By Eric Peterson | Apr 30, 2015
Salt Lake City, Utah
After Fisher Brewing shut down in Salt Lake in 1967, and the state didn't see a commercial operation for two decades. Then Schirf started poking at state law.
"When I showed up for my brewer's license, they didn't know if it was legal," says Schirf, a native of beer-loving Wisconsin who hitchhiked to Utah in 1974.
The first year was tough. To boost sales, Schirf decided to open a brewpub in Park City and was told it was "strictly forbidden” in 1987.
But Schirf had a trick up his sleeve. "I was too young and dumb to know any better," he says. "We literally came in under the radar and got the brewpub law changed."
"The brewpub phenomenon is a throwback to the old days," says Schirf, noting that vertical integration of brewing beer and selling it was the status quo before Prohibition. "It was really a monopoly and the federal government did a good job of separating the two."
Schirf credits Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Widmer Brothers for kickstarting the craft market in the early 1990s. "They really allowed craft beer to be respected because they were doing such a good job," he says.
Wasatch merged with Squatters to form the Utah Brewers Cooperative in 2000. "That really worked out well for us," says Schirf of the merger. The company subsequently closed on an investment from Fireman Capital in 2012.
Along the way, the company sparked plenty of controversy with its branding: Evolution Amber Ale, Provo Girl Pilsner, and Polygamy Porter are among its nose-thumbing labels. "I call it my minority compex," jokes Schirf. "We try to have some fun with it. Now we say, 'Misbehaving in Utah for 29 years.'"
The company has the original brewpub in Park City as well as a new one in Salt Lake City's Sugar House neighborhoods and distributes to 12 states. "We package both brands," says Schirf, now the combined company's "Capo."
Of about 25 bottles and cans, Squatters Hop Rising Double IPA is Utah's top selling craft beer and Wasatch's Devastator Double Bock is another local favorite. Production hit 48,000 barrels for 2014, split nearly evenly between Wasatch and Squatters, and Schirf projects 20 percent growth for 2015.
After Utah, Texas is the next best market for the brewery. "The major metro areas are just killing it," says Schirf.
For 2015, Wasatch has launched Polygamy Porter Nitro. Noting Left Hand's "huge success with their Milk Stout," Schirf calls it a labor of love. "We've been making nitrogenated draft beer for 10 years," he says. "I'm a big fan of it so this project is somewhat self-indulgent."
Rather than using a can with a widget like Guinness, Wasatch has developed a specialized brewing process. "Getting nitrogenated beer in a bottle is really challenging."
He said his brewing team perfected the process after a false start and issues with shelf stability. The finished product delivers "that beautiful cascading effect when you pour the beer," says Schirf. "Now we're in the middle of a full-on marketing push. We're trying to get the word out."
Schirf looks back on his three-decade journey leading the way for the state's craft beer industry and laughs. "You're talking to a guy who moved from the state with the highest per-capita beer consumption to the state with the lowest," he says. "I was a philosophy major, not a business major."
Challenges: Quality control, but Wasatch puts a special emphasis on it. "We have two full-time biochemists for quality assurance," says Schirf. "For a brewery with 40,000- to 50,000-barrel production, that's pretty unique."
A second challenge is "to be smart about growing and not just jump into it," he adds. "It's not just about shipping beer, it's about supporting the distribution and the growth."
Opportunities: Nitro. Schirf anticipates a second bottled release to pair with Polygamy Porter Nitro soon, "probably a lighter one." He IDs more creative seasonal releases as another sales opportunity.
Needs: "We're pretty well set up," says Schirf, citing a $1.5 million investment in a canning line and capacity upgrade in 2013. "The biggest components of our packaging are in place. We're hoping to invest in making our beer."
In the longer term, an expansion is looming. The current brewery has a capacity of about 80,000 barrels. "After that, it gets a little sketchy," Schirf says.