Wasatch Brewery: Driving Innovation at ‘Top of Main’

The Wasatch Brewery Kick-Back Series features a variety of styles, with the idea that it would turn into a library of "unique, different beers," according to Wasatch Brewery Head Brewer Nils Imboden. Photo Credit: Viktor Krstev
The Wasatch Brewery Kick-Back Series features a variety of styles, with the idea that it would turn into a library of "unique, different beers," according to Wasatch Brewery Head Brewer Nils Imboden. Photo Credit: Viktor Krstev

Any business, let alone a brewery in Utah, doesn’t survive for more than three decades without striking a balance between consistency and innovation. And for Wasatch Brewery, which opened its doors in Park City in 1986, it’s spent 34 years doing exactly that.

Many of Utah’s iconic craft beers — Polygamy Porter, Apricot Hefeweizen, Evolution Amber Ale — originated at Wasatch. They’re just as well-loved today as when they hit the market years ago.

That doesn’t mean Wasatch, which remains a key player in Utah’s craft beer scene, isn’t focused on the future. Its history helps to illustrate that notion.

In 2000, Wasatch joined forces with Squatters Craft Beers to launch the Utah Brewers Cooperative. And in 2017, that cooperative became part of the CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective.

The strategic moves ultimately provided flexibility to turn the 15-barrel brewhouse in Park City into an R&D facility of sorts.

And that does much to satisfy the second part of the all-important balancing act.

“There does need to be that innovation,” says Nils Imboden, head brewer at Utah’s oldest modern-day brewery, which is located at the top of historic Main Street in Park City. “And that’s really where this facility comes in.”

For instance:

  • The Wasatch Juicy IPA, which Imboden notes is the best-selling draft IPA in Utah, got its start as a pub-exclusive known as Haze Craze.
  • The popular Kick-Back Series, which hit the market in 2019, aims to become a library for “unique, different” beers. Brewpub customers often get to serve as beer beta testers for potential offerings.
  • The Top of Main Series features barrel-aged small-batch beers that are available only in Utah.
The iconic Wasatch Brew Pub, located at 250 Main Street in Park City, Utah. Photo Credit: Wasatch Brewery

Wasatch Brewery: In Their Own Words

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Park City Roots Run Deep

You might know the origin story of Wasatch Brewery. It’s a well-told tale involving a counterculture renegade heading west in the mid-1970s and settling in a sleepy Utah mining town.

A decade later, in 1986, Greg Schirf opened Utah’s first post-Prohibition craft brewery on Iron Horse Drive in Park City. Two years later, after lobbying the legislature to change a law to allow brewpubs, the Wasatch Brew Pub opened at the top of historic Main Street in Park City.

Nils Imboden, head brewer at Wasatch Brewery in Park City. Photo Credit: Carlos Guzman
Nils Imboden, head brewer at Wasatch Brewery in Park City. Photo Credit: Carlos Guzman

“He could have landed a lot of places,” Imboden says. “But to land in Park City and say, ‘hey, I want to start a brewery,’ that’s just mind-boggling to me.”

Imboden isn’t a stranger to Park City, either. He grew up along the Wasatch Back and his family has operated Adolph’s Restaurant for nearly 50 years. In fact, Adolph’s became Wasatch’s first non-draft account, Imboden says. “I’ve known Greg and the Schirfs my entire life.”

Imboden, who graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in electrical engineering, regularly sought Schirf’s opinion on his own homebrew. When a cellar position opened in 2011 at the Utah Brewers Cooperative, the recent grad jumped at the opportunity.

“It was a ‘the stars aligned’ type thing,” Imboden remembers.

The Park City native and avid skier worked his way up the ladder and explored continuing education opportunities. He trained with the London-based Institute of Brewing and Distilling, earning essentially a bachelor’s of brewing.

About four years ago, seeking the chance to leave the Salt Lake Valley to be closer to the Park City powder, Imboden realized his dream. He took over as head brewer at the state’s first-ever brewpub.

Growth and Expansion

Wasatch built its brand throughout the 1990s and, as mentioned above, merged with Squatters Craft Beers at the start of the new millennium. The Utah Brewers Cooperative (UBC) combined the state’s first brewpub (Wasatch) and Salt Lake’s first brewpub (Squatters), which opened in 1989.

“We think it’s competitive now, but there were less consumers back then and a significant number of breweries,” Imboden says. “It was a smart partnership.”

Also at that time, the production facility in Salt Lake opened to handle the growing demand for UBC beers. About 90% of Wasatch-Squatters beer is now produced at the facility on 300 West in Salt Lake, Imboden says. It also features an adjoining West Side Tavern and Cold Beer Store, one of several outposts where beer drinkers can enjoy a pint of Wasatch craft beer.

Expansion continued and Wasatch opened a pub in Sugar House. Squatters, meantime, operated its Roadhouse Grill in Park City and a pub at the Salt Lake International Airport.

