A Brewing Renaissance

By Beacon Staff

EUREKA – In the back of Chris Neill’s workshop, tanks, kegs and fermenters are stashed in corners waiting for the day Homestead Ales opens. Power tools used to build the taproom are out with thermometers used to make the beer. And hanging from a chalkboard is a small cardboard sign that reads, “Will Work For Beer.”

Across the United States, Montana and the Flathead Valley, brewers are doing just that.

In 2012, there were 2,403 breweries operating in the United States, the highest total since the 1880s. According to the Brewers Association, the craft beer industry in America produced 1.7 million more barrels of beer in 2012 than it did in 2011. Some of those barrels came from Montana, which is ranked second in the nation for breweries per capita and could claim the No. 1 spot by the end of the year.

According to the Montana Brewers Association, there are 40 craft breweries in the state. Northwest Montana has five breweries, including the Flathead Lake Brewing Co., which is moving into a bigger facility in Bigfork. By the end of the summer, there could be seven from Polson to Eureka.

The industry’s growth in Montana isn’t restricted to breweries. People like Tom Britz are looking to turn the Flathead into the “Napa Valley” of beer by studying the possibility of a commercial hops crop here in Montana. An acre of Britz’s land near Kalispell has been cordoned off to grow the critical ingredient for beer and he says hops could become a big industry for the area.

Tony Herbert, executive director of the Montana Brewers Association, says the growth of America’s craft beer scene shows no sign of stopping.

“As a region, the Flathead Valley is doing great,” he said. “(But) this isn’t just a Montana phenomenon, it’s going on across the nation.”

Right now, it’s just a gutted and empty old bowling alley. But Flathead Lake Brewing Company general manager Sandy Clare says that will all change on June 15, when the first tanks are rolled into the brewery’s new home on Holt Drive in Bigfork. Last year, the brewery announced it was outgrowing its building in Woods Bay and was moving a few miles north. Clare said the move will give the brewery, established in 2004, room to expand. Currently, the brewery can produce 2,000 barrels of beer annually. The new building will have the capacity for 10,000 barrels every year. Clare said beer will be produced at the facility by this fall, and the taproom and restaurant will open early next year.

Besides increased production and more space, Clare says the move means the brewery will hire 15 more people. According to the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, the craft beer industry is responsible for more than 430 jobs in the state and, according to the Brewers Association, more than 108,000 nationwide.

Flathead Lake Brewing has no plans to close the Woods Bay taproom, which means it will now have three locations in western Montana. The company opened a Missoula restaurant in 2010. Clare said the downtown Missoula location has given the brewery the opportunity to expand into another market. It’s the same reason Lakeside’s Tamarack Brewing Company opened a Missoula operation in 2011.

Tamarack’s co-owner Josh Townsley isn’t worried that more breweries and taprooms will mean a smaller piece of the market for his business.

“I think it’s a good thing, because then we’ll become a craft beer destination,” he said.

There’s also a level of cooperation and camaraderie among the brewers, according to Glacier Brewing Company’s Dave Ayers, who opened his Polson brewery in 2003. He says it’s common for brewers to call each other to borrow a tool or a bag of barley. At the end of the day, Ayers said, everyone is just trying to make the best product they can.

“I can’t imagine doing this business without the camaraderie,” he said. “That would be a sad way of doing things.”

Tap handles lined up behind the bar at Flathead Lake Brewing Co. in Woods Bay. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Marcus Duffey, general manager and part owner of Great Northern Brewing Company in Whitefish, says the number of quality brewers in the region also keeps his crew on its toes. Opened in 1995, Great Northern is the oldest brewery in the area. Duffey says when other brewers produce a new beer, he’s excited to try it – and then try and outdo it.

Great Northern has become a staple in Whitefish, thanks to popular events like the Black Star Beer Barter and the Hop Swap, where people can trade freshly picked hops for freshly brewed beer. Solidifying the Great Northern brand both locally and regionally is Duffey’s long-term goal.

“I’d love to perfect what we’re doing right here,” he said.

Walking under a scorching midday sun, Tom Britz yelled for his two dogs.

“Gus, Bailey, get back here!” he screamed up the rows of planted rhizome.

Rhizome is a root that grows into bines – not vines – and eventually produces hops. Seventeen varieties of the root are planted on Britz’s ranch between Whitefish and Kalispell. The roots were planted this year as part of a study to see if hops can be produced in the Flathead Valley on a commercial scale. Britz says Pat McGlynn of Montana State University’s Flathead County Extension Office came up with the idea last year. The Montana Department of Agriculture provided more than $11,000 for the project and Great Northern Brewing and Tamarack Brewing matched the grant together.

