Zion Canyon Brewing Company

From the Source by | Aug 2011 | Issue #55

Water, barley, hops and yeast: Like the natural elements of the ancient world, these four components are the essential driving forces of beer. Through these simple ingredients, the brewer creates something that can connect its drinker to nature, with each sip holding the nuances of individual ingredients, the combination of which leads to an entirely unique sensory experience.

Hyperbolic praise of its rustic properties aside, beer is undoubtedly a product of the organic world. Unlike so many human inventions that seek to control and conquer nature, brewing beer serves as a way for mankind to live in accord with its natural surroundings.

In Springdale, Utah, at the entrance of the glorious Zion Canyon National Park, lies a small brewery that works with an eye toward connecting man and nature through beer. Zion Canyon Brewing Company has been operating out of the small town in southwestern Utah, led by longtime local Dale Harris.

Against Man
Perhaps the most dangerous enemy to the natural world is humankind. From global warming and oil spills, to deforestation and extinctions, man’s been quite a destructive force. And in Utah, yet another way has been devised to stymie one of the natural wonders of the world: a 4 percent ABV cap on beers sold in the state.

Breweries can make beer exceeding 4 percent as long as it is sold in state-run liquor stores, but can’t distribute kegs of those beers to serve on draft within Utah. The result is that breweries like Zion Canyon must decide whether to gear toward the tiny niche market for higher-ABV beers, or focus their attention on brewing well-crafted smaller beers that pack a full-flavor punch without the high ABV. Harris and Zion Canyon chose the latter route.

“Folks think that Utah beers have a real weak finish to them,” Harris says. “My thing was to make sure that you didn’t get water, you got beer. You get punched in the middle, the beginning and the end.”

While Harris has been able to craft good examples of traditional styles under Utah’s strict guidelines, he hopes to take advantage of recent legislation that allows for breweries to sell strong beer in their own pubs by expanding into a new location that would house the brewery and a pub.

The move would take Zion Canyon out of the low ceilings of its current basement residence, and into a larger space that would give Harris the freedom to provide locals and the throngs of tourists who come to the national park a place to sit down and enjoy craft beer without government regulators nitpicking the numbers.

“A pub is critical for guys like me,” Harris says. “I’m at the mouth of Zion National Park, and we get thousands of visitors. … I’ve got drinkers and fans from all over the world because of the tourist community here.”

Harris is looking forward to the opportunity to introduce the local community, which had grown accustomed to mass-market light lagers, to the wide array of flavors and qualities from the natural world that can be captured in a good beer.

“To make a Doppel, to make a Barleywine, to make these beers that I want to have at any given time, the only [way] you can get those in Utah is to come into my place and get it,” Harris says. “[The pub] is going to be pushing that foot traffic, and pushing different styles of beer that people in Utah haven’t even heard of.”

The Natural Man
To some, a brewery in a restrictive state like Utah seems like a contradiction in terms. Harris, however, can’t imagine being anywhere but at the mouth of Zion Canyon National Park.

“If I would have tried to do this in any of the communities around me, it would have never happened,” Harris says. “They would have looked at me—I’ve got a beard down to my stomach and hair down to my waist—and they wouldn’t have had anything to do with me.”

Springdale embraced its own when Harris and his brother helped draft the local brewing ordinance (as there had never been a brewery in the region before); the community has been a major factor in Zion Canyon’s ensuing success.

“There’s good people here, and good times,” Harris says. “Springdale is a Utah experience [other] than Utah. We’re a bunch of liberal fucks here.”

Frankly, Harris is having too much fun to leave. Although, strangely enough for a brewer, there was a period where his fun didn’t include drinking beer. He stopped drinking it altogether when he was young, as the local stores didn’t carry much outside of the big boys, and Harris simply wasn’t interested in yellow water.

But when a new beer in a squat bottle and a green label showed up in town, Harris’ outlook on beer shifted dramatically.

“It was a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and it was orgasmic,” Harris says. “I couldn’t believe somebody was creating something like that and putting it in a bottle. Everything else I had been exposed to was low-grade piss-water, for lack of a better term. … It probably took me the longest to drink that beer compared to any other beer I had ever drank, because I couldn’t believe what I was drinking.”

That beer lit a spark in Harris that took him around the western United States touring breweries and brewpubs. He began sampling new beers—unique beers, popular beers and a few bad beers, too. He fell in love with the people who made it and the community that supported it.

“I wanted to be a part of the culture,” Harris says. “I really wanted to be part of this revolution that’s happening. … What it’s doing now is insane. I hope that some day, these commercial breweries are faded out and you can get a great full-flavored beer everywhere.”

Within The Rules
Rather than attempt extravagant recipes that mask the limitations of a 4 percent ABV beer, Harris has tailored his beers to shine under the restrictive scrutiny of government regulations. He brews a Jamaican-style lager, an Irish Stout and an Amber Ale, which are all examples of finely made American session beers.

“I haven’t found that lagers are generally heavy alcohol beers, so 4 percent fits like a champ, and my Stout fits like a champ, too,” Harris says. “My Amber is a higher-selling beer, and I have folks who drink that over Fat Tire. The 4 percent, as far as being in state, I don’t feel that it’s hurting me at all.”

Harris admits that he does look forward to revamping his Hop Valley IPA once he’s wriggled out from under the restrictive laws. Most brewers he meets are shocked that he even attempts to brew an IPA under Utah’s regulations, let alone that he has found a way to make one tasty and interesting.

“Not having that alcohol, it’s hard to mesh that front part of that beer and get that smoothness, so I backed off with my first hop addition that gives me a good punch of hops, but get that good blend of malt flavor with Caramunich that comes in,” Harris explains.

Although it has been successful under these limitations, Zion Canyon is also looking to expand distribution to neighboring markets where Utah’s strict laws don’t apply. Especially after the pub is built and he will be able to sell stronger beers at home, Harris plans on brewing special beers solely for the purpose of distribution outside of Utah’s borders.

“The pub thing is a big money maker, but gosh, if you can get good lines of distribution, you can make a lot of money … and I get a lot of interest because of the tourist traffic I get through here,” Harris says.

“I’m looking to spread Zion loving all over the planet. That’s for sure.”

15-bbl system custom built by AAA Metal
7 15-bbl fermentation tanks
1 15-bbl bright tank
2 7.5-bbl “pony” bright tanks
*All equipment was custom built by AAA Metal to fit in Zion Canyon’s small brewery. No tank is taller than 8 feet.

What’s On Tap
Springdale Amber Ale: Brewed with Galena hops, this beer finishes with a sweet caramel note – 36 IBU
Jamaican Style Lager: A light, crisp lager brewed in the spirit of the islands, and with an herbal Liberty hop finish – 22 IBU
Hop Valley India Pale Ale: 65 IBU pales in comparison to IPAs outside of Utah, but at just 4% ABV, this beer packs a serious hop punch
Virgin Stout: A Dry Stout named for the Virgin River from which Zion Canyon gets its water – 40 IBU

What He Said
“I knew that people would ask questions, and I get the questions all the time. ‘What makes it Jamaican?’ I always say, tongue in cheek, it’s Jamaican because we smoke fat joints while we make it. We aren’t, but it goes with the mystique.” —Zion Canyon Brewing Company brewer and owner Dale Harris, on his Jamaican Style Lager