October 22, 2018

Getting to know you: Jon Lee, Squatters and Wasatch Beers

Written by
Steve Valienga and Jon Lee of Squatters and Wasatch Beers Steve Valienga and Jon Lee of Squatters and Wasatch Beers

Jon Lee and I sat down back in August to discuss topics from quality to production and his work at Squatters. He started at the company back in 1997, hired to clean and fill kegs. He moved his way through the ranks, cleaning, filling, doing cellar work and then advanced to brewhouse operations. He did everything from driving trucks to warehouse work. He says, "Brewing is a very labor-intensive job. It's not as glamorous as most people think it is. Dragging a lot of hoses and cleaning. You go home tired and your muscles hurt." Jon proved himself, and he is now COO and Brewmaster at Squatters and Wasatch Beers.   

Squatters currently has about 50 employees, including sales and tavern staff. The location on 300 West in Salt Lake City is where the majority of brewing takes place. There's also the brewpub in Park City where they do 2,500 barrels a year of craft beer production. At the downtown Squatters pub location, they do production for onsite sales, about 1,200-1,300 barrels a year.  

Squatters packages in both bottles and cans. This is where I learned a lot about the intricacies and history of the role of both cans and bottles in the craft beer movement in the United States. "Bottles are not the ideal package because they can heat up a bit, they are heavy to transport, there's a chance for light intrusion that can ruin your beer, and the interface from the top of the cap to the bottle is not airtight. There's still a chance that there is CO2 that comes out and oxygen that comes in over time."  So how did bottles become viewed as the premium package for beer in the US? It's all about perception. "This goes back into the 70s when canned beer was the norm in the United States. You had the imports start coming in. The imports were primarily bottles because in Europe they didn't have many canning lines." The U.S. consumer saw these import beers coming in with a higher price (primarily due to shipping costs) and the perception took hold that if there is beer in a bottle, it's worth paying more for.   

Then craft beer came on in the late 70s and early 80s. "Back then, canning lines on a small scale just didn't exist. The smallest can filler you would see was about 60 head — that's the amount of positions that are on the filler. The 60-head can filler is going to be spinning at probably about 600 cans a minute. If you're a small craft brewer or microbrewery, that's essentially your entire year's production spun in the span of five minutes."  This didn't make sense for these emerging craft brewers. But there's always a way forward. "At the time, there were a lot of soda companies that operated where you could get small bottle fillers. So the majority of craft brewers started from these small soda lines. They would buy their equipment from soda companies — you could buy a filler for 20 or 30 grand. Bottles were plentiful. A lot of them were old soda bottles because that's what was cheap to get." There are different cost variables when considering cans versus bottles. "For cans you'd have to buy a whole truckload of cans whic

h is about 400 barrels worth of beer. You've got to have them preprinted and you're committed to this large quantity. With a bottle you have to just slap a label on it so you can do 300 cases at a time."  Heat, oxygen, time, and light can work against beer quality. Since cans are sealed metal, no light can get through. When aluminum cans are sealed, Jon said, "The metal folds over five times. The liner is the part that makes it fully impenetrable to light and the seal is airtight." In addition to this, you can throw in the environmental benefits. Aluminum is 99% recoverable. Jon said, "The amount of energy that is used to produce a can from a recycled can is about 20% of that of brand new fresh aluminum. When you are making fresh aluminum for new cans, you have to use these microwaves that separate the slag. It's a tremendous amount of energy input to develop your raw aluminum."  

Jon's attention to the specifics of what is important to the consumer and quality control at every aspect of production is propelling the success of Squatters and Wasatch Beers in Utah. We're glad they are part of the Guild!