PINEDALE, Wyo.— Richie Strom stretched a pair of gritty yellow sleeves over his gray Wyoming Cowboys sweatshirt before stepping up to stir the tank of bubbling grain.
Two dozen craft beer enthusiasts looked on as Strom sweated over the steaming mash heated to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. The batch required constant stirring to avoid the sticky clumps any brewer will tell you can kill a good beer.
Hands held full pint glasses. Beer chilled on ice within arm's reach. A box of donuts lay open on a nearby table but no one seemed too interested.
These folks, after all, were here for the beer.
The second annual Wyoming collaboration brew drew microbrewers from all four corners of the state to the Wind River Brewing Co. in Pinedale last weekend. They came from breweries in Evanston and Gillette, Laramie and Jackson, each bearing ingredients necessary to brew a beer that is uniquely Wyoming.
The beer of choice for the weekend creation was an imperial brown ale — a sweet, nutty brew closing in on 10 percent alcohol, brewers estimated — aged in bourbon-soaked oak barrels that just months ago cradled the first batch of Wyoming Whiskey.
The brew will be one of a kind.
Band of brewers
"We love what we do," the bearded Strom said between stirs while standing in the narrow hallway that is the brewery office in Pinedale on Feb. 23. "The more we can sell, the better."
Strom, the head brewer at Wind River Brewing Co., started brewing beer before he could legally drink the stuff. He constructed his first makeshift home-brew system in a college dorm room in Eugene, Ore., and will proudly tell you how he blew a semester's tuition on craft-brewing gadgets and supplies.
He brewed for years in Oregon before driving out to Wyoming to take an open spot at Pinedale's only brewery 10 years ago. Wyoming breweries, he said, have a less competitive atmosphere than the craft beer industry thriving elsewhere.
"It's more authentic, like anything in Wyoming," said Colby Cox, owner and investor with the up-and-coming Roadhouse Brewing Co. in Jackson. "My brewer is a guy I met in my garage. It's not like, let's buy the best brewer we can find."
This year's beer took the philosophy of collaboration to a new level.
"Aging this year's beer in Wyoming Whiskey barrels truly makes this brew a Wyoming collaboration through and through," said Tim Harland, national sales director for Wyoming Whiskey Inc. The state's first legal whiskey distillery debuted its second batch last month, after its first small-batch bourbon sold out to retailers in mere minutes last November.
Unlike neighboring Colorado's brewery count — which rose to more than 150 last year — Wyoming is home to just 17 microbreweries and counting. Breweries slated to start in 2013 include Roadhouse Brewing Co., Prairie Fire Brewing Co. in Gillette and Geyser Brewing Co. in Cody.
The craft-brewing industry is a collaborative one, said Acacia Coast of the Brewers Association, a national trade organization based in Boulder, Colo. As a state coordinator, Coast works with brewers to build brewers' guilds — organizations of a state's microbrewers that lobby for pro-craft measures in legislatures across the country.
"There's a lot of passion and a lot of businesses on the line, and guilds are on the front lines for defense on that," Coast said.
And though other states host brew festivals that often bring together every brewer in a state, it's unlikely that any other state can feasibly round up its craft brewers into one room to brew a beer like Wyoming does, Coast said.
On average, one new brewery opened in the United States every day in 2012, she said.
But for all of the industry's recent growth, Wyoming folks haven't always savored the flavor of craft beer.
Slowly catching on
Veteran brewers attest that 20 years ago the average Wyoming palate wasn't so thrilled about the bold-tasting beers this state's brewers were crafting.
"The state was very loyal to the big brewers," said Wyoming Whiskey's Harland.
Brand-name low-calorie lagers — light in color and taste — dominated Wyoming's beer market then and continue to do so, Harland said.
"That was the flavor of the state," he said.
Harland formerly was a sales rep for Snake River Brewing Co. in Jackson Hole. He spent the better part of two decades stooped on bar stools across Wyoming, persistently bugging fellow bar-goers to try his free samples of beer.
"A lot of people didn't like it," Harland said. "A lot of people were accustomed to their bland, big macrobrews. It was a shock to their taste buds, a shock to their system."
Harland said most Wyomingites had no idea what "craft beer" even meant in the mid-1990s when he started his statewide travel.
Strom, the Pinedale brewer, said some customers decried the craft beers early on, telling the pub's head brewer they couldn't drink that "brew" beer. Wind River Brewing Co. encountered resistance from a few locals at its recent decision to serve all beers — even domestic classics like Budweiser and Coors — in glasses rather than bottles, Strom said. Hesitant to put down the bottle and pick up the pint glass, a handful of regulars left.
"It took years to get to where people really started embracing and were passionate about beer that was brewed locally," Harland said. "Slowly but surely, people adapted to enjoying something local, something fresh."
Today, Wind River Brewing Co. is eliminating big-time domestic beers from its menu, braving potential customer loss to offer only the craft beers that, Wind River officials say, really are that good.
And the beer that marries two of the state's most homegrown tastes — microbrewed beer and craft bourbon whiskey — will be on tap at breweries and brew fests across Wyoming in a few months.
Casper will kick off this year's state beer release on May 18 with a keg of the imperial brown ale to be tapped and poured at the Harmony, Hops and Hope brew fest and fundraiser.
This year's third annual Harmony, Hops and Hope also marks the start of a summer-long series of brew fests across Wyoming and coincides with American Craft Brew Week.