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The Big Brewhaha

by Katherine Wutz
photo by David N. Seelig

Local brewmasters select their favorite beers.

The creation of craft beer is having a moment, or two. Beer lovers are starting to rival oenophiles in both vocabulary and enthusiasm, and with the country's highest concentration of microbreweries and brew pubs right here in the Northwest, the Wood River Valley is not missing out on the action. The number of microbreweries in the valley has increased by 50 percent in the past year, and local restaurants have begun hosting craft beer events on a regular basis.

To get to the bottom of this burgeoning trend, Sun Valley Guide asked the valley's three master microbrewers what makes their crafty creations unique.

Ketchum Cream Ale & Freeheeler IPA

Paul Holle, head brewer at the Sawtooth Brewery, has striven to be unique in the Ketchum taproom's offerings. Aware that an India Pale Ale (a popular brewing style that uses lightly roasted malt) was a microbrewery must-have, Holle wanted to make sure his was different. He opted for a Canadian rye malt to separate his Freeheeler IPA from the crowd. The malt provides a spicy-rye undertone and has proven to be a huge hit. "It's almost impossible to keep on tap," Holle said.

Complex and earthy, with an almost herby flavor, the Freeheeler goes well with anything spicy, to bring out the rye flavor without overwhelming it.

On the more traditional side is the Ketchum Cream Ale. A light ale with the smooth finish of a lager, the brew has a bit more character than most light golden ales. It is served on nitrogen, a method primarily used for dark, creamy beers such as Guinness to produce a rich, tight head and a less carbonated taste.

Cranky Über IPA & Twisted Stout

The Cranky Über IPA is one of Hailey-based Sun Valley Brewing Company's slew of new brews. Named for the part on a mountain bike that connects the pedals to the frame, Sean Flynn's concoction is intensely hoppy, with a smooth flavor. "A lot of IPAs can be overly bitter," he said. "But the types of hops we use—sourced exclusively from Idaho, Oregon and Washington—create a surprising smoothness, along with a nice floral and citrusy aroma."

The Twisted Stout is another of Flynn's favorites. For this specialty beer, he uses English chocolate malt, named for its dark brown roast. "It's got a real chocolate and toffee flavor," Flynn said, which masks how high the alcohol level is. But that rich flavor makes it popular with stout drinkers and non-stout drinkers alike.

Big Wood Bitter & Pica Pica Porter

Chris Harding has been running the one-man-microbrewery Riverbend Brewing from his mid-valley home since 1999.
Named for the river that flows behind his brewery, his Big Wood Bitter is his flagship brew. Made with water from the local aquifer, this is an easy drinking, delicately hopped, English-style bitter with a fresh tasting malt backbone.
Harding's Pica Pica Porter takes its moniker from the magpie that is a common sight in the valley. "To my mind, a porter should highlight chocolate malt," he said, though he pointed out there is an industry controversy about the true difference between a stout—typically darker, using patent malt—and a porter. But according to Harding, neither should have much of a hop flavor and both should be smooth and slightly bitter.