Under the industrial lighting of Payette Brewing Company's oversized Garden City brewery, the smells of hops and sage were nearly overpowering. By the bar overlooking the brewing floor, Matt Hurlbutt, co-owner and co-brewer at McCall's Salmon River Brewery, tore open a plastic bag full of grassy-looking hops pellets.
"Rub them together in your hand. Smell it," he urged.
The pellets crumbled, releasing the telltale odor of hops, but also the faint aroma of dry earth after a heavy rain.
On April 27, five Idaho breweries--Highlands Hollow Brewhouse, Payette Brewing Company, Salmon River Brewery, Sawtooth Brewery and Crooked Fence Brewing--joined forces to brew 30 barrels of a limited production ale that will has been distributed exclusively in kegs to bars and pubs all over Boise for American Craft Beer Week, which runs through Thursday, May 24.
Craft Beer Week is a national celebration of craft beer's culture and community. In Boise, it will include collaborative and specialty beers on tap, as well as events and specials at bars.
Craft Beer Week is also a rare opportunity for brewers to work together to carve out a niche for local craft and specialty brews in a market flooded with mass-market domestics like Budweiser, Coors and Miller.
"We're all pretty young," Hurlbutt said. "We're just trying to show some unity in Idaho."
This year, that unity came in the form of the Sage Pale Ale. Paul Holle of Sawtooth Brewery in Ketchum said that the inspiration for this year's collaborative brew celebrates the season. Instead of mixing up a batch of hop-heavy India pale ale, these comrades chose a pale ale to complement warm afternoons and brisk evenings.
"It's springtime in Idaho: Let's focus on something light," Holle said.
As for the herbal tinge that will be this beer's calling card, Holle said it is a flavor Idahoans will feel at home with.
"Sage is a very predominant smell, from Boise to Ketchum to McCall," he said.
Though the Sage Pale Ale was brewed at the Payette Brewing facility, it won't be branded under any single company.
"Everybody gets kegs," Holle said.
American Craft Beer Week is as much about business as it is about the culture of drinking expertly crafted beers. According to the Brewers Association, sales of craft beer grew 13 percent by volume in 2011, and most Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewery.
Still craft brewers have to convince bar owners that this is a meaningful shift in what their patrons are drinking. Enter Jacob Black, Payette's sales manager. A former high-school wrestler, Black now wrestles big-name breweries like Miller and Budweiser for market share and taps at Boise's watering holes.
"We want to be the permanent handle, and the outside breweries should rotate on taps," he said.
And Black is winning his handles. Payette Brewing has 90 accounts serving its three year-round beers. And Payette has expanded its operation----from 2,500 barrels per year to 3,800 barrels per year----while remaining playful with its new brews, 12 of which will be on display during Craft Beer Week.
Craft Beer Week is a chance for Payette to produce as much beer as it can sell. But for smaller Idaho breweries, it's the other way around. Salmon River Brewery has 17 accounts, 12 of which are in McCall, and this is a chance for Hurlbutt to reach out to the larger Boise market.
"We're excited to expand our operations a bit," he said.
But tapping into the Treasure Valley's beer scene will require more than just impressing Boise beer aficionados. Salmon River plans to follow up Craft Beer Week with the purchase of a new truck, more kegs and a 15-barrel fermenter to boost production and enable a wider range of distribution.
In McCall, Salmon River also runs a brewpub to complement its brewing operation. Owners said they felt a brewpub was necessary in McCall, where beer sales are significantly lower outside the tourism season.
"We have a brewpub because we felt like we had to have food and a brewery so we could sell more beer," Hurlbutt said. "We love our restaurant, but we love making beer more."
Highlands Hollow is also a restaurant/brewery. And though it's part of Boise's old guard of breweries, Highland's Hollow joined other small operations this year to produce the Sage Pale Ale. General Manager Jerie Fishwild said this year's Craft Beer Week will be the most significant to date.
"It's going to be bigger than all of them," she said.
To drum up excitement for its beers and food, Highlands Hollow will hold a brewers dinner Saturday, May 19, during which appetizers, main courses and desserts will be paired with Highlands Hollow beer. Additionally, it's participating in this year's Craft Beer Week Passport with Ram Restaurant and Brewery, Payette Brewing Company, Crooked Fence and Sockeye Brewery.
The passport is a challenge for Boiseans to visit breweries and bars all over town. Participants who collect 10 stamps on their passports will receive a commemorative T-shirt.
"It's a fun thing that gets more people involved in the beers," Fishwild added.
Back at Payette's headquarters, Payette Head Brewer Mike Francis climbed to the top of a fermentation tank in a pair of black galoshes while Hurlbutt checked a rubber tube on the side. They exchanged glances and smiled. Thanks to the collaborative Sage Pale Ale and other events, this will be the largest Craft Beer Week in Boise to date. And the assembled brewers agreed: the more work they put into it, the more enthusiasm--and future sales--they'll get from Boise's beer drinkers.