A Utah brewmaster lifts one for liberty

April 03, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Things have come to a head between brewmaster Greg Schirf and the Mormon teetotalers who run Utah.

At noon today our time, Schirf plans to walk to the edge of Great Salt Lake and pour several kegs of his newest creation - First Amendment Lager - into the brine in a sudsy re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party.

"It's give me liberty or give me a cold one," declares Schirf, who will be dressed as Benjamin Franklin for his lakeside happy hour.

The impish businessman is protesting a $1.80-per-keg increase in the beer tax that he suspects is punishment for his activities on behalf of the elbow-bending public and those who serve them.

For more than two decades Schirf has taken almost as much pleasure in producing hangover-sized headaches for state officials as he does creating brews such as Polygamy Porter (motto: "Bring some home for the wives"). His crusade that removed the prohibition on microbreweries and brew pubs placed him at permanent lager-heads with the makers and enforcers of Utah's liquor laws.

Schirf, who owns Wasatch Brewery and Wasatch Brew Pub in trendy Park City, draws customers from the ski crowd and the 30 percent of the Utah population that isn't Mormon. His promotional charm is in the naughty billboards and advertisements that tweak the state's majority.

A freeway billboard of a blond, blue-eyed "St. Provo Girl" bursting out of her bustier with the caption "Nice Cans!" drew chuckles from visitors to the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Soon after, however, someone decided it was time for the barkeep to pick up the tab for his cheeky behavior.

Schirf says late last year he got a letter from the Utah Beer Wholesaler Association warning him that state lawmakers were going to punish him with an increased sales tax if he didn't pipe down.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Waddoups, who sponsored the tax bill, denies retribution but makes no secret of his distaste for Schirf's antics.

"I am offended by that billboard. It's flat-out bad taste," Waddoups told the Salt Lake Tribune. "It certainly will be part of the [tax increase] debate. I'll bring it up for those who may be waffling. I want them to see the full scope of this. This is an emotional issue."

Schirf says Utah's $12.80-a-keg tax is one of the highest in the nation. "It's a brilliant move for a Mormon legislator to pass a tax he won't have to pay. It's like if the Amish controlled the Pennsylvania legislature and increased the gasoline tax."

His campaign on behalf of the First Amendment - the brew and the constitutional add-on - includes ads and commemorative T-shirts that can be bought on his Web site: www.utahbeers .com . He also hopes to use the shirts as a fund raiser for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Schirf says he can take comfort and drown his sorrows in the words of Franklin: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

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