The Rise of Microbreweries

By Beacon Staff

Something’s brewing in Flathead’s beer business.

A growing microbrewery trend is spreading throughout the Flathead Valley. It’s here to stay and it’s easy to explain.

“People like good beer,” said Sarah Courtney, tasting room manager at Flathead Lake Brewing Company.

Microbrewing, a form of “craft brewing,” is nothing new. But Flathead brewery owners say there is a strong resurgence in brewing after an almost decade slump. There are four breweries in the Flathead Valley. One more, Tamarack Brewery, is under construction in Lakeside, soon to be the state’s 20th. Still more are planned.

In the 1980s homebrewing and microbrewing gained popularity. By the mid-1990s the market was flooded, said David Ayers, brewmaster and one of three owners at Polson’s Glacier Brewing Company.

“Everybody was trying to brew,” Ayers said. “That formed a tidal wave of really bad beer.”

Joe Barberis is a brewmaster – or beer maker – at Whitefish’s Great Northern Brewing Company. He said that a new generation of beer drinkers is replacing the traditional Budweiser and Miller loyalists. While the Pacific Northwest, parts of New England and Colorado are considered the pillars of the craft brewing industry, Barberis and Ayers agreed that Montana is quietly making a name for itself with very good beer.

“I think we’re right up there (with the best),” Barberis said. “You can find beers in Montana as good as anywhere in the world.”

Ayers is a long-time brewmaster from one of microbrewing’s capitals, Fort Collins, Colo., the home of New Belgium’s Fat Tire. He said Montana’s beer “surprises me and makes me proud.”

Montana is part of a national trend in which craft beer sales have increased 31.5 percent in the last three years, according to the Brewers Association. Microbreweries, a specific craft beer sector, increased by 16 percent last year alone. Missoula has been leading the way in Montana, especially Big Sky Brewing, which is Montana’s only national brewing powerhouse. Flathead is no slouch either, with four award-winning breweries.

Even with the increasing demand for microbreweries and an influx of good brewmasters, operating a brewery is a tricky business in Montana with a high failure rate. Flathead’s brewery owners cite various reasons: the state’s reliance on seasonal tourism; restrictive brewing laws; unavailability of glass recycling; and high bottling expenses.

Brewing is governed by state laws and some of Montana’s aren’t very popular with brewers. In Great Northern’s tasting room there’s a sign that says, “Wacky State Law: small breweries in Montana can only serve 48 ounces per person, per day.”

Courtney said that two other laws have caused brewery owners to lobby the Legislature in recent years: they must close at 8 p.m. and they can’t serve food.

The laws affect breweries differently depending on where they get the bulk of their revenue, from tasting rooms, distribution or merchandise.

John Campbell said if brewery owners make quality beer and think innovatively, they will endure despite restrictive laws. He would know. His brewery, Lang Creek, is the region’s longest running. Opened in 1994, 20 miles outside of Marion, today he distributes bottled beer throughout all of Montana, Oregon, Washington and parts of Idaho.

Ayers said one reason Montana has good beer is that its microbreweries are very “micro.” The definition of a microbrewery allows up to 15,000 barrels of beer to be produced in one year. Ayers’s brewery produced less than 800 last year.

“Some of these guys are brewing beer by clicking a mouse,” Ayers said. “We’re out there using our hands.”

Brewmasters have formed their own community in Flathead Valley. Ayers and Barberis both originally began their Montana brewing careers by working for Campbell before pursuing their own interests. Each brewmaster explained that while there is naturally some competition, microbrewers feel a comradeship with each other.

“The beer business, unlike anything else, is built on strong relationships,” Campbell said.

He expects more breweries to come to the region.

“It’s just going to continue growing, and that’s good,” Campbell said. “More variety creates more competition to make good beer—and that’s what it’s all about.”