Wind River Brewing Co.

From the Source by | Apr 2014 | Issue #87

Craft brewing is still something of a nascent phenomenon. Unlike, say, bakers or woodworkers, very few working brewers today grew up with family in the industry—unless you happen to be Richard Strom. As the brewmaster at Wind River Brewing Co. in Pinedale, Wyo., Strom was ushered into the industry by his father, David, who was the first independent craft beer distributor in Portland, Ore., where Richard was born and raised.

“My dad met Will Kemper from Thomas Kemper in the early ’80s,” Strom says. “We were taking the ferry up to Poulsbo, loading up kegs of their beer and bringing it down to Portland to sell it. I remember being a little kid and running around Thomas Kemper Brewery. That opened my eyes. … I went to college with no direction, started to homebrew and turned it into a job.”

While Strom was learning his craft on the West Coast, Sean and Tamra Watts were growing up together in Sublette County, Wyo. Together, they watched in dismay as their longtime local brewery began to collapse under inept management after the owner passed away. “It was our favorite place in town, and it wasn’t long from being out of business if someone didn’t take it over,” Sean Watts says. The couple, now married, purchased the business in 2008, changed the name and began the process of turning it into a Wyoming landmark.

A Long Road
Strom had a fairly typical background for an aspiring brewer in the late 1990s. He attended the American Brewers Guild CraftBrewers Apprenticeship program and graduated in 1997. Then, after a short stint at Pyramid “pushing hoses,” he signed on as head brewer for the now-defunct Oregon Fields Brewing in Eugene, Ore., where he’d interned after school.

In 1997, Pinedale was home to about 1,300 people, but that didn’t stop Mickey LaVoie from opening LaVoie Brewery. In 2002, philanthropist and businesswoman Gail Kinnison purchased the brewery, renamed it Bottoms Up, and sent out the call for a new brewmaster. Strom sent her a résumé. “A couple days later, I was doing an interview and that was it,” he says. “I’ve been here ever since.”

Back then, Wyoming craft breweries were far and few between. In 2003, when Strom was hired, he remembers only five brewing operations in the whole state. Kinnison gave Strom free rein, and it was during these years that Strom won his first award at the World Beer Cup, a gold medal in 2006 for the Strom Bomb Stout.

“I wanted a really smooth, creamy Stout,” Strom says. “But it’s not true to style. It’s a little stronger, with a little more alcohol to it. We started off using 100 pounds of oatmeal for the first few years and switched it to 150 to make it even smoother. The first time we did that was the batch that went to the World Beer Cup. We didn’t even do a pilot batch.”

Saving the Day
Given complete creative latitude, Strom—who was eventually joined by co-brewers Cooper Balke (known to Wyoming brewers as “Cooper Cooper”) and Phil Harris—began accumulating awards like baseball cards. That same year, the Korruption Kölsch took home a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival, and the Wyoming Pale, Sheppards Weiss and Out of Order Porter began receiving accolades as well.

It’s no wonder, then, that Bottoms Up was one of Sean and Tamra Watts’ favorite hangouts, and no wonder why it was particularly painful for them to watch the brewery’s decline after Kinnison passed away in 2006. The Watts had no brewery experience, “only as customers,” Sean laughs. Tamra designed high-end homes in Park City, while Sean worked for an engineering firm and later, in the oil field business. But they made inquiries, purchased the brewery and turned the business around.

“We learned a lot the first couple of years,” Sean says. “We learned that we needed to hire somebody that knew what they were doing. It took us two years to figure that out.”

As of 2013, Wind River Brewing Co. brewed 5,000 barrels and is canning their Blonde and Pale Ale. With demand growing from distributors on both coasts as well as within Wyoming, they’re looking to start construction on a new brewing facility in downtown Pinedale and hopefully double that barrelage by next year.

