The name Otto Brothers is well known in the intermountain west especially in the Jackson Hole-Yellowstone area. Now as the Grand Teton Brewery they are becoming the region’s premier name in beer.
The story of the Grand Teton Brewery begins about 13 years ago, but the story of its founder begins a few years before. Charlie Otto had lived and traveled extensively in Europe where he developed an appreciation for the styles of beers available there. When he moved back to the States he was disappointed that he didn’t have easy access to the beers he had come to enjoy. Like many of us in the late 80’s, who wanted the taste of ales, Charlie learned to brew them himself. He became an accomplished homebrewer so much so that his friends were constantly asking him to brew more and more and…. you get the picture. It soon became apparent to Charlie that brewing was taking as much time as a full time job.
To brew and sell beer for profit, one needs a license but the state of Wyoming didn’t have a law on the books to issue a license to a craft brewer. Charlie now had to become a lobbyist and help get the bill passed to allow him to go into business. He was rewarded with brewery license number 1. Finally, in 1988 the business incorporated.
Wyoming has a law that allows use of 25% of your personal property for business so the first brewery was built in the Charlie’s backyard in Wilson, Wyoming, at the base of the scenic Teton Pass, with his own hands. 25%, in this case, meant 210 square feet. Not very big by commercial brewery standards but then Wilson is a small town. Utilizing used dairy equipment and a great deal of improvisation, the brewery took shape.
The Otto Brother’s brands were draft only for the first two years. This didn’t stop the ever-innovative Charlie from selling to individuals. He introduced the growler, not only the brewery but to the micro-brewing industry. Later came 22 ounce returnable bottles with silk-screened labels. He built his own 6 bottle filler from a photo enlarger he got from his uncle. These were a big hit. The environmentally responsible liked the return and refill policy and the labels made the bottle a perfect Jackson-Yellowstone souvenir.
In 1989 Otto Brothers bottled Teton Ale and Moose Juice Stout. These were followed in 1990 by Old Faithful Ale, which in 1991 Yellowstone National Park made its official beer.
The 210 square foot Wilson brewery, no matter how efficient, became the limiting factor for Otto Brother’s Brewing. Production was limited to 725 barrels per year. That equates to one brew per week 52 weeks a year and Charlie, the only the brewer, needed a break. There was also a need to move to 12 ounce bottles as the 22’s were loosing popularity. To expand production, and get a life, a new bigger facility was in order.
Charlie had been traveling and visiting brewerys for years keeping a notebook of things he learned along the way. He designed a brewery from this file that would meet his needs and lend itself to his business philosophy; a philosophy based on economy and environmental responsibility.
The new brewery began construction over the pass into neighboring Idaho in 1997. The 6400 square foot facility features a 30 barrel brewhouse, 12 ounce bottling line, large fermentation area separate from the brewhouse, lab and cooler. The entire building facilitates large truck delivery and pickup. It is large enough to expand at a reasonable rate for some time to come and it will also allow them to acquire equipment of all types since they are not hampered by lack of space.
It was decided after a couple of years in the new brewery that it was time for some other changes. “In Wilson everyone knew us”, relates Charlie “but out on the road many folks didn’t”. “Many would say ‘ Oh, you’re the Teton Ale guys’ so we figured we needed a name that had more general recognition”. Both of the breweries were built in the shadow of the Grand Tetons so the new name, Grand Teton Brewing Company, was a natural choice.
The next big addition to the operation was hiring of a new brewer, Mike Jordan. Charlie had always been the one and only brewer but with the bigger plant the demands on his time for business and sales became prohibitive. Mike hales from Portland where he worked in a number of the notable breweries there. These include Portland Brewing, Saxor, and Whinehards. He came to Victor because of the life style and the opportunity to be an influence in a “new “ brewery.
His first job was to tweak and quantify the recipes for the three flagship brands; a quality control effort. Then he needed to take care of the seasonal beers. Mike wasn’t sure of the sophistication of the market in the Tetons coming from one of the most sophisticated beer markets in the country, Portland. He found that the public was quite knowledgeable and he could go with traditional and authentic styles. There was a Huckleberry Wheat, and an Oktoberfest in the seasonal repertoire to which he added Illuminator Doppelbock and St. Michaels Scottish Ale.
Grand Teton’s lineup of beers is nicely rounded out. Old Faithful Ale is a golden ale with a light sweet malt character and very smooth finish. Teton Ale, the number one brand, is an English pale ale with a nice copper color, nicely balanced malt profile and a hoppy finish. Moose Juice Stout has been a favorite for years. This year its popularity was validated with a silver medal at the Great American Beer Fest. This was by no means their first award. Otto Brothers has won many awards at the North American Beer Awards and at other competitions. Illuminator is an American version of a dopplebock. It has the traditional flavor profile without the big sweetness and full body of the European variety. German Hallertauer hops are utilized along with a little higher alcohol content to make its quite nice.
Grand Teton Brewing Company plans to continue to grow to become “The” regional brewery for the Jackson-Teton-Yellowstone area. With Mike on board to do the brewing in a fine new brewery and Charlie concentrating on sales and business, we expect good things from in the shadows of the Grand Tetons. If you haven’t had a Grand Teton product, give them a try, you’ll like it.
Copyright April 2001, Robert Beckwith