By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Nov 27, 2015
60 (brewery: 9; restaurant: about 50)
Brewery and Restaurant
Employees: about 60 (brewery: 9; restaurant: about 50)
Originally from the Czech Republic, the late Joe Petras started brewing exclusively Eastern European lagers in the Salt Lake Valley just after the turn of the millennium.
Petras had bought the brewery out of foreclosure after two breweries had previously failed at the same location. In the process, he outbid Sparrow, who soon became a loyal patron of Bohemian and Petras’ close friend.
The third time was a charm. Bohemian Brewery soon emerged as one of Utah's top craft breweries with a popular restaurant to boot.
Petras passed away in 2012 and Sparrow took over as Bohemian's general manager in 2015. He credits the Bohemian staff's "sheer gumption and willpower" with the brewery's success since its founder's death.
While it is Bohemian's calling card, the narrow focus on lagers from Eastern Europe is something of a mixed blessing. "They're very easy to drink, but they'll never be the fad beers," says Sparrow. "We're really focused on session lagers with drinkability and quality."
The brewery's annual production has been about 5,000 barrels in recent years, with a little less than half of it sold at the brewery's Midvale restaurant and the rest distributed in kegs and cans to restaurants, supermarkets, and bars.
Bohemian has been canning its beers for over a decade. While Colorado's Oskar Blues Brewery was the first craft operation in the U.S. to take a flyer on a Cask canning system in 2002, Bohemian was the sixth. "Joe Petras was convinced canning was a better way," says Sparrow, citing recyclability and preservation as the two top factors in the decision. "We've never distributed bottles."
The brewery now cans five year-round varieties: a Czech pilsener, a Viennese lager, an export lager, an altbier, and a cherny bock schwarzbier.
"Our Viennese lager wins the most awards," says Sparrow, citing a recent accolade as the area's "best beer" from Salt Lake magazine.
The pilsener is a second Bohemian flagship. Sparrow says Petras had access to a yeast strain that's used by two breweries worldwide, the other being in the Czech Republic.
Favorite beers: "My favorite Bohemian beer is our Viennese lager," says Sparrow. "Prior to becoming closely affiliated with this brewery, I really enjoyed Sierra Nevada Pale Ale."
Challenges: Local laws. "The 3.2 percent alcohol limitation in Utah, that combined with traditional European lagers, really poses quite the challenge," says Sparrow.
Storing thousands of aluminum cans "is a huge dynamic in the equation," he adds.
Opportunities: "A lot of our opportunities come from within the drinkability side of things," Sparrow notes. "They're a great comfort beer and they pair with a lot of different food."
Geographically speaking, Bohemian sells a bit in Wyoming and Idaho, but Sparrow says he sees "an awful lot of opportunity still within the state of Utah."
Needs: "The need for space and the ability to work with can companies are our biggest needs," offers Sparrow.
As the high minimum orders tend to overwhelm the brewery's space, Bohemian is experimenting with its first wraparound labels, and Sparrow is also looking at off-premise storage, but the nine-foot pallets that are industry standard makes can transportation difficult.
He's also interested in Bev Can Printers' print-on-demand technology -- but the likely price tag of about $1.5 million would make it "a big decision. . . . You can build a pretty nice building for $750,000."