Soon, Wasatch and Squatters locations will greet travelers at the newly remodeled airport. And it appears a Craft Cafe beer bar is in the works as well near the airport.

In 2017, the two long-running breweries joined CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective. The group includes not only Wasatch and Squatters, but also breweries such as Oskar Blues, Cigar City, Deep Ellum, Perrin, and Three Weavers.

And that, too, Imboden says, has helped Wasatch remain on the cutting edge. In fact, on a recent Friday, Imboden brewed a beer with an experimental hop that’s being trialed by the USDA.

“Without being the size that we are (with CANarchy), we would have never been considered for it,” Imboden says. “It’s having the resources (of a big company), yet applying it to a smaller scale. I have the dream job, right?”

Wasatch Brewery: The Beers

The Wasatch Kick-Back Series, initially developed in early 2019, aims to create a “beer library” of different, unique styles. The West Coast IPA, left, is one of the originals (and has been brewed four times since). The Kellerbier Lime Lager, right, hit shelves in July 2020, and the Landbier Swiss-Style Lager arrived in August. An Oktoberfest Fest-Style Lager is expected to be available in September.

Wasatch, in addition to continuing to brew a strong lineup of core beers, is turning up the heat in the last half of 2020 with seasonal and new releases.

Landbier, which translates to "country beer," pays homage to Imboden's Swiss heritage. It features Southern German-grown floor-malted barley, Swiss Tettnang hops and a Zurich lager yeast. Imboden even had his cousin in Interlaken ship water samples so he could match the water profile in Park City.
Landbier, which translates to “country beer,” pays homage to Imboden’s Swiss heritage. It features Southern German-grown floor-malted barley, Swiss Tettnang hops, and a Zurich lager yeast. Imboden even had his cousin in Interlaken ship water samples to Park City so he could match the water profile.

Imboden gave Utah Beer News an inside look at several concoctions he’s created recently. Some are already available to the drinking public, while others are coming soon.

Below are notes on a few new beers. But if you want to get the scoop on everything coming up, including an Oktoberfest and a collaboration IPA with Three Weavers Brewing, as well as the popular Black O’ Lantern Pumpkin Stout and Clothing Hoptional wild-hop ale, be sure to listen to the Utah Beer News Podcast.

Tasting Notes

  • Landbier Swiss-Style Lager (6% ABV): A crystal clear, effervescent Euro lager. Aromas of doughy bread, flavors of crisp cracker and cereal, with a light caramel maltiness. Just enough earthy/grassy noble hops to balance.
  • Kellerbier Lime Lager (5.5%): A perfect quencher on a 100-degree day. Pours slightly hazy with aromas of lime. Flavors of soft bready malts with substantial lime crispness.
  • Belgian-Style Dubbel Aged in Brandy Barrels (9.6%): Pours a dark reddish copper with a fleeting cap of foam. Big brandy, raisin/fig aromas. Some alcohol warmth up front, but not overwhelming. Flavors of candied raisins and plums. Slight fruity esters and soft carbonation. Minimal hop bitterness.
  • Imperial Red Ale Aged in Rum Barrels (9%): Ruby red with aromas of rum and caramelized brown sugar. Flavors of dark fruits and some floral hop character. Picked up a touch of finishing spiciness.
  • West Coast IPA (6.5%): Check out our thoughts on the original batch, as well as a few others in the Kick-Back Series. This one, the fourth iteration, pours a clear copper. Aromas of citrus (orange and grapefruit) and flavors of ripe citrus with earthy pine. Moderate bitterness is well-balanced with lightly toasted cereal. Crisp and clean IPA.

About Wasatch Brewery

Wasatch Brewery in 1986 became Utah’s first post-Prohibition brewery. Its iconic brewpub at the top of historic Main Street in Park City arrived two years later after founder Greg Schirf helped to change state law to make brewpubs legal.

The brewery, which promises to “drink our share and sell the rest,” joined forces with Squatters Craft Beers in 2000 to form the Utah Brewers Cooperative. And in 2017, it became part of the CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective.

Several of Wasatch’s beers, including Polygamy Porter, Apricot Hefeweizen, and Evolution Amber Ale (now simply Evo), are among the brewery’s earliest releases and still remain fan favorites.

Wasatch Brewing

  • Founded: 1986
  • Notable: Wasatch Brewery is Utah’s oldest modern-day brewery and one of the nation’s first craft breweries. Its footprint now includes a brewpub at the top of historic Main Street in Park City, a production facility/taproom in Salt Lake, a pub in Sugar House, and a soon-to-be pub at the new Salt Lake International Airport.
  • Website: https://wasatchbeers.com/
  • Social Media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter

Disclosure: Wasatch Brewery arranged to provide Utah Beer News with beer samples for review purposes.

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