“These owners and their dedicated staff have been able to transform what was once a small pocket brewery to a full-service pub with innovative dining options, a canning process with in-house distribution services, and quality, award-winning attention to the craft beer that started it all,” says Terrie Swift, the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce for Sublette County. “They are a small-town operation with a big-city demand. We are fortunate to have them in our business community.”

The Most Beautiful Place in the World
Watts named the brewery after the nearby Wind River Range, which is the home of the brewery’s glacial water source, and an epically beautiful part of the Rockies that contains 19 of the 20 highest peaks in Wyoming. Today, around 2,000 people live in Pinedale, but the town sees much more traffic than that. It’s a major gateway to the Wind River, Yellowstone and Jackson Hole. “From the upstairs deck, you can see the majority of the mountains,” Strom says. “They’re right in our backyard.”

The brewery’s clientele is a typical mix for this part of the country: locals, oil and gas field workers, and the outdoorspeople who pass through every year to ski, hike and camp. The area’s alpine beauty has long been a huge attraction, a phenomenon that is commemorated in Pinedale’s Museum of the Mountain Man.

While Pinedale’s people might be willing to face any extremity in the great outdoors, when it came to trying different beer, they were a little more cautious. “Last year, we finally weaned our customers off Coors Light and Bud Light, and stopped selling it at the pub,” Strom says. “It’s been a long road.”

Wind River has played a crucial role in promoting Wyoming’s fledgling craft beer scene. Since 2012, the brewery has played host to an annual collaborative brew session, with every Wyoming brewer invited to join. That first year, 12 breweries participated. In 2014, they will have 24, a huge number for America’s least-populous state. The effort has garnered exposure, both for the breweries and the styles that they’ve propagated. Last year’s beer was an Imperial Brown Ale, aged in barrels donated by Wyoming Whiskey.

But no matter how long Strom might have lived in Wyoming, a small part of him can’t forget his Northwest roots. Hence, the Wyoming Pale Ale, which is not only one of Wind River’s signature beers but one of the first beers to ever be canned and distributed commercially in Wyoming (Wind River Blonde Ale was the first, Strom says). “There was a brewery that did an Oregon Pale Ale,” Strom says. “We decided we would be the first to brew a Pale Ale as big as Wyoming.” With a potent mix of over a half-dozen hops, Strom did both Oregon and Wyoming proud.

20-barrel brewing system
– 3 20-barrel fermentors
– 4 40-barrel fermentors
– 9 20-barrel bright tanks
– 2 40-barrel bright tanks

What’s on Tap
Wind River Blonde: Wind River’s flagship beer is light and crisp, and the first beer to be packaged in a can in the state of Wyoming. 5% ABV
Buckin’ Bitter: The first in a series of English-style pub beers, the Buckin’ Bitter is sweet and mild, with a floral, earthy, English-hop nose. 5.6% ABV
Adventure Amber Ale: Made in the American Amber style, with plenty of Cascade and Willamette hops for strong citrus overtones. 6.2% ABV
Wyoming Pale Ale: A hop bomb with Nugget, Warrior, Chinook, Cascade Willamette and East Kent Golding, dry-hopped with Cascade and Golding. 7.2% ABV
Gayle Force Pale Ale: For the second in a series of English-style pub beers, Strom uses a larger amount of malted barley and UK Golding hops. 5.7% ABV
T.K.O.: A tremendous amount of every existing Pilsner malt makes a sharply alcoholic, sweet, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink beer. 12.5% ABV
Sheppards Weiss: Wind River’s Hefeweizen, served with an orange or lemon wedge. 5.2% ABV
Mongo Mango Wheat: However improbable it may seem, the mangos for this refreshing summer beer are locally grown. 5.2% ABV
Out of Order Porter: A striking crimson beer that retains the characteristic sweet chocolate notes of a Brown Porter. 5.4% ABV
Strom Bomb Stout: Strom Bomb first started winning awards in 2006 at the World Beer Cup and never stopped. It’s a classic, warm, creamy Oatmeal Stout, with just enough hops to cut through the sweetness. 7.4% ABV