“Hops will grow in Northwest Montana, without a doubt,” Britz said. “The question is what variety will produce a commercial crop.”

Britz says it will take four years for the crop to mature, but some hops could be picked next year. Although it looks like a barren acre of dirt – with 18-foot poles strategically erected to hold a wire canopy and irrigation system – Britz says next summer the rows of rhizome will become a “wall of green.”

Britz believes Montana-made hops could be marketable regionally, but especially locally.

“This first step could help the valley become an epicenter for the Montana beer economy. This could be the Napa Valley of beer,” he said. “Assuming it goes right, we’ll have to put up some sort of small-scale processing system here.”

After hops are picked, they must be dried and pelletized before being shipped to a brewery, but the valley lacks the necessary infrastructure for processing. However, if a processing system were built here, Britz says it could bring more jobs to the area and boost the economy.

Flathead Lake Brewing Co.’s Tim Jacoby checks his boil while making a brown ale at the brewery’s location in Woods Bay. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Beer is already giving the state’s economy a boost, according to the UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research, which reported the craft beer industry produced nearly $50 million in private-sector sales and $9.8 million in nonfarm compensation. From 2010 to 2011, production rose 18 percent, while sales went up 20 percent.

“These numbers show the tremendous potential for Montana’s breweries to continue to create jobs and wealth in Montana,” Herbert, with the Montana Brewers Association, said.

Rod Douglas’ homemade oatmeal stout could be described as creamy, mild and dark as night. Douglas is a member of the Flathead’s growing homebrewing community and has been making his own stouts and pale ales for about a year and a half. Douglas started with beer kits but soon began creating his own recipes.

“Beer can be as simple as making oatmeal for breakfast or it can go to the extremes,” he said.

Douglas is also a member of the Flathead Valley Homebrewers Association that was formed in 2012 by Junior Szklarz and Karen Witt, who own The Beer Store in Kalispell. Witt said they saw a need for an informal homebrewers group because there was no place for people to get together and talk and sample homebrew. The group’s first meeting was in November and it has grown every month, with 20 to 40 people attending each event. Everyone brings $8 and a growler of their own creation.

Szklarz and Witt started brewing in 2009 but had talked about doing it for more than a decade. It took a visit from a neighbor who also made beer to finally give them the courage to do it themselves.

“It was all downhill from that,” Szklarz said.

Szklarz and Witt often spend weekends and evenings perfecting recipes they’ve created. Szklarz said it’s not uncommon for them to try five or six versions of the same beer until they get it right. Using a variety of grains and hops available at their homebrew store, which is located inside Szklarz’s Brass and Bullets LLC shop, the couple says it takes almost a month to make just one batch of beer, even longer if they want it to ferment more.

But the best part of their hobby is sharing it with friends, Szklarz said. He added that the couple has no plans of trying to sell their creations. Douglas agrees.

“These craft brewers are a lot like wine fans,” he said. “They do it because they like making beer.”

Chris Neill is an easygoing guy with an easygoing laugh. It’s a persona that seems to contradict the situation he’s facing at Homestead Ales, on Grave Creek just south of Eureka. Neill and his partners at the new brewery hope to open sometime in June, but there are still state and federal licenses that must be approved, a taproom to be completed and beer to be made. In early May, the tanks aren’t even set up, but Neill doesn’t seemed worried.

“It seems never ending, but it’s always getting one step closer,” he said, standing in the unfinished space. “I’m looking forward to the brewing part, instead of the construction.”

Neill builds furniture and cabinets out of his workshop. He and his wife moved to Eureka 16 years ago to raise a family and a few years ago he started making beer for fun and because he’s a big supporter of the local food and drink movement.

“I like knowing where my food comes from, so it’s another thing I can make,” he said. “People loved the beer, so I figured what the hell, Eureka could use a brewery.”

Desert Mountain Brewing and Draughthaus, which opened in Columbia Falls in March, and Kalispell Brewing Company, which is expected to open this summer, have similar roots – homebrewers who wanted to share their craft. Maggie Doherty co-owns the new Kalispell brewery and said she and her husband, Cole Schneider, have been working on the project since 2011. They purchased a building downtown last year and plan on opening late this summer.

Just like other brewers in the region, Doherty is pleased to see the craft beer scene in Northwest Montana growing. Some say it’s because people want to spend a little more for a quality product. Others say it’s because people want to know where their food and drink is coming from. But Doherty may have said it best.

“Beer makes people happy,” she said.

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