Park City Magazine: Mountain Moguls: Greg Schirf: Pioneering Utah Brew

Greg Schirf is not a typical Utah pioneer. Setting off for the Beehive State more than a century after Brigham Young, the Wisconsin-bred youth did what no one else had dared to do. He introduced the business of brewing beer (legally) to the land of Zion.

“I didn’t come in a pull cart, but I did hitch hike,” recalled Schirf in the office of the bustling Wasatch Brew Pub at 250 Main Street. Schirf arrived in Park City fresh out of Marquette University at the age of 21. It was 1974 and the town was in one of its more bust than boom stages. “Main Street looked like Appalachia. There were more buildings falling down than going up… Deer Valley and Park Meadows were sheep grazing [areas],” he said. Although he now heads a popular brewing business with the Wasatch Brew Pub displaying the fruits of his labor, the road to success was not always smooth. Schirf, it seems, wouldn’t want it any other way.

“You can’t ever lose a customer you can never have,” said Schirf of some of his more bold marketing ploys. Over the years, Schirf Brewing has ruffled pious feathers with clever and brazen campaigns. Polygamy Porter raised a few eyebrows and captured the attention of nationwide press. With slogans like “Why have just one” and “Take some home for the wives,” Polygamy Porter merchandise reached record sales. Pulling out all the stops for a new pilsner, the brewery employed a spokeswoman/model complete with blond braids, ample bosom and stage name Ingrid. The local vixen signed posters while making appearances at St. Provo Girl beer promotions. Teetotalers gawked and protested Ingrid’s sassy ads, accompanied by the slogan “Nice Cans.” Yet, the brew became so popular that word made it from tiny Park City all the way to brewers of St. Pauli Girl in Germany, who filed a lawsuit. Schirf said, “I went from being a smart ass to a dumb ass for opening my big mouth to German TV during the Olympics.” These days the beer-wench labeled beer is just Provo Girl (minus the “St.” for litigious purposes).

The Olympics offered plenty of marketing potential. With Budweiser as the official beer of the 2002 Winter Games, Schirf Brewing developed the “unofficial” brew, complete with the universal slash across the 2002 (which came after Anheuser Busch lawyers started poking around). Each afternoon, the “King of Beers” made its official presence known in the heart of town by displaying the impressive Clydesdales in a trot down Main Street. Not to be outdone, the unofficial brewers got a city permit to tag along behind the horses. Schirf’s dogs spirited a toboggan right on the hooves, so to speak, of the Bud wagon.

“If you’re going to be in the brewing business in Utah, you’ve got to be creative or you get lost,” he said. With this kind of thirst for imaginative schemes as well as beer, the brew pub team and a few consultants have rarely lacked creativity. Nor has Schirf shied away from the marketing perks of controversy.

With a twinkle in his eye, he recounted one of his recent forays as a spur in the Utah legislature’s side. Two years ago, the state implemented a new beer tax. Outraged and ready for a bit of fun, Schirf and several of his employees donned 18th century garb and re-enacted the Boston Tea Party. Dressed as Ben Franklin, Schirf and his cohorts dumped four kegs of their newest brew, appropriately named “First Amendment Lager,” into the Great Salt Lake.

Most recently, the brewery released a twelve-pack of assorted beers named the Quorum of Twelve – a reference to the Latter Day Saints theocratic hierarchy. Not quite as universal as the First Amendment or the busty Provo Girl, the Quorum of 12 has been more of an inside joke for non-Mormon Utahns.

“My dad tells me I should check under my car every morning,” Schirf said of his family’s reaction to his trifling with the powers-that-be. However, his track record would suggest that he’s not fazed by a few negative reactions to his campaigns.

“We’ve kind of become the smart ass spokesman of the minority,” explained Schirf. Growing up in Wisconsin as one of the Catholic majority, he considers himself part of the cultural non-Mormon minority. However, he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t want to make light of anyone’s religion. Rather, his target is the culture. “I make Pope jokes too,” he said.

Schirf’s irreverence first found its outlet in the form of journalism. His brother Skip had landed him some local construction work, which he was happy to leave when a guy named Steve Dering showed up at the site in search of a reporter. Word made its way around town that Schirf had a minor in journalism (and a major in philosophy), so his skills were in demand. Thus, The Newspaper came to be. Joined by Jan Wilking and Hank Louis, Schirf and Dering set to work as The Park Record’s competition.

