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''There were only about six breweries across the state. Before I came, I didn't think people even drank here,'' Kirkland said while monitoring a fresh batch of Grizzly Brown Ale, a dark, nutty variety popular with skiers and other winter recreationists.
Now he cranks out 700 31-gallon barrels of micro-brewed craft beers every year for one of Ogden's most successful restaurants and is looking forward to overseeing another similar operation when Roosters opens its second location in Layton later this year.
Utah's strong religious culture has traditionally frowned on alcohol consumption, as some of the state's laws reflect. But social, moral and health issues aside, there's no denying the beverage's growing impact on the local economy.
Though Utah's beer industry operates under some unique restrictions and a nationwide stigma, beer production, distribution and sales filled or helped fill more than 10,000 jobs and had an economic impact of $754 million on the state in 2004, according to a recent study for industry groups National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute.
That figure represents an increase of more than 25 percent over 2001, the last year for which a similar study was conducted. Through direct and indirect contributions, Utah's beer industry helped add more than 1,400 jobs and $48 million in wages from 2001 through 2004, the study said.
The study goes beyond brewing and distributing operations and includes other job sectors that contribute to the industry.
''The beer industry is made up of more than just those who make and distribute beer,'' said Jeff Becker, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Beer Institute. ''We are an industry of farmers, can manufacturers, truck drivers, retailers and many others.''
Compared to nationwide figures, Utah still represents a small portion of the industry.
Beer-related businesses had a total impact of nearly $162 billion on the U.S. economy last year, including 1.8 million jobs paying more than $54 billion in wages.
As in most states, retail sales make up the majority of Utah's beer-related revenue, accounting for more than 58 percent of the $289 million in direct economic impact (wages and taxes) on the state in 2004. Beer sales make up nearly 11 percent of total sales at convenience stores, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores, and are equally important to the success of grocery stores.
Utah is one of 18 states that govern alcoholic beverage sales, and one of a handful that set strict limits on the alcohol content of most beer sold within the state.
''It can be challenging and limiting, but there's a lot more to beer than just alcohol content,'' Kirkland said. ''In a way, it makes me become a better brewer.''
Wholesaling was second to retail with 21 percent. The Top of Utah is served primarily through two wholesale distributors - Golden Beverage Co. in Ogden and Wasatch Distributing in the Weber Industrial Park north of Ogden. Together, the companies distribute the most popular American brands to more than 800 retail customers in the area.
Brewing operations came in third with slightly more than 20 percent last year, but contributions from in-state brewers - relative newcomers to the market - have shown rapid growth. From 1992 to 2002, Utah brewers' share of the state beer market increased from 0.9 percent to 4.7 percent, according to figures from the Utah Tax Commission.
''The growth started to level off toward the end of the '90s,'' Kirkland said, ''but it's definitely a lot bigger now than when we started.'' Utah brewers sold 44,800 barrels and paid nearly $490,000 in state beer taxes in 2002, up from 7,300 barrels and $78,500 a decade earlier.
The majority, 95 percent of beer sold in Utah, is imported from major breweries, such as Anheuser-Busch and Miller, and distributed through companies such as Wasatch Distributing and Golden Beverage.
A beer tax increase that took effect July 1, 2003, upped the tax per barrel from $11 to $12.80, helping to make 2004 a record high year for beer tax revenue, state Tax Commission chief economist Douglas Macdonald said.
''How the funds are used is becoming more complicated, but there's definitely more money there,'' he said.