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Drinking in Park City

Life tends to run in cycles. 

Thirty years ago, Park City, Utah, was still pretty much of a ghost mining town, with many of the buildings along Main Street vacant or boarded up.  Yet when I ended a short visit there on Saturday night, the locals were celebrating being named Outside magazine’s best place in America to live while also preparing for Sunday’s finish of the grueling Tour of Utah bike race, one of the many events that keep this fabled ski resort and film festival venue hopping in the summer time.

One man who was a part of this transformation is outgoing mayor Dana Williams, with whom I was having dinner and a cocktail or two at Talisker on Main.  In many ways, Williams embodies the spirit of Park City – highly principled, yet practical in getting things done.  In addition to being mayor, Williams holds night-and-day jobs as a barrista, as guitarist in Motherlode Canyon band that plays about 80 gigs a year and as a tour leader when the town’s kids visit a sister school in China.

Another man who took part in this change is brewer Greg Schirf, who pretty much had his pick of buildings along Main Street in which to start a brew pub in the late 1980s.  Schirf had hitchhiked to Park City in the early 1970s, and both of us had a laugh on Friday afternoon recounting the free-flowing life of that era.  “I came from Milwaukee at a time when regional breweries there and across the country were all closing down,” he says, “and my friends said, you want to start a brewery?  And in Utah?”

Yes, you can easily get a drink in post-Olympics Utah (“please let people know!” the locals urged), although its laws remain somewhat restrictive and even silly.  But it should be noted the same can be said of alcoholic beverages laws in most states, including where I live – Pennsylvania.

At any rate, Schirf had heard what was happening at the time in the Pacific Northwest, where restaurants were cooking up food in their kitchens while brewing up beer in their basements.  Listening to his tales about how he cajoled, and simultaneously infuriated, a teetotaler, Mormon-dominated legislature into letting him make this desert state a little-less dry makes drinking one of his brews taste even better.   In 1989, he opened Wasatch Brew Pub and thus became part of a new wave that grew and transformed, as he since has merged with a rival and now sells beer in about a third of the states.  “We became too big to be brew pubs,” he says, “and now they call us artisan breweries.”

He also helped write Park City’s chapter in the recent explosion of American regional distilleries by mentoring the owners of High West distillery and café, now located at the other end of town.  If your state sells High West spirits – and many do – try its Double Rye neat.

So the cycle continues.  Small breweries and distilleries tend to grow into big breweries and distilleries, either becoming the kind of companies they competed against or being bought up by multinational beverage conglomerates which purchase brands if not their concepts.  The more-diverse an industry becomes, the greater the gravitation pull is to consolidate.

If that happens, in a few years Greg Schirf clones will come up with the bright idea: Why not start a small, regional brewery, or perhaps even a distillery, in the town where I live?

And what about Park City?  We know if you build a paradise, people will come knocking, but Mayor Williams points out that Park City’s population has actually taken a small dip in recent years, that there has been a push to build affordable housing and that measures are in effect to channel growth.

Life tends to run in cycles, but Park City wants to linger a little longer at the top of its run.

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