When I told friends and family that I was taking a trip to Utah a few months back, their responses were all the same.
“Fun! To go skiing?”
And when I responded with, “No, to drink beer,” they again all had identical, albeit confused, reactions.
“They drink alcohol in Utah?”
I too was surprised to find that America’s most Mormon state, best known for its religion, its snow-covered mountains and its stunning state parks, has a lesser-known craft beer scene that’s booming in some of the state’s more urban areas.
“But,” my friends and family pressed, “I hear it’s all terribly low in alcohol.”
It’s true that Utah’s alcohol laws are tricky and restrictive. It’s a constant uphill battle for the breweries that are trying to make a profit off their craft, especially when it comes to distribution. But what I found is that there’s an easy loophole for visitors: order everything by the bottle.
On tap, the law states that all alcohol must be under four percent alcohol. Bottles on the other hand, are unregulated. This means that most breweries will painstakingly brew two sets of each beer: one with the alcohol level they want in it and one at four percent alcohol or below.
And so I sipped my way through three of Utah’s thriving, urban hubs — the capitol, Salt Lake City, the idyllic college town of Provo, and my personal favorite Ogden, a quirky town with a fascinating and dark history — and found that craft beer is just one draw.
Each city was also full of passionate artisans and makers, fantastic restaurants, boutique shopping and culture that reaches beyond the Church of the Latter Day Saints (another misconception I found to be untrue). Plus, the mountains are always within easy reach.
Just a quick, 90-minute flight from Sacramento, why not take a weekend off from Tahoe and make Utah your next escape?
From the late 1800s and through Prohibition, Ogden was known as Junction City, for just about every train passed through it on the way to its final destination.
The town’s main street, 25th Street, became a bustling concourse, aptly referred to as “two-bit street,” because you could get anything for two bits. During its peak, 25th Street’s three blocks were packed to the gills with brothels and boarding houses, 75 bars and speakeasies and all sorts of illegal activity supported by an underground tunnel system. Known then as the roughest city in the nation, rumor has it that Ogden was too dodgy for even Al Capone to step off the railcar on his first visit.
But eventually came Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System and the town of Ogden shut down seemingly overnight. For decades, it lay in squalor until a resurgence in the mid-90s, partly in thanks to an unlikely presence: a brewery.
In 1995, Roosters Brewing Company opened up on what’s now called Historic 25th Street in a restored 1890 building that was once a Chinese laundromat. It quickly became the place to be for locals, and Ogden 2.0 rose around them. Then came the 2002 Winter Olympics, which hosted events in and near Ogden and further enlivened the city.
Today, Ogden, located just 40 miles north of Salt Lake City, is an artsy, under-the-radar destination that’s a stone’s throw from three ski reports: Snowbasin, Powder Mountain and Nordic Valley. 25th Street is prime real estate for restaurants, breweries, boutique shops and bars, though remnants of its deviant past shine through neon signs that still light up the street each night.
While you’re there:
Roosters is perfect for lunch or Happy Hour snacks; the Naughty Fries (topped with pepper jack sauce, gorgonzola sauce and Louisiana hot sauce) are a must. For dinner, nosh on fire-roasted pizzas and authentic Italian cuisine at Zucca Ristorante, a former noodle house and movie theater that has a secret speakeasy.
If you do hit the slopes, end the day at New World Distillery, which is located in Ogden Valley near the ski resorts. On Fridays and Saturdays they offer three tours of their facility, where you can taste their forward-thinking “new world” spirits, like the Rabbit and Grass Agave Spirits, distilled from 100 percent organic blue agave.
Learn a new sport at Social Axe Throwing (but maybe don’t have too many drinks beforehand). Here, you do exactly what is sounds like: throw axes. This sport is making waves across the country and word on the street is you can try it at New West Knifeworks in St. Helena. I like to think of it as darts with an axe; there are many versions of games to play, but in each, the objective is to hit particular targets on an oversized dartboard. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe.
Try to catch a performance at Peery’s Egyptian Theatre, one of the last remaining Egyptian theatres in existence, which were sparked by the discovery of King Tut. Built in 1924, this opulent movie palace borders on cheesy, but offers up the majestic picture viewing experience of a grander era. Equipped with modern day technology, Peery’s continues to put on a regular schedule of programming, is a screening venue for the Sundance Film Festival and hosts an annual The Big Lebowski festival.
