Friday, July 13, 2012

An Epic Time at Epic Brewing!

Kicking it with Utah homies Epic Brewmaster Kevin Crompton,
media guru Steve Koonce and Co-Founder David Cole.

Tossing back a few with
 Epic Brewing Co-Founder David Cole

Lose your mind! (
When I visited the wondrous Thirsty Monk beer bar in brewery paradise Asheville, N.C. a week ago, I saw Epic Brewing Company's Brainless On Cherries listed on their extensive menu—a strong, ruby-hued Belgian-style masterpiece brewed with cherry puree and aged in French wine casks. A consistent award winner that’s absolutely delicious with a 10.1 percent kick in the pants, I was clicking my heels because this Salt Lake City, Utah-based brewery has yet to get past the Georgia border and it’s killing me. Yes, Epic is that good.  
Thanks to a Utah law passing in 2008 that allowed breweries to directly sell product that exceeded the low gravity suds the Beehive State is known for, Epic founders Peter Erickson and David Cole could now fund their start-up instead of filling gas tanks to drive to their state of origin, California, and stock up on strong beers. Now in only their second year of operation, 13-year veteran Brewmaster Kevin Crompton and the Epic squad have consistently reaped awards worldwide for their Classic, Elevated, and Exponential lines of muscle-flexing craft beers. (Check out their resume here.)
Where the magic happens.
My last taste of Epic prior to the Thirsty Monk was in their home town for a beer tour a few months ago (I love Utah!). When I was there, I made it mandatory to swing by Epic and see how they got down when it came to crafting their liquid awesomeness. Luckily, they were just two blocks away from the extra posh Grand America Hotel I was staying in (that place was amazing), so the beer gods were working in my favor once again.
For the numerous varieties they served, Epic’s workplace was surprisingly small in size, further validating the ol’ “good things come in small packages” cliché. Planted between a car rental agency and a used auto sales lot on the fairly busy South State Street, you could easily pass it if you weren’t a local; I loved its unpretentiousness.
Entering from the side, a cooler boasting a legion of 22-ounce bottles from all three of their series and customary chalkboard listing new releases welcomed me, followed by a tour given by my homey and Epic media man, Steve Koonce. The noticeable standouts included the brewery’s six-seat eatery called the “Tap-less Tap Room” serving light fare including soups, paninis, and sandwiches (you gotta serve grub if you're going to drink alcohol on site in Utah); the back area boasting towering stacks of wooden casks aging some serious concoctions; and an informal tasting circle including David, Kevin, Cellarman Aaron Selye, and Retail Manager Phil Handke, which I was blessed to interrupt. They all paused, put down their note pads, showed me some love once Steve told them who I was, and poured me a cup of their latest Smoked & Oaked cask brew. After assuring them that the pleasure was all mine, they handed me a taste that truly hit the spot, and then I told David an interview would be an awesome feature on this website. Putting a stamp of approval on the idea, he said “Hell yeah!” Well, the time has come. Ladies and gents, here's David, the man partly responsible for some the best beer on the planet—especially the ridiculously gangster, whisky barrel-aged Big Bad Baptist Imperial Stout made with cocoa nibs and coffee. Look for my “Epic-to-Georgia” campaign coming soon!

Ale: How did Epic get started?
David Cole: Peter Erickson, Epic’s other co-founder, and I had been looking to start a brewery for twenty years. We moved here from California in the early 90’s, where we had been drinking great craft beer, full of flavor and made correctly to style in terms of alcohol content. There weren’t any local breweries making beers over 3.2 percent, and that beer just wasn’t cutting it. Additionally, Utah is a “Control State” for beer above 3.2 percent, which means that state stores decided what was sold; back in the 1990’s in Utah, those stores had selections about as bad as Russian supermarkets of the same time period. Lame!  Utah finally changed some of the beer laws and we decided the time was right to start a craft brewery focused on making full flavor, full strength beers in Salt Lake City. We found a head brewer, Kevin Crompton, who wanted to do a lot of unique, flavorful beers with no house flavor and, most importantly, no 3.2!

