Craft Brewing’s New Kids on the Block

By Beacon Staff

The tanks are installed and the glasses stocked at the Kalispell Brewing Company. Now comes the fun part: making beer. The owners of the Flathead Valley’s newest brewery say after more than two years of work, the downtown taproom will finally open some time in June.

And Kalispell Brewing Company isn’t the only new kid on the block. Cabinet Mountain Brewing Company in downtown Libby is also gearing up for an early summer start. Both breweries are opening their doors as Montana’s craft beer scene continues to grow and prosper, according to Montana Brewers Association Executive Director Tony Herbert. According to the association, Montana currently has 45 operating breweries with another seven licensed and waiting in the wings. Nationwide in 2013, there were more than 2,700 breweries and another 1,700 being planned.

“I think people like to have choices and craft beer offers drinkers that choice,” Herbert said.

The husband-and-wife team behind Kalispell Brewing Company, brewmaster Cole Schneider, 31, and beer ambassador Maggie Doherty, 32, have long dreamed of starting their own brewery. Doherty first worked in a brewery in Michigan when she was 16 years old and Schneider has been brewing at home for more than a decade. The two met on the slopes of Big Mountain in 2010 and were married in 2012, about the same time they purchased the brewery’s new home in downtown Kalispell.

After purchasing the building on the corner of Fourth and Main streets, the couple began the long process of gutting and remodeling the interior, while still trying to retain the structure’s historic charm.

While Doherty acknowledges that building the brewery has taken longer than expected, the couple said they wanted to get it right the first time. They also said there were a gamut of permits and impact fees they needed to navigate and address, and it was especially tough being Kalispell’s first new brewery in decades.

“I think being the city’s first brewery (in nearly 60 years) is tough because they’ve never had to deal with it before and I think there was a big learning curve for everyone,” Doherty said. “But we had a commitment to doing this right and not taking any shortcuts.”

In 1894, the Kalispell Malting and Brewing Company was the town’s first beer maker, run by two German brothers. It survived Prohibition by selling “near beer,” essentially a brewing kit people could finish at home. It closed in 1955, but Doherty has been doing research on it and has dug up photos of the old brewery to hang in the new one.

Recently, the new Kalispell brewery got its state license and last week was beginning to make its first lager beer, which takes about five weeks to ferment. The brewing company will use a unique process called decoction to produce some of its beer. The method, once common in Europe centuries ago, requires part of the mash to be removed and boiled in a separate vessel before being put back into the main mash. Schneider said it’s time consuming but flavorful.

“You do it for flavor,” he said. “You really can’t mimic that flavor.”

The brewery’s 10-barrel system will produce five flagship beers and Doherty said there would also be room for some seasonal brews. The brews will also be served in a beer-specific glass; so a pilsner will be in a glass designed for a pilsner and a lager will be in a glass made for a lager. Schneider said it is common in Europe and will add to the drinkers’ overall experience.

Two hours down the road in Libby another brewery is also getting ready to sling cold ones. Kristin Smith and Sarah Dinning are leasing the old Cabinet Mountain Furniture, Pottery and Gifts building downtown and are remodeling it in hopes of opening Cabinet Mountain Brewing Company in mid-July. They’ve also hired a head brewer, Grant Golden, who currently works at Lompoc Brewing in Portland, Ore. Cabinet Mountain will be unique in that it will be the first entirely female-owned brewery in Montana, according to Smith.

Smith said building the brewery downtown was important to them because they wanted to help breath life into the area. Breweries have been known to spur local economies and the folks in Libby are hoping for the same. According to Herbert, Montana’s craft beer industry injected more than $50 million into the state economy and employed 450 people in 2011. With the opening of the breweries in Kalispell and Libby, Northwest Montana will have seven locations to enjoy a local beer.

Doherty said being downtown was also important for the Kalispell brewery. And even though the doors haven’t opened yet, the community has been incredibly supportive.

“We really believe in this town and thought it was time Kalispell had a brewery again,” she said. “I think people are excited in this town to have a brewery they can call their own.”

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