Utah’s best home brewer makes gold-medal ales and stouts in his garage, and his worst beer-making disaster has a silver lining

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City resident Zachary Belles was named Utah’s best home brewer during the 2018 Beehive Brewoff last month. He was photographed at his garage-turned-brewery on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018.

Zachary Belles has a garage, but you won’t find his car inside.

“It’s completely dedicated to beer brewing," said the 32-year-old Salt Lake City resident, who was named Utah’s best home brewer during the 2018 Beehive Brewoff last month. “I have a shed for all the garage stuff.”

Filling the space that’s usually dedicated to a car in Belles’ garage are sinks, shelves, tables and three refrigerators — one for fermenting, one for lagering and another with a built-in “kegerator" for serving home-brewed beer to friends and family.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City resident Zachary Belles was named Utah’s best home brewer during the 2018 Beehive Brewoff last month. Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018.

This year, the Brewoff, the state’s largest home-brewing competition, had nearly 500 entries in 32 categories from ales and lagers to smoked beers and meads.

This marked the first year that a best home brewer was named, said Mark Alston, owner of The Beer Nut in Salt Lake City, which sponsors the event. It was a good way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the competition and show how far Utah’s home-brewing scene has come.

“We have a lot of amazing brewers,” said Alston, pointing to the 127 brewers competing and the 21 home-brew clubs represented.

The skill level of home brewers in Utah has improved through the years, making the judging more competitive.

The availability of quality ingredients “that weren’t around” a decade ago also has helped improved the entries, said Alston, who opened The Beer Nut in 1994. "The quality of the ingredients that were available then, compared to now, 24 years later, is huge.”

To prove just how “amazing the Utah beers are,” Alston said three commercial Utah brewers — Kiitos Brewing, SaltFire Brewing and Wasatch Brewery — plan to re-create three of the winning beers and enter them into professional competitions.

One of those beers could be the Lauter Day Brewers Barleywine, a collaboration beer — with Belles as the lead brewer — that took a gold in its respective category as well as Best of Show for the whole competition.

“It’s as good or better than the beers you will have from a commercial brewery,” Alston said.

In all, Belles, whose day job is in information technology, won nine medals — two golds, five silvers and two bronzes. (See list below.) Kirk Hofeling, with O-Town Hop Heads in Ogden, was the runner-up, while Rob Rutledge with ZZ HOPS club took third.

Originally from Allentown, Pa., Belles moved to Utah in 2009 to ski but quickly became frustrated when he couldn’t find the type of beer he liked from home, and he had to pay the large markup at the state liquor stores.

He decided to try home brewing while at a friend’s wedding. The groom, a home brewer, had made a special beer for the occasion. “I thought it was good,” Belles said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ So I starting re-creating some of the beers I had enjoyed on the East Coast but couldn’t get here.”

Today, Belles can be found in his garage, creating winning beers with fun-loving names like Chef Tony’s Knife Set and Don’t Touch My Blonde.

We asked Belles how he comes up with these monikers, the beers he likes to brew most and his worst brewing day disaster. His comments have been edited for space and clarity.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City resident Zachary Belles was named Utah’s best home brewer during the 2018 Beehive Brewoff last month. He's shown at his garage-turned-brewery on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018.

What was the first beer you made? • An American brown ale. At the time, I thought it was good. But now, I don’t think I’d have the same impression — it would probably be a dumper. But, at the time, I was excited and pretty proud of it.

What types of beer do you like to brew? • I like hoppy beers, especially hoppy IPAs. I’ve also had a lot of success with Belgian ales. I like to learn a style and do it over and over again until I get it right. Last year, I was into sour beers and won three medals. I’m German and wanted to get back to my roots, so lately I’ve been making German-style pilsners and lagers.

How did the Lauter Day Brewers Barleywine, which won first place and Best of Show, come about? • I was able to acquire [an empty] 52-gallon whiskey barrel that had previously held High West Rendezvous Rye. I got a few friends together, and we all made the same recipe. We put it in the barrel and let it sit for six months. When it came time to empty the barrel, everyone got some to take home, but I entered it on behalf of the group. To share the medal with close friends, it’s a cool feeling. It’s a little more fun that just winning by yourself.

How do you pick your beers' names, like Don’t Touch My Blonde or Chef Tony’s Knife Set? • I keep a notepad on my cellphone and if I hear something on the radio or think of something, I write it down. Sometimes it comes from songs or pop culture or a favorite movie. I especially like a play on words. Don’t Touch My Blonde [a Belgian blond ale] is named after my girlfriend, Nicki Swanson. When I was back in high school, I loved infomercials, and Chef Tony was the guy who would throw watermelons up in the air and cut through steel-toed boots. It was so comically bad.

Many home brewers dream of having their own commercial brewery. Is that a possibility? • I love brewing beer as a hobby. I don’t want to ruin that. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind occasionally. But Utah is a different market than breweries in Colorado or California, where it’s a family atmosphere. People bring their dogs, and their kids order food, and the dads order a beer.

Have you ever had a brew day disaster? • Yes, but it was a disaster that actually turned out. I was making a Belgian beer where you are supposed to use German hops, but American hops were all I had. I added them in at the wrong time, and I messed up the grain ratio. Then, when I was trying to finish the beer, a pump was broken [on a piece of brewing equipment] so I had to stop and clean it all out. When I put the beer in the fermenter, I was sure it wasn’t going to turn out. But it was the first batch of what became Don’t Touch My Blonde, which won several medals [including a silver this year].

What’s your advice for someone who wants to start home brewing? • Like any hobby, you have to have fun — regardless of how things turn out. You don’t need to get all caught up in the fancy bells and whistles when buying equipment. And finally, take notes. I’ve had times when I didn’t, and I was sad that I couldn’t make the same beer again.

The medal count

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City resident Zachary Belles was named Utah’s best home brewer during the 2018 Beehive Brewoff last month. Belles won nine medals: two gold, five silver and two bronze. He's shown holding the medals at his garage-turned-brewery on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018.

How he won • Those who entered the 2018 Beehive Brewoff earned points for each medal — 5 for gold, 3 for silver and 1 for bronze. Here’s the breakdown for Belles' nine medals.

Gold • The Lauter Day Brewers Barleywine earned the top spot in the barley wine category and won Best of Show. It was a collaboration beer with fellow home brew club members Andrew Ayers, Nils Imboden, Chris Detrick, Kyle Artip, Brian McCray and Marty Miller.

Silver • Chef Tony’s Knife Set, Czech Premium Pale Lager; Caroline Mustache, German Exportbier; Don’t Touch My Blonde, Belgian Blond Ale; No Iphones in the Monastery, Trappist Single Ale; and Stanley, Oatmeal Stout (co-brewed with Alan Maschek).

Bronze • Hooked On Pils, German Pilsner; and Fluff, American IPA.