What made you decide to do high gravity beers instead of session beers for the local taps?
We just wanted to make beers true to style and not mess around with the crowded grocery stores, convenience stores, and 3.2 percent draft market.  We wanted to make beers we would like to drink and bring us back to those early Cali days. Beers like those are being done in a big way around the nation more recently. There is a marketplace in Utah for stronger beer, and we are finding it a lot larger than I think anyone expected. We also are the first and only brewery since Prohibition to exclusively brew strong beer in Utah. 

Stick it to the man!
Right on! What is the most fun thing about running Epic?
Our fans are the best. My favorite part about owning a brewery, besides the beer, is speaking with people about our beer. It’s fun when people love what we do and appreciate how we’re doing it differently. I love going to beer dinners where some of the country’s best chefs have put together fabulous meals using our beer as one of the central points of inspiration. I’m always pleasantly surprised with what they come up with.

What is the biggest pain in the ass?
The laws in Utah, even after being changed, are still hard to work with. Our laws in Utah need change and we send a lot of effort trying to improve them for improved tolerance, economic benefit and get rid of the impression of Utah being a dry state.

So let’s make you the political game changer for sec. What laws of Utah would you love to change?
So many! The fact that Utah considers any beer over 3.2 percent to be liquor means we can’t sell our beer on tap.  That really sucks! I mean we actually have to go to one of our out-of-state markets to drink our beer off a draft handle! It also means we can’t sell in grocery stores or gas stations. The beer laws in Utah don’t just affect us, the consumer suffers most of all.  I would love to see the state of Utah allow the kind of beer we and the majority of American Craft Brewers make be sold on draft in our home market. 

Fight the power, brotha! I’d vote for you. So what is your biggest market outside of Utah and where are you coming next?
Virginia has been a huge market for us. We see a lot of new fans popping up in the DC region. We just went into Southern California, which is a big deal for me because that’s where I’m from, and we’re doing really well in Los Angeles and Orange County. Actually, the way things are going in LA, that market may overtake Virginia. We have a few different places that we are considering for additional distribution but we are struggling like most craft brewers to make enough beer for our current markets, so it will be a few more months before we can consider a new market.

Well you already know how I feel about Georgia! I noticed the barrels in the back and wanted to know what your future plans are for those releases?  
Our barrel age program really makes Epic special. We have three hundred-something barrels with half a dozen different beers inside them that all age at different times. One of our barrel-aged beers, Brainless on Peaches, won a silver medal in the fruit beer category of last year’s GABF. Our Smoked & Oaked and Big Bad Baptist are two of the best rated beers out there. The future of the barrels is our sour beer program. We teamed up with the Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project to make our first Brett-soured beer, Elder Brett, and there’s more on the way. We really love what’s coming out of that wood.

Shit, everyone does! What is the Utah beer scene like regarding breweries? Do you ever work together or are you throwing gang signs up?
(Laughing) Epic doesn’t really register in the gang war because we don’t do low ABV draft beer in state. Those guys are slugging it out to be the kings of 3.2. percent, so we are kind of the new guys on the block doing things different and I think that intimidates some people, but we do get along very well with Red Rock Brewing; we help each other out.  Their Brewmaster Kevin Templin has always been super cool to us and is always willing to help out. We do the same.

Last, if a Martian landed in Utah and wanted to know what beer is, what would you give him?
If it were summer time, I would offer him a hoppy, refreshing Hop Syndrome lager. It’s been a long ride and I’m sure he would need something cool. If he came in the winter, I would offer him a Big Bad Baptist stout, but that might encourage an invasion!

Ha! Love it! Keep doing your thing, Dave. You guys are truly gangster. (Visualize an energetic dap exchange here.)
Thanks for the time and we really enjoyed having you out at the brewery. Come back anytime!
Let me know when you go public. I want stock!

(Laughing) You got it!

Special thanks to Steve, Dave, Kevin, and the entire Epic Family.
By the way, the lucky bastards that get Epic brew include Utah, California, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, Idaho, Ohio, Virginia & DC, New Jersey, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Michigan.


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