Utah beer's flippant ads land brewmaster in the suds

State liquor commission censors jokes

billboard companies refuse space

November 09, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PARK CITY, Utah - Polygamy Porter tastes good. The question in this Mormon-dominated state is whether the billboard advertising for the beer is in good taste.

Greg Schirf, the brewmaster and owner of Wasatch Beer, insists the slogans, "Why have just one?" and "Take some home for the wives," are in good fun.

But the Utah Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission and two local billboard companies disagree.

The state agency has toyed with the idea of banning advertising that pokes fun at religion while the billboard companies have refused to rent Schirf space on their signs.

Although acquiring multiple wives has been illegal in Utah since 1890 - a ban required by the federal government as a condition for statehood - there are still pockets of practicing polygamists.

Civic leaders promoting a cosmopolitan image consider it a sore point to bring up an activity once sanctioned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons are formally known.

That Schirf would poke fun at Utah's embarrassing history has become a brew-haha that is taking on Olympic proportions.

"They're being thick-headed," says Schirf, who knows a thing or two about heads. "With everyone watching because of the Winter Olympics, they don't seem to realize they are drawing more attention to themselves. I couldn't pay for this kind of publicity."

Steering clear of issue

But Reagan Outdoor Advertising, which had a one-year contract with Schirf, and Young Electric Sign Co. are sticking to their guns.

"We just do not want to be associated in any way with anything that associates in any way with polygamy," company President Dewey Reagan told The Salt Lake Tribune.

"The entire ad is offensive."

Seventy percent of Utah residents are Mormons, a religion that forbids the consumption of alcohol and frowns on caffeine.

Government at all levels, including the liquor board, is dominated by church members.

Park City, home to Schirf's Wasatch Brew Pub, is not so sober-minded.

It is Utah's party central, a skiing town about 45 minutes outside Salt Lake City that attracts both the Mountain Dew and the Veuve Clicquot crowds.

It's the perfect place for beers such as Polygamy Porter and St. Provo Girl ("If you just said `Oh my heck,' it's probably not for you").

And Schirf, a fun-loving guy with a beer-barrel shape, is no stranger to fermenting controversy.

He wrestled with state regulators to license microbreweries and brew pubs in the 1980s. And two years ago, he successfully tangled with Olympic organizers over his "2002 Unofficial Amber Ale."

"I'll never understand that one," he says.

"Which part did they have licensed? 2002? Unofficial?"

The current spat is starting to attract worldwide attention, especially from the European press, which already is skeptical of Utah's ability to party down beneath the shadow of the Mormon Temple.

The Dutch Olympic team has paid $180,000 to turn a golf course country club in a nearby suburb into Holland Heineken House.

Park City is leasing its library and education annex to the Norwegian Olympic team for $200,000.

Anheuser-Busch, a $50 million Olympic sponsor, has paid an extra $155,000 to lease the city-owned Gallivan Center for a beer garden.

Legality questioned

The liquor board took an awkward run last month at trying to head off Schirf's style of mischief, passing a regulation that banned ads using religious themes or symbols.

But the board approved the measure during an apparently secret meeting, raising questions about its legal underpinnings.

The matter is now in court.

Meanwhile, Schirf is the life of the party, selling beer and merchandise on his Web site (www. utahbrewers.com) and promoting Park City.

"I'm getting 400 online orders for T-shirts every day. The beer is flying off the shelves," Schirf crows.

"The church has been so helpful, I should tithe 10 percent. It's the only right thing to do."

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