 1989 when Jeff Polychronis and Peter Cole saw the building in a whole new light. The two friends had been in the commercial real estate business for 12 years and were looking for a change. Both of them were beer enthusiasts and had sampled most of the Northwest micro brews. A brew pub seemed a natural choice and the old hotel was selected for a go of it.

The ale house is set-up in a three level, all grain, gravity system built around a JV Northwest 7 barrel kettle and originally had four 7 barrel fermenters. Within one month a 14 barrel fermenter was added along with another 14 barrel fermenter during the first summer and a third in 1992. Unfortunately all this success has used up the floor space and thus the search is on to start up yet another brewpub. The idea is to begin brewing in the second location, then to move into local distribution of kegs and finally to open as a separate brewpub.

As you pass through the door titled "Salt Lake Brewing Company" you enter an expansive room with a high exposed raftered ceiling. Along the left wall there is a large fire place built of cobblestones recovered from a street refurbishing project. Ironically these stones were originally located alongside the Mormon temple; what heresy for the old stones to stand guard here! On the opposite wall is the bar with a glass walled back showcasing stainless steel tanks. Throughout the pub there are wooden pegs for ski jackets and in the summer the outdoor patio has piped in Jazz and alfresco dining.

Sales used to peak around the ski season, but as Salt Lake has grown into a more urban and heterogenous population the demand forbeer has reached a fairly steady year round level. A result of the brewery size and high demand is a brewing staff of Jennifer Talley, Eric Buehner and Dan Burick. Dan got his start as an all grain homebrewer who heard about the squatters project months before it opened. He readily admits he rather thrust himself into their midst by always hanging around during construction. As the brewery got more and more busy he found himself on staff and attending the Seibel Institute. According to Dan there was never any regret in leaving his job in the world of finance and insurance. Producing only 3.2 beers, which translates to starting gravities of around 1.040, is a challenge for the brewers but does reap many benefits. Under Utah's liquor laws their level of beer does not require the usual restrictive hours which burdens most bars, and at Squatters you can buy "just a beer" without the usual requirement for a concurrent purchase of food.

Generally there are four or five beers available including weizen, amber, pale ale, porter and stout. All were very clean and bright with a proper amount of carbonation for each type. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this brew pub is their ability to produce good ales that meet the Utah 3.2 requirement. The weizen had a nice pale yellow color, faint nose of clove, and a balanced mellow, drinkable mid-taste with no hop bite. The stout is a favorite, a toasty flavored version with chocolate, smoky, nutty undertones. Low hops and esters were appropriate for the style and though the color was a touch light it's still a good example of a dry stout. The amber was typical of the generic brew pub style and proves a reliable choice. The pale ale comes across a little thin and under-hopped, but the effect is a balanced beer more along the lines of a well made ordinary bitter. The star of the squatters brews is the porter. This smooth rendition of a classic porter is produced from two row barley, wheat, carapils, chocolate and black patent malts. At the 1992 Great American Beer Fest people were passing by the booth with mostly dubious looks. But after the award of a bronze medal Squatters found they had lots of friends.

As you sit in the restaurant gentle whiffs of garlic float across from the open cooking area and suggest the promise of good food. Selections include all the usual pubfare with the addition of entrees such as richly spiced chicken breast, pasta dishes and a fiery jambalaya in a thick rice sauce. Most of the menu has items prepared with a western twist and even stir fry is a surprising blend of cultures. The menu also includes specials such as grilled Mahi-Mahi; however, beware of the chicken wings, these are not for the faint of heart. Although delicious, these can be real lip chappers. Do your beer tasting before diving into the wings.

Should your travels take you to the Great Salt Lake take heart. Despite some people's misconceptions, the skiing is among the world's best, the people are friendly, and the beer is fresh and tasty. Enjoy it, but try to keep it a secret.

Gregg Smith

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