Local Breweries Expand South

By Beacon Staff

At Tamarack Brewing Company in Lakeside, it’s important to remember your roots – especially if those roots tap into barley and hops.

Brewery owners Craig Koontz, Andra Townsley and Josh Townsley take that idea seriously, especially now that they are branching out by opening a new pub and restaurant in Missoula.

“We always knew once we started Tamarack that we wanted to take it further than just Lakeside,” Andra Townsley said.

Missoula presented an opportunity to expand while remaining a community-focused business, she said.

The Garden City is already home to several established, well-known breweries, such as The Kettlehouse, Big Sky Brewing Company and Bayern Brewing. Recently, Flathead Lake Brewing Company (FLBC) added its name to the roster when it opened a taproom in downtown Missoula on North Higgins Avenue.

The Tamarack’s new location is on Front Street overlooking the carousel and Caras Park downtown. It will have a restaurant and is designed to be a family-friendly, come-as-you-are kind of place that should open in April, Townsley said.

Before the decision to move was finalized, Townsley said the Tamarack’s owners spoke with other brewery owners to feel out the Missoula microbrew community. The welcome, she said, was a warm one.

“It’s less of a competition and more of a brotherhood,” Townsley said.

Businesswise, it looks to be an increasingly popular brotherhood. Both Townsley and FLBC of Missoula owner Clare Sandy noted a perceptible shift in the beer-drinkers’ tastes in Missoula, flowing from big brand beers toward microbrews.

“Right now it’s really interesting,” Clare said. “In the beer industry there’s a major decline in the major labels. In Missoula there is an increase in craft beers.”

And it’s not just in Missoula. According to the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group representing more than 1,000 U.S. brewers, total beer sales in the United States were down 2.7 percent by volume in the first half of 2010. Craft beers, however, increased 9 percent by volume and 12 percent in retail dollars during the same period.

Montana’s 23 state-registered microbreweries increased their barrel production by 8 percent in 2009, according to the Montana Brewers Association, putting out over 2,325,000 gallons each year.

Missoula, though, is becoming a hops-and-barley haven for craft beer lovers, and the brewery owners from the Flathead said they understand the importance of becoming part of that culture.

“It’s the new craft city of the USA,” Clare said. “It really is going to be on the map for the beer.”

Townsley said she felt a similar excitement about Tamarack’s new venture.

“Missoula was kind of a no-brainer for us,” she said. “The beer culture in that town is so positive and so happening. There’s just an energy in Missoula that we really love.”

That’s not to say the beer business is an easy one. Distribution is often a challenge, especially when it comes to getting beers on tap in a new bar or restaurant.

A brewery has to have enough pull with the patrons to get its tap handles up on the bar, Clare said, which means pushing another beer off the menu. The situation presents a sort of Catch-22 in the brewing world.

“People have to want your beer,” Clare said. “But to do that, you have to expose your beer to the people.”

Enter the satellite taprooms. Instead of trying to get their brews into bars and restaurants one at a time, Clare said it made more business sense to have a base-camp taproom where they could feature 10 of their own recipes.

For licensing and distribution purposes, the taproom is technically a different business from the brewery, which is owned by Clare’s father, Greg Johnston. They have a similar set up at the Tamarack, Townsley said.

The move south provides another much-needed business artery, Clare said.

“For us here in the winter time it really, you know, it dies out a little bit,” she said. “It helped with survival. It keeps us really a year-round business.”

Already, Clare said sales at FLBC’s brewery in Woods Bay have increased and they’re producing at full capacity.

“If things keep going the way they’re going in a year we’re going to outgrow our place,” Clare said.

That might mean expanding their current facility or building a new one. Either way, the heart of the business – the brewery – will stay in the Bigfork and Woods Bay area, Clare said.

Any further taproom expansions would likely take place out of Montana, Clare said. A move west to Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, could be a possibility.

“This (expansion to Missoula) happened literally within three days,” Clare said. “You never know where the next turn is going to take you.”

At the Tamarack, the owners are not looking to add another limb to the brewery’s family tree. The shift to Missoula is a big enough stretch for now, Townsley said.

The brewery is rooted in Lakeside for a reason, she added.

“Quality of life,” Townsley said. “Proximity is a big thing for us; we don’t want to forget why we came (here).”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.