He went commercial, opening Wasatch Brewery, the state's first modern craft brewery, in ski-centric Park City in 1986. That much was easy enough, but adding a cozy après spot where patrons could relax and imbibe proved harder. Brew pubs were illegal. Most of the state legislature shied away from challenging the status quo, but eventually Mr. Schirf found a sympathetic legislator from a small mining town in central Utah who was willing to sponsor a bill. It passed, and Wasatch opened its brew pub in 1989. A new beer scene was born.
Wasatch is the granddaddy, but these days other brewers' craft beers are thriving, too. And around Salt Lake City a string of inventive small breweries make for an inviting, if unexpected, tasting tour.
Utah still has quirky alcohol laws, including one that sets a limit of 3.2 percent alcohol - a little more than half the amount standard in most beers around the world - for beer sold on tap. But they don't seem to be holding anyone back. Utah breweries do make higher-alcohol beers, though they are treated as liquor and are sold under more limited circumstances. And the state's brewers have consistently won medals at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival.
"Utah craft brewers can coax a lot of flavor out of a relatively low amount of material," said Garrett Oliver, brew master at Brooklyn Brewery in New York, co-author of "The Good Beer Book" and a longtime judge at the Great American Beer Festival.
On a chilly Wednesday night in January, tragically hip 20-somethings and skiers with severe goggle tans stamped the remnants of two blizzards off their boots at Wasatch's entrance, thinking food as well as drink.
Wasatch's affordably priced pub fare is popular in Park City, a town bloated with posh restaurants. Patrons waiting for tables gazed at huge stainless steel fermenting tanks, and deeper inside the pub, others studied a hall of fame chronicling Wasatch's clashes with politicians over names, labels and ad campaigns. The staff was delivering plates of fish and chips or buffalo burgers.
The server at the table where a friend and I were sitting brought a flight of Wasatch creations, including Polygamy Porter, which has sultry, malted, espresso notes, and a smooth and slightly spicy Evolution Amber Ale.
The server also recommended a crisp Belgian White Ale and the darker Winterfest, which left a lingering taste of caramel and malt - both served in bottles because of Utah's 3.2 percent limit for brews served on tap. For a finale there was the Devastator, a double bock with an 8-percent-alcohol punch.
Most brew pubs in Utah are in tourist areas. Slick-rock bikers and backcountry hikers in southern Utah congregate at the Zion Canyon Brewing Company, near Zion National Park, or Moab Brewery and Eddie McStiff's in Moab. Skiers at Snow Basin drop in at the Roosters Brewing Company in Ogden, to savor a rich chocolate stout.
But the Uinta Brewing Company, the state's largest brewer - though its 63,000 barrels a year are minuscule compared with, say, the output of Budweiser or Heineken - is tucked into Salt Lake City's industrial district. Its shiny silo of malted barley shares the sky with satellite dishes of a TV station next door.
At lunch (closing is at 7 p.m.), a toasty, malt-scented air wafted over the tables and huge circular bar of Uinta's brew pub. Office dwellers, truck drivers and TV employees mingled with visitors waiting for brewery tours as they tasted the pub food and the organic Wyld Extra Pale Ale and Anniversary Barley Wine.
The action is livelier downtown, where restaurants and bars buzz. On a chilly Saturday night, biting high-desert air didn't deter pedestrians strolling toward the Red Rock Brewing Company. It occupies what used to be a dairy building. Enjoying the beer in its expansive pub were "High School Musical" cast look-alikes and travelers with suitcases stopping off on their way to the airport. One of the most fascinating brews in a sampler flight was the Bamberg Rauchbier, a seasonal beer made with beechwood-smoked malt and pleasantly redolent of barbecue and bacon.
Around the corner at Squatters Pub Brewery, frequented by young hipsters, aging hippies and local celebrities, a fixed flight of classic brews arrived on a tray fashioned from a sawed-off ski. The Provo Girl Pilsner paired well with crispy ahi spring rolls from the kitchen - to no one's surprise. The craft brewers play a role in Utah's nascent artisan food culture, participating in multicourse beer pairing dinners and beer-and-cheese pairing workshops.
The next day, the taps at Squatters flowed again at 10:30 a.m., when beer service could legally begin. Brunch was being served, and the crowd included a group of stylishly tattooed friends tucking into eggs Benedict and breakfast burritos, washed down with pints of a light, forgiving beer. The chatter was light, the mood happy, and the meaning clear: in Utah, beer lovers need not go hungry - or thirsty - for long.
THE LAND FLOWING WITH MILK AND HONEY, AND MAYBE WITH A HEAD ON IT
Most Utah brew pubs are open daily and serve lunch, dinner and sometimes weekend brunch. They offer typical pub fare like burgers, nachos and pizza; some also serve gastro pub fare like vegetarian and Asian-influenced dishes. Brewery tours may be available by appointment.
Wasatch Brew Pub (250 South Main Street, Park City; 435-649-0900; http://www.wasatchbeers.com/), Utah's original brew pub, is in a modern building on Park City's Historic Main Street strip. Twenty-ounce mugs are $4.50; seven-ounce sampler glasses, $2. Signature brews include First Amendment Lager, Evolution Amber Ale and Polygamy Porter.
Uinta Brewing Company (1722 Fremont Drive, Salt Lake City; 801-467-0909; http://www.uintabrewing.com/) offers a lunch menu of sandwiches, soup and chili. Pints of Bristlecone Brown Ale and Cutthroat Pale Ale are $4; three-ounce sampler glasses, $1.
Red Rock Brewing (http://www.redrockbrewing.com/) has two locations: 254 South 200 West, Salt Lake City, where all beers are made (801-521-7446); and Red Rock Junction at Kimball Junction (1640 West Redstone Center No. 105, Park City; 435-575-0295). Seasonal and year-round brews like Oatmeal Stout and Amber Ale are $4.50 a pint; a 4.5-ounce sample pour is $1.25.
Squatters Pub Brewery (http://www.squatters.com/) has its main location and brewery at 147 West Broadway in Salt Lake City (801-363-2739) and satellites in Park City (Squatters Roadhouse Grill and Pub, 1900 Park Avenue; 435-649-9868) and the Salt Lake City International Airport (801-575-2002). At the downtown pub, pints of the award-winning brews like the Full Suspension Pale Ale and Captain Bastard's Oatmeal Stout cost $3.79. A flight of six brews is $4.49.
Other Salt Lake City brew pubs include: Desert Edge Brewery (273 Trolley Square; 801-521-8917) in a trolley station turned mall; Hoppers (890 Fort Union Boulevard; 801-566-0424; http://www.hoppersbrewpub.com/); and Bohemian Brewery (94 East 7200 South; 801-566-5474; http://www.bohemianbrewery.com/).
In Moab, microbrewery fans can try Eddie McStiff's (57 South Main Street; 435-259-2337; http://www.eddiemcstiffs.com/) or Moab Brewery (686 South Main Street; 435-259-6333; http://www.themoabbrewery.com/).
The Zion Canyon Brewing Company (2400 Zion Park Boulevard, Springdale; 435-772-0404, http://www.zioncanyonbrewingcompany.com/) is near Zion National Park.
North of Salt Lake City, the Roosters Brewing Company (http://www.roostersbrewingco.com/) operates beer pubs in Ogden, near the Snow Basin ski area (253 Historic 25th Street; 801-627-6171) and nearby at 748 West Heritage Park Boulevard in Layton (801-774-9330).