Director of Brewing Operations Chris Erickson charts a steady path forward at Wyoming’s oldest brewery.
Founded in 1994 by Albert Upsher, a former Anheuser-Busch distributor, and his wife, Joni, Snake River Brewing is the oldest of Wyoming’s 29 craft breweries. Operating as a brewpub since the beginning, it’s a popular hangout with tourists and locals alike who mix and mingle while enjoying libations from the bar’s 10 taps.
“We’re not a revolving-door, tourist business, but a great blend,” Erickson explains. “We have a big mug club of about 300 people. The locals are here every day after work, and the tourists come in because they get to meet locals. It all works out pretty well.”
Snake River’s brewing team produced 7,600 barrels on their original, totally manual, 15-barrel Specific Mechanical brewhouse in 2017, brewing three times a day to keep up with the demand at the brewpub as well as for distribution in cans and kegs throughout Jackson Hole, Idaho, and Montana. Erickson says they’ll produce the same amount this year and are not interested in becoming a regional or national brewery. “We’re built out in the building we occupy now and are just going to stick with what we’ve got,” he adds.
However, this does not mean the team is planning to sit back and take it easy. Not by a longshot. Erickson notes that Snake River Brewing has close to 150 different recipes under its belt — from award-winning flagships to unique, rotating specialties — and each brewer on the team is responsible for building his or her own signature series. “We share the opportunity for creativity,” he says. “The brewers decide for themselves what they want to make. Everybody has a finger in the pie.”
Erickson says that the flagship Pako’s IPA is the brewery’s biggest seller. “It sells as much as all of our other beers combined,” he continues. “I would describe it as a real balanced, drinkable IPA with Mosaic and Simcoe hops, about 65 IBUs, and 6.8 percent ABV.” It’s worth nothing that Pako’s won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2011.
Snake River’s second-best seller is Jenny Lake Lager, a Vienna-style lager with 20 IBUs and 4.8 percent ABV. Another award-winner, this beer, which was known as Snake River Lager until 2015, has garnered one silver and three gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival as well four other medals at the World Beer Cup and North American Beer Awards.
“I think a lot of people know us farther afield for our Zonker Stout,” Erickson adds. “It’s a rich, foreign-style stout with 36 IBUs and 6 percent ABV and has won the most awards for us.” Zonker’s medal collection includes three silvers and three golds from the Great American Beer Festival as well as well as 12 other medals from the World Beer Cup and North American Beer Awards.
Erickson and his team are planning to grow their barrel-aged and sour program with an expansion of the brewery’s cellar this year. “I think we have 35 or 40 barrels altogether, and we’re hoping to be able to double what we have in barrels right now,” he says.
Favorite beers: “I’m always up for an easy drinking, clean, light lager,” Erickson says. “I think that’s where brewers display their skill the best because if it is clean and drinkable, it means they paid attention to the details. You’ll find really clean lagers from pFriem Family Brewers out in Hood River, Oregon. And an ex-head brewer of ours, Cory Buenning, started Gravely Brewing Company in Louisville, Kentucky. His German pilsner won a gold medal at the World Beer Cup this spring.”
Challenges: Erickson says the changing craft beer marketplace is Snake River Brewing’s biggest challenge “like everybody else. We have to try to guess what the new, hot trend is going to be.”
Opportunities: “We’re located in a really spectacular place that people want to visit,” Erickson said. “I don’t think that will ever end. The Tetons will always be here to look at, and there’s always going to be great skiing in the wintertime and visiting Yellowstone in the summer.”
Needs: In recent years, the brewery has added a lab and additional staff, but Erickson says they’d like to make some upgraded equipment purchases. “With the popularity of more and more hoppy beers, a centrifuge is on our list,” he adds.