HELPER — The teensiest town in America with a craft brewery is this Utah micro-burg of 2,000 people.
The least-populated locale had been Milton, Delaware, according to ChatGBT, but Dogfish Craft Brewery in the coastal village of 3,000 has been supplanted by Helper Beer, where 16 draft lines are positioned across a wall like sprinters in the starting blocks. All pints are $5. Oven-fired pepperoni pizzas go for $12.
Helper Beer received a license to brew on March 30, so less than a dozen beers were available at the May 6 grand opening, but head brewmaster Jaron Anderson expects to make 40 styles in cans or drafts over the next year.
Before the grand opening, Helper Beer posted on Instagram that it would open for a few hours and the place was soon packed with 50 or so locals who ate the place out of food. The fire marshal has yet to determine occupancy, but Anderson said it will be 85 or 90.
Thousands of people a day drive past on Highway 6. Helper Beer rests one-tenth of a mile off the Main Street exit, and recovering a $2 million investment depends on it becoming a destination spot for travelers headed in the direction of Moab and Lake Powell, or to and from Colorado on I-70.
Ten stainless steel tanks, positioned across from the tables as part of the minimalist décor, ferment 310 gallons at a time, including a fruity sour favored by desert folk who crave electrolytes.
Anderson, a native of Provo, and his southern Californian wife, Amy, are co-owners. They have two children, 10 and 7. Why did they come to Helper, where the economy is barely fit for a dollar store?
The answer can be traced to Charles Callis, Jaron’s best friend, who came in 2010 to intern for six months for artist David Dornan. Callis never left and has his own gallery in town. The Andersons made visits two or three times a year and saw Helper transition from a boarded-up mining town to a budding artsy hamlet.
After one visit, Anderson said, “I feel like I could live here, but then we’d have to build a brewery.”
In 2017, Anderson joined a group of friends in southern Idaho to see the total solar eclipse when he had a “spiritual moment of clarity,” and Callis told Anderson, “You have to do it. If you don’t do it now, someone else will.”
The most difficult time, Amy said, was waiting to get approval for a Small Business Association loan. It came through in March 2020 just as the world shut down with Covid. The Andersons had already sold their house in Salt Lake and moved to Helper, which caused Jaron to commute to TF Brewery in downtown Salt Lake, where he squeezed a 40-hour work week into three days.
No one knows Anderson’s potential better than Kevin Templin, longtime Salt Lake brewmaster and owner of TF Brewery. Templin remembers the 6-foot, 5-inch, 22-year-old Anderson begging him for a job 16 years ago. Grunt work was the only thing available, so Anderson put labels on bottles, cleaned fermentation tanks, and bused tables.
Anderson absorbed it all, Templin said, and was the mastermind behind Red Rock’s Paardebloem beer that won at the Great American Beer Festival, the World Beer Cup, and almost every competition it entered.
Templin calls Jaron “Jarontee,” because he is a guaranteed winner.
Helper is no stranger to libations. In its pre-70s coal mining heyday, it was home to dozens of bars and whorehouses. Today, it has one bar. Residents drive to Price for fast food.
“That whole town’s been sleeping and Jaron just woke it up,” Templin said. “He’ll be freaking mayor one day. He’s a soft-spoken total ham. He’d love to be Mayor Jaron.”
Nationwide, the number of craft breweries climbed to a record 9,552 in 2022, according to the Brewers Association. Those produced 13% of the total beer volume. Utah is home to fewer than 50 of those breweries, but a cold one can be had in the glow of the red rock cliffs at Zions Brewery, or after dusty dinosaur hunting in Vernal, said Jocelyn Kearl, co-founder of the Utah Ale Trail website.
“We’ve been working to encourage people to get beyond the Wasatch Front breweries and explore the various corners of the state,” said Kearl, who has yet to patronize Helper Beer.
Anderson chose the name Helper Beer, as minimalist as the ambiance, after mulling over “pretentious, fluffy names.” He was leaning toward Book Cliff Brewing, but decided geological names such as Sierra Nevada had been worn out.
A 2019 law increased Utah’s allowable alcohol by volume from 4% to 5%. Seventy percent of revenue must come from food sales, and Anderson stressed that Helper Beer will be family-friendly.
Hours of operation are not firm, but Helper Beer will open by 11am seven days a week, closing around 10pm on Friday and Saturday, and at 9pm Sunday thru Thursday.