“We were very irreverent and thought we were very funny,” recalled Schirf with a chuckle. Eventually The Newspaper went out of business and Schirf went to work for the U.S. ski team, covering and promoting American athletes at NorAm races. He briefly left Park City for Seattle in 1979 to revisit a career in journalism. However, he returned to Park City in 1980 and pursued real estate, acting as a broker for his brother’s construction business.    

Just a few years later, Schirf  decided to become an entrepreneur. Exploring everything from ski shops to restaurants, he finally landed on the idea of starting up a microbrewery. He had befriended a fellow named Tom Baune in Seattle, who had a successful brewery and served as a mentor. In 1986, Schirf Brewing Company opened on Iron Horse Drive with Schirf at the helm alongside his first brew master, Mellie Pullman.

‘“I went from Milwaukee with the highest per capita beer drinkers to the state with the lowest per capita of drinkers. At the time, I was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune as saying ‘Half of the people in Utah don’t drink beer, so it’s incumbent on the rest of us to make up for them.’” Hence, at the suggestion of Dering, the company’s motto was born, “We Drink Our Share and Sell the Rest.” A few years after the microbrew craze began to settle down, Schirf decided that survival depended on having a brew pub in addition to the brewing company.

“I went to the state and said we wanted to start a brew pub and they said, ‘What’s that?’ I told them and they said, ‘You can’t do that,’” said Schirf. Not easily deterred, Schirf’s response was simply, “Well, we’ll just have to change the law.” With the help of local lawyer, Gordon Strachan, Schirf set to work tinkering with the “three tier law” (i.e. a brewery must sell to wholesaler and wholesaler must sell to a retailer). Finding support from a legislator was no easy task. Finally, Mike Dmitrich from Price sponsored the bill and the three-tier system was abandoned in 1988. The law was changed and Utah’s first brew pub was born, the Wasatch Brew Pub. Schirf bought the land at the top of Main Street through the city’s Redevelopment Agency and his brother’s crew constructed the restaurant.

“In 1989, they were begging people to do business on Main Street,” he said, “There really was nothing else up here. It was away from everything.” Schirf took on a partner, Paul Brown, to run the restaurant side of the business while he focused on the brewing. “I didn’t know much about the brewing business, but I knew nothing about the restaurant business,” he said.

Both restaurant and brewery took off, prompting a move for the brewing side of the business to Salt Lake City.  In 2000, Schirf Brewing Company and Salt Lake Brewing Company merged into Utah Brewers Cooperative, while maintaining independent pubs, Wasatch and Squatters.

“It’s been a great partnership. I said to my friends, ‘If you’ve been sneaking around drinking Squatters, it’s okay,’” he said. The casual Main Street patron would never guess that the thriving pub was once considered “far away.” The restaurant now grosses approximately $2.5 million annually. Brown recently sold his partnership to Schirf, but remains on board as the restaurant consultant alongside a loyal and pleasantly relaxed staff. Schirf tips his hat to the employees, many of whom have stuck with the business for years. Of the staff, Schirf says, “It’s a pretty tight, small, family-like group.” In addition to retaining loyal staffers, Schirf’s own family members have popped up on the payroll more than once. Over the years, seven of his nieces and nephews have worked at the pub. Currenlty, two of Schirf’s godsons are on staff.

Not one to sit back and admire his awards (several of them for brew and one for the Wasatch Brewers Championship softball game), Schirf continues to upgrade his product. Last year, Schirf replaced the upstairs sports tavern with a Mexican-inspired private club, the “Wasatch Cantina.” “It would be doing a lot better if I wasn’t drinking all of our good tequila,” he joked. He also remodeled the main dining room last fall in order to “keep up with the rest of Main Street.”

Of the plethora of brews at his disposal, the owner’s current favorite is the Chasing Tale Ale, a tasty brew featuring a Golden Retriever on the label. For each bottle top, the company donates five cents to “No More Homeless Pets,” a favorite charity. Schirf, his wife Debbie and their 11-year-old son, John Gregory, have three dogs at home, two labs (who double as mini Clydesdales when the Olympics are in town) and a Chihuahua. When he’s not poking fun at the establishment or stirring the pot (or cask, as it may be), Schirf spends time with his family and occasionally on the links or ski hill.

So, what’s next in terms of catchy slogans from the feisty entrepreneur? According to a smiling Schirf, “We just kind of wait for the Utah Legislature to give us ammunition.” In the meantime, the brew continues to flow.

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