The Storied History of Beer Brewing in Idaho 

A tale of Prohibition, commercial production, changing tastes and changing times

If supporting the local movement means more breweries opening in Idaho, we'll drink to that.

Guy Hand

If supporting the local movement means more breweries opening in Idaho, we'll drink to that.

In early July, 13 breweries from across the state gathered at Nampa's Lakeview Park for the first-ever Idaho Brewers Festival. Kevin Dinius, event organizer and a partner in the newly opened Crescent Brewery in Nampa, proudly explained what made the festival special.

"We use only ingredients that are grown and processed in Idaho," Dinius said. "All our grain comes from Idaho. All our hops come from Idaho. I mean, that's kind of the history of brewing in Idaho."

But in reality, that's only part of Idaho's brewing history. The rest is a storied tale of Prohibition, commercial production, changing tastes and changing times. And Idaho beer historian Herman Ronnenberg knows about all of it.

For decades Ronnenberg researched the Idaho beer industry, and he has written numerous books on the subject, from Beer and Brewing in the Inland Northwest to The Beer Baron of Boise. His doctoral thesis was on the history of Idaho's brewing industry--his friends call him Doctor Beer. Yet, on the phone from his home in Troy, Ronnenberg seemed truly taken aback by the notion that Idaho now contains enough commercial beer brewers to pull together what could actually be called a festival.

There are 19 commercial brewers in Idaho, and although that number pales in comparison to the number of breweries currently operating in Oregon and Washington, compared to Ronnenberg's baseline--which is nothing at all--that amount is remarkable. Ronnenberg said that in 1978, when he came to Idaho to work on his Ph.D., there were no breweries in the state of Idaho.

"I was beginning to research breweries and it was completely a dead subject at that point," Ronnenberg said. From 1960 to 1985--for a full quarter of a century--not a single Idahoan commercially brewed beer.

"So an Idaho brewers' festival, to me, it's still like magical that there is such a thing," Ronnenberg said.

It seemed a little magical to the brewers who were participating in the festival, too. Dinius said it was the first time that Nampa had permitted a beer festival of any type within city limits.

"I think it's a sign of the changing times," he said.

The other brewers, who often work in isolation from their peers, seemed pleasantly stunned to be standing next to their Idaho brewing brethren.

"We are working with the Huckleberry Cream Ale today," the Laughing Dog brewer said as I walked by. Sockeye Brewing was pushing its Wooly Bugger Wheat, Wallace Brewery its Jack Leg Stout, Von Scheidt its Sour Mash Corn Porter.

When I related all this beer-induced information to Ronnenberg, he said it reminded him of Idaho's original beer brewing heyday. He explained that back in 1888, Idaho had 33 breweries scattered across the territory, but the excitement then was fueled not by cream ales but by gold and the unquenchable thirst of camp miners.

Ronnenberg said Idaho's very first brewery started up in Lewiston in the early 1860s and was a stepping stone to the mining camps in Orofino, Pierce and Elk City.

"As the miners move down into the Boise Basin, you get breweries there, and as they move into Silver City," Ronnenberg continued. "And very soon you get breweries in Boise and little places that you don't think of, like Rocky Bar."

Before the Civil War, Ronnenberg said American brewers often followed British brewing traditions, not unlike many modern craft brewers, their saloons serving dark pints of ale, porter and stout. The mining camp brewers were different. Most were immigrants from German-speaking countries steeped in a love of lager. Ronnenberg estimates that more than 90 percent of the beers served in the mining camps "were lager, lager, lager."

That's one real distinction between Idaho's 19th century brewers and today's lager-shunning craft beer makers. But both--separated by over a century of time--believed fervently in the value of one thing: small-scale, local brewing.

Back then, brewers didn't have much of a choice. Beer was about as perishable as milk, and brewers had to brew close to the mining camps they served. When those camps moved on, so did the brewers. When the gold rush began to ebb, brewers settled into the towns that remained like pebbles settling along stream banks after high water. Along with the bakers and hardware stores, breweries became local institutions.

But by the 1870s, big Eastern brewers had perfected production methods that would drastically change the American beer industry. They began pasteurizing their beer. With a far longer shelf life, they could then ship that pasteurized beer out West in railcars cooled with block ice. Idaho brewers, suddenly feeling the heat of outside competition, reacted by advertising the virtues of local, Idaho beer.

In an echo of today's "buy local" movement, a Boise brewer named John Lemp declared his beer "honest beer" made with "Idaho hops and barley." He reminded his customers that "the money you spend helps to employ Idaho labor." That was in 1895.

"You start seeing these 'support local industry' ads early on in places like Wallace," Ronnenberg said, in any place where there was a railroad. But it wasn't any easier for local businesses to fight outside competition then than it is today. Large brewers like Schlitz and Pabst began shipping their beer to any Western town with a rail line.

"You're making 600 barrels a year and you're trying to compete with a guy whose making 600,000," Ronnenberg said of Idaho's small brewers.

Food and agricultural writers frequently cite the post-World War II era as the turning point when industrialization and consolidation began to dominate America's food system, but Idaho's local beer industry began to falter under the pressure of outside, industrial competition as early as the 1890s. Then came Prohibition.

"Of course, it's the great knockout punch for American brewing," Ronnenberg said. Idaho went dry in 1916, and by the time Prohibition was repealed in December of 1933, it was too late.

"It wasn't easy for small brewers to come back," Ronnenberg said. "They can't find a man who knows how to run the equipment, the market is down, they start up but they don't do well, and these little places just start closing in droves."

Instead, the vacuum created by Prohibition was filled by Schlitz, Pabst, Budweiser "and the big guys who have the capital to do everything they need," said Ronnenberg. "So you look at the percentage of beer brewed by the top 10 brewers in America, and it goes from like 30 percent to like 90 percent of the market. They just take over because they have the capital, the expertise, the distribution network."

A few breweries limped through the 1950s but all had closed by 1960, according to Ronnenberg. That's why he finds it so remarkable that, in the 1980s, the national craft beer movement began to reverse the domination of larger, more distant beer makers. In fact, 20th century craft brewers were again touting the virtues of local decades before the Oxford University Press named "locavore" its Word of the Year in 2007.

Back at the Idaho Brewers Festival, Dinius cocked his head to one side, as if trying to slide the brewery names into a neat row as he listed a few that were there.

"We've got Wallace Brewing from Wallace, Idaho," he began. "We've got Payette Brewing from Boise, we've got Sun Valley, Van Scheidt out of Twin Falls, Table Rock, The Ram, Portneuf Valley Brewing out of Pocatello, and Laughing Dog from Sandpoint."

Ronnenberg was right. Looking at 1960, when not even one local brewery existed, to now, when there are enough of them crafting beer to warrant a celebration, that is magical.

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