Not so long ago, big-name domestic brews drowned the Boise market--ads promoted beers with a "light and refreshing," "less filling" taste, and bashed "bitter beer face." But, oh, how the times have changed. Now craft breweries and boutique beer-focused joints are popping tops on corners from Boise to Meridian. And even the dive-iest dive bar slings some sort of microbrew.
"Even five years ago here it was still a domestic-dominant market. But over the last five years, it's definitely snowballed into a more open-minded market," said Kris Price, head brewer at Crooked Fence Brewing Co.
Crooked Fence opened in Garden City in February 2012. The 2,400-square-foot commercial brewing facility features four 15-barrel tanks and cranks out staple brews—like the Rusty Nail Pale Ale and the Crooked Fence Porter—and also specializes in small-batch specialty beers, like the Sins of Our Fathers Imperial Stout.
"I'm surprised it's taken this long, as far as breweries popping up. We definitely need it, considering the fact that we grow 25 percent of the hops in the nation and we are lacking breweries comparatively to everywhere else in the U.S.," Price said.
Mike Francis, owner of Payette Brewing Company, echoed that sentiment. He opened Payette in May 2011 in Garden City. The brewery has made a name for itself supplying brews like the Mutton Buster Brown and Outlaw IPA to myriad events around town. And in a little over a year, Payette has expanded its operation twice—increasing its capacity to nine 30-barrel tanks.
"We're at 100 percent capacity right now," said Francis. "And we're getting close to summer, where beer drinkers drink more—everyone drinks more in the summer."
Both Payette and Crooked Fence represent a major shift in the Boise brewing scene, which has traditionally been dominated by small restaurant/brewpubs that focus on supplying suds for their own taps.
"We're production-focused. We want to have our beer on tap around town, whereas the pubs that have been here before were focused on their restaurants and bringing people in to drink the beer there," said Francis. "We have a tasting room, but our main focus is, 'Hey, go drink our beer at the 80 different places around town that have it.'"
But that's not to say the old guard has been left out of the trend. Bob McSherry, head brewer at Boise's 21-year-old brewery Tablerock Brewpub, has also noticed a rise in demand for craft beer and drinkers with generally bolder palates.
"I think people, for lack of a better word, are not liking the insipid big boys anymore. They're getting adventurous and tasting stuff—hoppier beers, more flavors," said McSherry.
Though local linchpins like Tablerock, Sockeye Brewery and Highlands Hollow Brewhouse have been preaching the craft beer gospel for years, McSherry isn't bitter about sharing the spotlight with a new crew of local breweries.
"High water floats all boats because good beer is good for Boise," said McSherry. "We can learn stuff from them, and I just think it's an all-around good thing."
With this increased interest in microbrews, both Payette and Crooked Fence hope to eventually expand their operations to include bottling facilities.
"One of the things we're really focused on ... is trying to get into packaging for cans or bottles. ... So that is kind of our next push to get into Albertsons because you can't get any local beer at Albertsons still," said Francis.
Crooked Fence is already bottling its brews but in an unsustainable way.
"Right now, we're actually doing all of our beers in bottling, but it's very limited because the process that we're doing, it's a manual setup, where it's hands-on. We're touching every bottle and capping every bottle," said Price. "It's very time-consuming and labor-intensive and not really financially a very good decision, but we wanted to do it anyway to get the beer out there."
McSherry said that Tablerock had the same idea 10 years ago, when it opened a bottling plant in Meridian. Unfortunately, the venture was unsuccessful.
"It's a large investment, that's what it comes down to. Buying shelf space, getting into distributors and what not," said McSherry. "There are some hurdles but somebody with the big pocketbook could probably overcome that."
A lot has changed in the last decade. In addition to more local beer options, there's also an increased craft beer infrastructure. Specialty stores like Brewforia, Brewer's Haven and Bier:Thirty offer an increased array of domestic and imported options. And beer-focused restaurants like Bittercreek Ale House, R&R Public House, Bar Gernika and the recently opened Taphouse offer an arena for beer-lovers to sample craft brews.
"In the last year, we've also seen two new distributors open up that specialize in craft beers or specialty imported beers, that's Mann Distributing and Small Potatoes," added David Roberts, self-proclaimed "craft beer evangelist" at Brewforia. "Three years ago, before Brewforia opened, there were maybe half the brands available."
And with the opening of Bend, Ore.'s 10 Barrel Brewing downtown, Roberts only sees the craft beer scene continuing to expand in Boise.
"If you consider Portland, [Ore.]'s craft brewing scene, they have 55 breweries just within their city limits, and then they have a slate of other breweries that are all around it," said Roberts. "I don't see any reason why, given the current level of interest in beer in Boise, that we won't ... reach that. I anticipate more breweries opening up, more craft beer stores, more craft beer events, more emphasis on food and beer paired together."