Western breweries such as Deschutes and New Belgium have a strong following in the Wood River Valley. But a slew of local beer-makers are taking the term "microbreweries" to a new level, producing brands that gives natives and tourists alike a true taste of the valley.
Sean Flynn, brewmaster for the long-established Sun Valley Brewery in Hailey, said his use of local ingredients is what sets Sun Valley beer apart from larger chains. Flynn uses Idaho grain for his base mix when brewing, while his hops are all from the Pacific Northwest.
Sun Valley Brewery is famous for its Gretchen's Gold Lager, Roundhouse IPA and seasonal varieties, but Flynn said he's been working to create new flavors and new varieties based on customer feedback.
"We're pouring eight or nine beers, and six or seven of them are new," he said. "We have totally new flavors, new ingredients."
Those ingredients are what local producers rely on to give their drinks a distinctly Idaho flair. Gray Ottley, spokesman for Ketchum-based Distilled Resources, said production of the company's organic American Harvest liquor relies on Idaho organic potatoes, and some of the company's other products use Idaho wheat and huckleberries to produce their unique flavors.
Paul Holle, brewmaster for the soon-to-open Sawtooth Brewery, said he relies on regional hops and grain as Flynn does. He would use Idaho base malt, he said, but malt barley is sent to a larger processing plant and mixed with barley from other states, making it impossible to guarantee an Idaho-only product.
What really makes his product local, Holle said, is his ability to adapt to what locals want, flavor-wise. Smaller brewers in the region produce high-quality beer, but Holle said he has an advantage.
"Some of the favorite breweries in the valley are Deschutes and New Belgium, and they're not even considered microbreweries anymore," he said. "They are brewing in huge batches. [Brewing] a small, small batch, changing and adapting the flavors for what locals want, is not that hard."
And what locals want is beer made in their own backyard. Chris Holloway, manager at South Valley Pizzeria, said the Riverbend pale ale that the restaurant stocks is constantly in demand.
"It's definitely our most popular beer on tap, and it's my favorite as well," Holloway said. "Everyone who carries [Riverbend] beer does it religiously."
Riverbend ale is on tap at locations from Stanley to Bellevue, said owner and brewmaster Chris Harding. He sold his first keg to Galena Lodge in 1999, and has since doubled his operation to keep up with demand. He started out brewing seven kegs at a time, and now he's producing 14 at once.
"I'm small and hands-on," said Harding, who also does all of his own distribution. "Small and local works for me. I get to have face time with proprietors, and that's a lot of fun."
Brewers agreed that Sun Valley's popularity as a ski resort helps them with business. Holle said he wanted to open his brewery in Ketchum because there wasn't really a bar or taproom that brewed its own beer in town.
"There was just this void," he said.
Sun Valley Brewing is Hailey-based, and Harding brews and distributes out of his home.
"Breweries are really becoming tourist attractions," he said. "To have a brewery in Ketchum, where the tourists are, where they are skiing, can really make a difference."
Harding says a lot of his business comes from out-of-towners looking for a local tipple.
"They appreciate high-quality local beer," he said. "Because they can only get my beer here, that's a big selling point. Of course, it's local consumption that keeps me going."
Local feedback is key to developing flavor, Holle said, but once townies are hooked, they'll bring their out-of-town friends to try the best beers in the valley.
"To be able to say, 'This beer is made here, I know the guy that makes it, and we can stop by the taproom'—locals take a lot of pride in that," he said.
Despite valley love for local libations, running a small brewery is not without its challenges. Harding only sells his beer in draft kegs and party kegs, and Flynn said Sun Valley Brewery stopped bottling six-packs about a year ago because of associated up-front costs.
"Bottling is really capital-intensive," he said. "When you're trying to do several hundred bottles, you buy a truckload of glass, and that can be $10,000. That's really the reason you don't see small breweries bottling."
Flynn said he also has to outlay a significant amount of money for the 15,000 pounds of grain with which he fills the Sun Valley Brewery silo each year. While it's cheaper to buy in bulk, he said, it costs a lot up front.
Harding said scaling up was a problem he ran into in the beginning, and now he can't expand his business without encountering a lot of overhead.
"To expand, I would have to go off-site," he said. "I'd have to make a leap to a commercial site, and that would be really expensive."
But brewers have no intention of giving in to those challenges anytime soon. Holle said he hopes Sawtooth Brewery will be available at Trailing of the Sheep to give attendees a chance to try its debut pours, and has plans to collaborate with Toni's Ice Cream of Ketchum to produce fusion ice cream flavors such as chocolate-coffee stout.
Flynn said he can't stop developing new flavors, even if he wanted to. His latest, a chocolatey coffee stout called "Twisted Stout," has been very popular, he said, and he's always looking for the next best brew.
"I'm constantly thinking of new names, new ideas," he said. "This past year, we've come up with more new beers, rejuvenating the product lines. It's completely refreshing—and really exciting."
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org