In the Northwest, beer is serious business. While the average domestics are still on tap just about everywhere, ordering one instead of a handcrafted microbrew will earn more than a few raised eyebrows.
Northwesterners pride themselves on their highly developed beer palates and ability to tell an IPA from a Scotch ale or a pilsner at just a glance. That kind of frothy focus comes, in large part, from the dedication of small breweries across the region that are home to brewmasters who are constantly pushing to develop even better brews.
While both Oregon and Washington have enjoyed national recognition for their brewing craft, breweries in Idaho haven't yet garnered the same national attention. But that's changing, not only as more breweries start up, but as existing breweries are growing and earning some respect for their products.
"We're not really on the map, but we're slowly creeping up there," said Robert McSherry, head brewer at Boise's Tablerock Brewery, which has been crafting local beer since 1991.
Sean Flynn, owner and brewmaster at Sun Valley Brewing Company, agreed that Idaho beer is beginning to make its mark.
"There's more of an appreciation of handcrafted beers and new things have come about, but it's still not as big a market for it as in other parts of the Northwest or Colorado," he said.
Part of that growing recognition comes from entering beer competitions, but part is the trend of touring breweries. Like wine lovers who cruise between wineries sampling the wares, beer lovers are now plotting road trips to include stops at some of their favorite breweries across a region.
Boise's four microbreweries—Tablerock, Highlands Hollow, Sockeye Brewery and The Ram—are in the early stages of an effort to join forces to promote Boise as a beer town. McSherry said the combined effort could include group events to bring attention to the offerings of each brewery while attracting larger numbers of beer tourists.
Breweries across the state are seeing more tourists as well. It's a trend Chuck Nowicki, national sales and marketing director at Grand Teton Brewing Company in Victor in Eastern Idaho, has seen as groups of visitors continue to make their way to the state's largest brewery.
Grand Teton started out in 1988 just over the Teton Pass in the small town of Wilson, Wyo., in what is better known as Jackson Hole. But as the brewery felt the need to expand, it made its way over the hill in 2000, where land prices weren't so prohibitive.
The move paid off. Grand Teton turned out 6,000 barrels last year and is now sold in 15 states across the country. The only other Idaho brewery that bottles and sells out-of-state is North Idaho's Laughing Dog Brewing, which produced roughly 3,000 barrels last year.
"People who come in have a copy of the Rocky Mountain Brew News as they walk in the door," Nowicki said, describing the tour groups who show up at the brewery each year.
Flynn said he's been amazed at the number of people who go out of their way just to visit the brewery in Ketchum. Sun Valley Brewing has been making beer since 1986 and opened its pub in 1993.
"People really appreciate handcrafted beers and want to try out the local beers," he said.
Just like wines, certain areas are known for certain styles of beer. But, unlike wines, those styles are not determined by the growing conditions of the area but by the tastes of beer drinkers.
In Idaho, as well as the rest of the Northwest, it's all about the hops. Many of the beers coming out of the area tend to be hoppier than those brewed in other areas of the country.
Some of Grand Teton's most popular styles include not only the already hoppy IPA, but also double IPAs and strong pale ales.
While Idaho doesn't have as many breweries as microbrewery powerhouse Oregon, Nowicki points out that compared to the population of the state, there's still a fair number of breweries that call the Gem State home.
He said that not only beer tourists, but average drinkers, are better educated about beers and therefore expect more from their local breweries.
"Five years ago, you may have had an IPA on draft," Nowicki said. "Now, of 12 handles, there are two to three IPAs and more obscure styles."
They might not be as well known, but Idaho breweries are banking on the fact that beer lovers will continue to be willing to make their way off the beaten path for a good brew.