There are only a few hotels in Ogden, but I’d recommend the historic Ben Lomond Suites. Built in 1890 as the five-story Reed Hotel, it later gained 11 more stories and became The Bigelow in the late 1920s, resembling the grand, luxury hotels that were host to over-the-top, wild parties from the Gatsby era.
It was named the Ben Lomond in the 30s and in the 80s it underwent a huge renovation, though it retains parts of its original grandeur today. Another fun option is to check vacation rental sites like AirBnB, where you can book modernized loft apartments that were once the brothels of Two-Bit Street. Beware: ghosts are known to haunt both.
The residents of Ogden have an inside joke. Proud of their history, they call themselves the “sinners,” and Provo, the “saints,” as the LDS religion continues to have a dominating presence there. A quick 20-minute drive from Sundance Mountain Resort (yes, where the film fest was founded), this vibrant college town is home to Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University and several tech start-ups responsible for the city’s nickname “Silicon Slopes.” It’s also everything Ogden isn’t: quaint, clean, and completely overrun by strollers (AKA young families).
What I loved most about Provo was its surprisingly diverse culinary scene, which has 50 non-chain restaurants ranging from Indian and Brazilian to Polish and Peruvian cuisine. My favorite was the Native American-inspired Black Sheep, where you can order up a giant Navajo Taco, a Utah staple that’s also very popular in the Southwest. It comes wrapped in Indian Fry bread, which is essentially fried bread. I suggest the Hog Jowl tacos, made with slow-cooked tender pork, and then wash it all down with a refreshing pitcher of hibiscus lavender lemonade.
While you’re there:
Strolling through the smallish downtown area, you’ll happen upon several cute shops, like Unhinged, a gift and thrift shop that shares its space with a barber shop. Bookworms will love getting lost in used and rare book store Pioneer Book, which caught my attention with a “We Love Gutenberg” sign outside its doors. You can DIY your own soap for just a few bucks at The Soap Factory, a 90-minute interactive experience where you get to choose your own formula from hundreds of shapes and smells. Enter the future at Virtual Experience, a virtual reality arcade.
Did you know that Utah is practically the artisan chocolate capital of the U.S.? According to the makers at Taste, a family-owned chocolate factory and boutique, the combination of the altitude and dry weather makes for perfect chocolate-making weather. Take a quick tour of the factory followed by a seated tasting in the parlor where you’ll learn how to properly taste chocolate using all of your senses — even hearing.
Art lovers can’t miss the Roots of Knowledge stained glass exhibit at Utah Valley University. The panoramic, painstakingly-detailed work of art chronicles the history of the world from its beginnings to the future, and needs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.
It’s almost all hotel chains in Provo, but if you want something with a little more charm, check out the Victorian-themed Hines Mansion, an 1890 house-turned-bed and breakfast.
Salt Lake City
Ogden and Provo are great, but also quite small. You won’t need more than two days to explore either of them, whereas Utah’s capital can keep you busy for a while. As a bonus, you won’t need to rent a car to get there from the airport.
While you’re there
There are many breweries to check out in Salt Lake City, like Red Rock Brewing, arguably the most well known brewery coming out of Utah. But for the sake of doing something a little different from hops, hops, hops, pay a visit to Mountain West Cider, the first dedicated hard cidery to open in the state. They have a nice little loophole of their own: because cider is categorized as a wine — it’s technically fermented fruit juice — they don’t have to follow the four percent max alcohol rule for their ciders on draft. All of their ciders contain locally-sourced apples and are named after Utah canyons. The Desolation Prickly Pear was my favorite.
They had me at the cheese cave. A Salt Lake City landmark, Caputo’s Market & Deli, (they now have four locations, but I suggest visiting the original at W. 300) is a playground for foodies. They partner with the best of the best local artisans, plus import gourmet products from top producers around the globe. Sign up for a cheese or chocolate tasting class, or a wine, beer or spirits class, and then bring as much chocolate as you can fit in your suitcase home.
Head to The Rest for cocktails and dinner. When you arrive, you might wonder why the address lead you to a small tavern called Bodega, so I’ll let you in on the secret. Make a reservation ahead of time and you’ll be given a key on arrival. You’ll then be directed to a neon sign that says “Restroom,” where in place of a bathroom is a staircase that leads you downstairs to a dark and hidden speakeasy called The Rest. Order up some complicated libations and oversized plates that are perfect for sharing.
Rest your head at the funky-chic Kimpton Hotel Monaco. It’s bright, colorful and welcoming, has its own restaurant and bar, and each room comes with a Yoga mat to stretch it out after a long day on the mountain.