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Gem State Beer

Idaho author writes about where our beer came from, and where it's going

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The introduction of Idaho Beer: From Grain to Glass in the Gem State invites the reader to crack open a Gem State brew and start reading. By the end of the intro, author Steve Koonce assumes your glass is empty. He urges you: get another one.

"Just remember when you're pouring that Idaho beer into your glass that the golden color, crisp finish and hoppy aromas are most likely products of the whole state and not just where it was brewed," he writes. "[O]ur beer is homegrown from grain to glass."

Boise Weekly got the chance to ask Koonce a few questions about the book, which hit shelves at the end of April.

What was your process for writing this book?

I had been writing my column for the Twin Falls Times-News here for a little while, and the publisher, The History Press, had seen it and they were going to do a local beer book. They do these local beer books all over and they really wanted to do an Idaho one, so they contacted me.

I went through and looked at the history of beer in Idaho, and it was really kind of boring. It was a lot of mining town breweries in a lot of little towns that no one really even lives in anymore, like Idaho City. I started to look at more of what's going on now and it was way more interesting to me.

The other thing that I really wanted to include in my book was the agricultural aspect, because I feel that in Idaho, it's still very much a farming state. It just started evolving into this narrative, where the beer industry here very much grew from the farming.

What took you by surprise when you were researching and writing the book?

The availability of local ingredients that people use, and the brewers that use them. If you were to go through the list of the breweries you thought used the most local ingredients, you'd probably guess the homegrown guys.

But it's like, 10 Barrel Brewing Company uses the most local brewing ingredients and they're not even from here. They're based in Bend [Ore.]. They use peppers and pumpkins and squash, cherries and raspberries, all sorts of stuff that they source locally.

Why are there so many breweries in Boise now?

What happened was, we started to get those world-class hops and grains in the state. Then you start to see some of these brewers living in Utah and Oregon and Montana and they look around and say there isn't really room there, so they go to Boise where there's less breweries.

There's also people who are in state that have been homebrewing for a while, and so they decide to take the next step and open a brewery. And then it's just that Boise is a growing city. There's some 14 breweries in the Boise area.

You say your book is more of a roadmap than a history lesson. Where is Boise's brewery scene going? Is there room for all these breweries and more?

It's not a finite kind of thing. I mean, look at Victor, they have two breweries for a population of 2,000 people [Grand Teton Brewing Company and Wildlife Brewing], and they're both doing great. It's not about how many breweries there are, it's about how many breweries are making good beer.

Do you think there's something exclusive about having a brewery where you can only get the beer at that location, or do you think the goal is to try to distribute further?

I think it makes a lot of sense to want to grow, but I think at the same time there is a definite advantage to being a neighborhood brewpub. Neighborhood brewpubs are some of the most sought-after spots.

A place like Highlands Hollow, they do a really nice business. They make good beer, they keep pretty much within their own brewpub. They sell a couple kegs here and there, but they don't do bottles. Then you have a really new brewery and they're already trying to push out cans and bottles and they just don't have anybody who knows who they are.

Bertram's Brewery in Salmon, near the Montana border, is perfectly happy to be where they are. They're really happy to be in their location. Then you have Grand Teton, 100 miles away or so, and they export to the most states [among Idaho breweries]; they export to a dozen states. But they have the liquid to back it up.

What do you hope your readers get out of this book?

This book is a moment of time before everything explodes. I was really proud to go to all these Idaho breweries and taste their beers and get to know the brewers, which is something you can do in Idaho. The breweries here aren't so big that you can't go in there and get to know the people who actually brew the beer.

I'd like people to realize how unique this state is when it comes to brewing. We're a small state, we don't have a whole lot of people, but we do have some amazing breweries making world-class beers in these tiny towns.

It'll be cool when Sockeye is in 30 states and Payette has built their production plant out in North Carolina and when Boise has 2.5 million people, to look back and see what it was like back in the beginning of this explosion.