Utepils wants to be approachable. Despite its size and grandeur—and the facility is quite large and shiny—the brewery aims to produce Old World–style beer simply and without fanfare, and to be a place where everyone can find something they like and not be intimidated. Eric Harper, Utepils Brewing’s head brewer, could not be more well-suited to this task.
“Our beer is good. It supports what we’re doing here,” Eric says. “If you want to sit down and dissect [the beers], they are well-made and interesting, but not scary. Like me.”
Indeed, Eric is as approachable as his beer. As we sit at a table in the corner of the cavernous taproom, surrounded by gleaming tanks and equipment, he talks more about his coworkers and his favorite cat memes than brewing. Beer is so ingrained in Eric that he doesn’t need to frame every conversation around it, it just is.
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Eric started brewing when he was 18 in his hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He and his buddies were mostly drinking Miller Genuine Draft at the time. His best friend’s parents had homebrewing equipment and “we thought, hey, this could be something constructive to do,” Harper says with a wry chuckle.
He leans forward conspiratorially as he describes Sheboygan’s only homebrewing equipment store at the time: a shed in the parking lot of a local bar. “We had to walk through the bar to get our stuff and no one blinked an eye.”
As he entered University of Wisconsin–Madison, Eric continued to be fascinated with the science of brewing. He began to think this was more than just a normal early-adulthood interest.
“I liked beer more than most 20-year-olds liked beer,” he says. So much so that he thought perhaps it could be the beginning of a career, and enrolled in food science courses alongside his major classes in German culture.
Eric had studied German since middle school, but the two semesters in college he spent in the Black Forest region exposed him to the rich tradition of German beer. He worked at the student bar where he served a great deal of the Rothaus Pilsner, the beer he to this day calls his favorite. The reason he holds it in such high regard though has less to do with the recipe or taste, and more to do with the memories it evokes.
“We all lived in the dorm neighborhood […] we went to the bar, we made new friends. It was the experience of drinking these beers, it was fun. The beer brought us together,” Eric says.
“It was the experience of drinking these beers, it was fun. The beer brought us together.”
– Eric Harper
It seems this is precisely Eric’s aim with the beers he makes at Utepils: Something quality enough to draw people in, but deceivingly simple enough to slide to the background and allow conversations to bloom and memories to be made.
After returning home and finishing his degree, he signed up for the University of California, Davis Master Brewers Program and later landed a brewing job at New Glarus Brewing. He spent nearly four years there before getting married and eventually relocating to the Twin Cities to be closer to his wife’s family. He brewed at Summit Brewing for nearly seven years before taking on the head brewer role at Utepils. After two years in his new position, Harper is still a bit awestruck by his situation. His enthusiasm is childlike and contagious.
“I got to build my own playland and now I get to play,” he says with a grin, his eyes wide, as if he still can’t quite believe it. Eric was hired on during the construction phase of the brewery, which meant he had a chance to create the space he would work in. “It’s like a lottery win. It’s pretty bizarre.”
His work begins with water from Glenwood Springs. Utepils is located in the building that used to house the Glenwood Inglewood Water Company. They pump their water from wells, located on city park land, through a system of filters and into a state-of-the-art German brewing technology called the VarioBoil system. The technology involves heat recovery and vacuum depressurization which uses less steam. Less steam means less energy, approximately 70 percent less. They’re also planning to install solar panels in the near future.
“It just makes sense,” Eric says, though aside from minimizing the brewery’s footprint, the Vario system is gentler on the product as well, making it particularly advantageous to the styles of beer Harper is brewing.
He likens brewing his lineup to the comfort and pleasure of making a traditional family meal. “I’m not a picky eater or drinker. I like to try new things. But returning to the things that are your favorites, that is fun. It’s like seeing an old friend again.”
Don’t let the simple beer menu fool you—even though he isn’t crafting off-the-wall whales to court the beer nerds, Harper still has a great deal of fun creating recipes, brewing, and perfecting his art. He takes an immense amount of pleasure in the act of brewing. He waxes poetic about everything from the taste of the wort, the smell of a hefeweizen fermenting, and the way the dust rises when he dumps hops in a bucket, enveloping him in the dank scent.
Besides the satisfaction that brewing brings him, Harper also appreciates his colleagues for both their competence and camaraderie. Part of what made the head brewer position at Utepils so attractive was the experience of the team he was joining. Each member tackles different aspects of the business, which allows Eric to focus on what he loves: brewing beer.
“Everyone really knew what they were doing. There wasn’t going to be any of this I’m a brewer/sales rep/accountant stuff,” Eric says.
Perhaps just as important is the fact that he genuinely enjoys his coworker’s company.
“I come in on the weekends for fun. I mean, I’m here [working] a lot. But I still really like being here,” he says. “Everyone gets along. We hang out. We share cat memes.”
I ask Harper if he thinks he’s still in the proverbial honeymoon stage with his job.
“Two years in? Nah.” He’s pretty sure this is the new normal.