By JOSHUA WOLFSON Star-Tribune staff writer
Wyoming brewers gathered last month in Pinedale to craft the state’s annual collaboration beer. Working together inside Wind River Brewing Company, they concocted a steam beer appropriately named Steamboat.

But the California common wasn’t all they made that weekend. They also established the Wyoming Craft Brewers Guild, the first group dedicated to representing the state’s burgeoning beer-making industry.

Wyoming is now home to more than 20 breweries, with several more being planned. But until last month, they lacked a unified voice. The guild will represent brewers on legislative issues such as beer taxes. It could also help promote the industry, connecting consumers with the growing number of Cowboy State beers.

“As more people came on board, the circle was growing, so it became even more important to make sure we were on the same page on stuff,” said Jared Long, head brewer at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery in Laramie. “I think there was this growing recognition that it was time for us to come together as a state.”

Beer makers have made Wyoming their home for years. But it’s only recently that breweries have become ubiquitous across the state. When Black Tooth Brewing in Sheridan opened in November 2010, it became Wyoming’s ninth functioning brewery, said co-owner Tim Barnes. In a little more than three years, the number has more than doubled and is expected to climb even higher.

The industry’s reputation is also growing. On a per capita basis, Wyoming has earned more medals at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival than any other state, Barnes said. Its brewers collected five medals – three of them gold – at the recently completed World Cup, which featured roughly 4,700 beers.

“To come home with that many medals speaks very highly of the quality of beer made in Wyoming,” Barnes said.

It makes sense, then, that Wyoming brewers would want to form a guild to protect their interests. They were still the last state to do – an indication of the state’s tax-friendly climate, noted Barnes.

That’s not to say it will remain that way. State lawmakers earlier this year considered hiking the state’s beer tax. The bill ultimately failed.

During the beer tax debate, Barnes attended a legislative committee meeting and testified before lawmakers. The guild was not yet formed, so he spoke only as an owner of Black Tooth Brewing. If the issue returns, he’ll speak as guild president, representing breweries across the state.

“It gives all the brewers in Wyoming a voice as a whole,” said Juli Pierce, co-owner of Prairie Fire Brewing in Gillette.

Taxes are not the industry’s sole concern. Most brewers now sell their spent grain to farmers, who use it as livestock feed. The federal government has discussed placing more stringent rules on the practice, requiring brewers to first process the grain.

“It would cost brewers a ton of money to do that,” said Pierce, who also serves as guild secretary/treasurer.

It’s not clear how many breweries will join the guild, since the group is still in its infancy. But the organization has already begun its lobbying work. Barnes traveled earlier this month to Washington, D.C., to meet with Wyoming’s congressional delegation and push for a federal excise tax reduction that would benefit the state’s brewers.

The guild could also make it easier for beer lovers to stay up on their favorite Wyoming suds. Wyoming has lacked a centralized body for promoting the state’s beer industry, making it more difficult for people to keep up on festivals and events.

The guild has already established a web address and Facebook page. Thought it lacks the staff to regularly use them as promotional tools, it could in the future.

“We can have a clearinghouse of information to get out to consumers,” Long said.

Even if the guild for now serves primarily as a legislative group, its existence sends a message to the rest of the country. Though Wyoming brewers produce a relatively small amount of beer – combined, it's less than 2 percent what Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing produces annually – the guild shows Wyoming’s beer industry isn’t to be taken lightly.

“Now that the big names of the brewing world recognize that Wyoming has a guild, I hope that we are viewed as being a little less backwoods, that we do take it seriously and we do know what we are doing,” Long said. “I think it adds a level of legitimacy.”