Did you know that before Prohibition, Utah was home to fifteen breweries? Some were among the biggest and best in the West. Learn about Utah’s early beer brewers and their specialized craft.
Ask any beer brewer – or any beer connoisseur – and they will tell you a brewer’s expertise determines the quality of their product. Brewers are skilled laborers whose careful craft relies on deep knowledge of yeasts, flowers, and the mysteries of fermentation. And brewers have been putting this specialized knowledge to work in Utah since the 1850s.
Orrin Porter Rockwell, Brigham Young’s notorious bodyguard, established one of Utah’s first breweries – the Hot Springs Hotel in Bluffdale – in 1856. But it was German immigrants educated in European traditional brewing methods who built Utah’s most prominent commercial breweries. First was Henry Wagener’s California Brewery, established in 1864 at the mouth of Emigration Canyon. Ten years later, Jacob Moritz took over the Salt Lake City Brewing Company. Albert Fisher’s Brewing Company came along in 1884, followed by Ogden’s Becker Brewing & Malting Company, founded in 1908 by John Becker and his two sons.
These German immigrants brewed superb beer. Known for their attention to quality, the Beckers purchased their raw ingredients – barley and hops – from local farmers, and ran their own malting facility in order to control the complex process of germinating and roasting the grains to give their beer just the right color and flavor. For Utah’s workers, many of whom burned 4,000 calories a day, beer was like liquid bread – a rich source of nutrients that satiated thirst and fed the belly.
By 1891, the Salt Lake Brewing Company had grown to be the largest brewery outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It dominated the city’s skyline and produced 100,000 barrels of beer per year – that’s three times what Utah’s largest brewing cooperative produces today. Master brewers directed their apprentices in large-scale operations that employed hundreds of people.
These companies were so important to Utah’s economy that when the state banned alcohol in 1917, many of them started brewing soda pop instead. Only Beckers survived until Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, but today, Utah’s craft brewers create beers that win awards across the nation.
Megan van Frank and John Christensen for Utah Humanities © 2017
See Del Vance, Beer in the Beehive: A History of Brewing in Utah, Salt Lake City: Dream Garden Press, 2008; Randy Harward, “Utah Brewing Timeline,” Salt Lake City Weekly, August 24, 2011.