Grand Teton Brewing Company: Idaho Brews with Mountain Views

From the Source by | Mar 2016 | Issue #110

For a brewery nestled at the base of Teton Pass in Victor, Idaho, it all comes down to the water. Grand Teton Brewing Co. makes its beer from Teton glacier runoff that filters for centuries through limestone and granite before emerging at a spring just half a mile from the brewery.

Water isn’t the only locally sourced ingredient in Grand Teton’s beers though. The brewery’s barley comes from southeastern Idaho and about 85 percent of its hops are also grown in the state. “We have great relationships with the families that grow the hops, and it’s really neat to have that connection to the land and the people who make the ingredients,” brewmaster Rob Mullin says.

Idaho’s natural wonders inspire many of Grand Teton’s beers, too. Bitch Creek ESB, an Extra Special Brown, is named after a local waterway that flows out of the west side of the Grand Tetons. Its balance of big malt sweetness and robust hop flavors has won it 15 gold medals since 2004. And 100 percent Idaho ingredients come together to create Ale 208, a light-bodied session ale with citrusy hop flavor named after the region’s area code. In 2003, the brewery also added kettle-brewed sodas that incorporate local flavors, like huckleberries, blueberries and blackberries.

A Vibrant Culture
Located right at the base of Teton Pass, a popular backcountry skiing spot, the brewery has cultivated a strong après-ski culture in its 28-year legacy. “It’s a great location for people to meet up after backcountry skiing,” says Kristi Baughman, executive director of the Teton Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Microbrews and skiing go hand-in-hand with Teton Valley’s Culture.”

Locals and regulars fill the welcoming, low-key taproom, where oversized windows look into the brewhouse. In nice weather, patrons sit outside and take in panoramic mountain views—not to mention a peek at the neighbor’s yaks in an adjoining pasture. Even during Idaho’s extreme winters, visitors still find a way to swing by for a pint or growler—on one 2 degree day in February, a tour group from Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming braved the snow on fat-tire bicycles to visit the brewpub.

Before the brewery and taproom moved to Victor, Idaho, they were just over the state line in Wilson, Wyo. Grand Teton Brewing got its start there in 1988, when Charlie and Ernie Otto opened Otto Brothers’ Brewing Company. At that time, brewpubs were still illegal in Wyoming, so the brothers worked to petition for new laws, finally opening the state’s first brewpub in 1992. Six years later, they moved the operation over Teton Pass to Victor, Idaho, hoping to capitalize on the Tetons’ tourism draw. In 2000, they changed the name to Grand Teton Brewing Co. The Otto family is also credited with reintroducing the modern, 64-ounce glass growlers in 1989, when they wanted to offer beer-to-go, but weren’t yet ready to start bottling.

When Steve and Ellen Furbacher purchased the brewery in 2009, they continued the philanthropic culture the Otto brothers began, incorporating new ways the brewery could give back to its community. In 2015, Grand Teton Brewing made donations to 35 regional nonprofits. The brewery also hosts Pint Nights where it donates 30 percent of pub proceeds to nonprofits through the Community Foundation of Teton Valley’s Tin Cup Challenge, an annual event where funds raised are partially matched by other community supporters. “Our goal is to enhance the quality of life in Teton Valley, Idaho and Wyoming,” says co-owner Ellen Furbacher.

Reinventing Tradition
Nearly three decades in, Grand Teton continues to innovate. Over the past few years, its barrel-aging program has increased six-fold to include more than 130 wine, rum, bourbon and whiskey barrels. Mullin shows off his barrel program through the Brewers’ Series, a line of special releases that debuted last summer with American Sour, a pale wheat ale soured with Lactobacillus and aged in red wine barrels. The second rendition of American Sour will be released in July.

With three or four of these special releases planned for 2016, Mullin and his team are crafting beers completely distinct from Grand Teton’s flagships. For instance, a dry-hopped Brett Saison was released in February, and a barrel-aged farmhouse ale is slated to debut in April. A Flanders-style Brown Ale currently aging should also be released later this year.

In February, the brewery released the latest batch of the long-awaited Double Vision Doppelbock, first brewed in 2009 as part of its Cellar Reserve series. “We all look forward to the Doppelbock,” Mullin says. “We try to wait at least three years before repeating a beer, but we do the Doppelbock pretty much every three years since that’s a favorite.”

German Munich and Idaho two-row pale malts give this 8 percent ABV beer a dark color with ruby notes and a faint hint of smoke. Imported lager yeast and Hallertau hops from Germany impart its authentic taste, but Mullin attributes its success to something else. “It’s just really, really malty and smooth and drinkable, and that’s because we brew here with untreated Teton mountain water,” Mullin says, comparing it to the spring water flowing from the mountains of Bavaria, the style’s birthplace. “And, of all the great brewing cities in the world, our water’s [mineral content] is the closest to Munich’s water.”

This year, some of the Doppelbock will be set aside in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels to mature for 12 months. “We’ve done that before on a very small scale,” Mullin says. “The combination of bourbon barrels and Doppelbock was magical.”

Grand Teton Brewing currently produces 10,000 barrels per year, but that number will soon increase after it completes an expansion that’s in the works. With the extra space, the brewery hopes to triple or quadruple its barrel program. It will also allow them to triple cold room space, convert the current cold room into barrel storage, and free up fermentation space. With growth on the horizon, there’s no telling where Grand Teton will be in another 28 years. “It’s pretty exciting being able to bust through that 10,000-barrel mark,” says Mullin.

30-barrel, three-vessel brewhouse
3 30-bbl fermentors
1 60-bbl fermentor
6 90-bbl fermentors
2 140-bbl fermentors
1 30-bbl bright tank
2 60-bbl bright tanks
1 90-bbl bright tank
138 wood barrels (bourbon, whiskey, rum and wine)

On Tap
Bitch Creek ESB: This Extra Special Brown balances big malt sweetness with robust hop flavor to produce a full-bodied, mahogany ale that’s won 15 national gold medals. 6.0% ABV

Ale 208: A crisp, 100 percent Idaho-sourced session ale with a light malt body and subtle citrusy hops. 4.7% ABV

Sweetgrass American Pale Ale: The citrusy, resinous spiciness of this Pale Ale comes from Galena, Jarrylo and Cascade hops in the boil, plus a Bravo dry-hopping. 6.0% ABV

Old Faithful Ale: Dry and smooth, this cold conditioned Blonde Ale has a light malt sweetness and a floral hop aroma. 4.7% ABV

Howling Wolf: An unfiltered, Bavarian-style Hefeweizen gently hopped and balanced with malt sweetness and hints of fruit and spice. 4.7% ABV

Trout Hop Black IPA: Spicy and bold, this seasonal American-Style India Black Ale contains notes of fresh pine and spruce. 8.5% ABV