Joe Byers knows beer. The 34-year-old head brewer at Sacred Waters Brewing Company in Kalispell has worked at Tamarack Brewing Company and is currently the director of the Flathead Valley Community College’s Brewing Academy of Montana.
Last week, the Beacon sat down with him to talk about the local beer scene and his favorite brews.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and space.
Beacon: How did you get into brewing and how did you get to Sacred Waters?
Byers: I started brewing when I moved to Montana 10 years ago. I was living with a college buddy when the recession had just hit. We were home brewing and my buddy’s parents told us, “You know, this is a good skill, especially if the economy really takes a dive.” I was a year out of college at the time with a chemistry degree and I realized there was a lot of chemistry that goes into brewing and the light bulb went off in my head and I thought, “Hey, this is a way to justify my schooling.”
I eventually ended up at Tamarack Brewing Company working as a bartender and server. I soon started volunteering in the brewery itself. I learned a lot on the job, getting to know the equipment and the process. After spending a few years at Tamarack, I went to the FVCC’s brewing program in 2015 and then came here earlier this year.
Brewing has been a wonderful career. There is always something new to learn.
Beacon: What’s the big trend in craft beer right now?
Byers: Hazy IPAs are really popular right now. IPAs have been popular for a long time, but the Hazy New England-style IPA is really in right now. It’s sweet, it’s less bitter, it’s got juicy hoppy flavors. As soon as we made a hazy IPA, it was our most popular beer.
Beacon: What makes Sacred Waters stand out in the Northwest Montana craft beer landscape?
Byers: I think this space is absolutely beautiful. They went all out with this building. And then I think it’s the quality of beer. We have a really good and diverse selection of beers on tap. And when it’s not up to par we don’t serve it. It’s got to be top notch for us to serve it.
Beacon: On a hot summer day, what’s your favorite beer here?
Byers: The Belgian Wheat would be my first choice. It has a low alcohol content, it’s really crisp, and has a little bit of citrus in it. I like the funk that comes with the Belgian yeast we’re using for it, but it’s not too funky. It’s really approachable.
Beacon: What local beer are you drinking that you don’t make?
Byers: The SunRift Beer Company IPA. It’s a short bike ride from my house, so we’ll go down there a couple times a week to have a beer.
Beacon: Where do you see the local craft beer scene in five to 10 years?
Byers: Every student that comes through the FVCC brewing program tells me they want to open their own brewery and that’s good because I think there’s room for twice as many breweries as there are now. What I think will happen is there will be more smaller breweries, sort of like how every neighborhood has its own coffee shop. Bonsai in Whitefish and Backslope Brewing in Columbia Falls are perfect examples of that. Those are really great models. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we had 15 breweries in the Flathead Valley. I think we can become a destination not just because we’re close to Glacier National Park but a destination like Bend, Oregon, which has a bunch of breweries. That’s my hope.
Beacon: What’s your number one tip for home brewers?
Byers: Read, read, read and take notes and learn from those notes. There are a lot of different things going on when you’re making beer and you should try to learn from past efforts. Every beer I make has two or three pages of notes that go with it and that’s really the only way to improve. Hopefully you’re always improving and hopefully over time you’re making something you and your friends or family want to drink, or at least something your friends and family will choke down to make us feel good.
Beacon: What are you working on that you’re excited about?
Byers: We just ordered some Chardonnay barrels last week and brewed a saison in them that we’re going to age with some golden raisins. So it’ll be a sultana chardonnay saison. We’re hoping to release that in September. And then we’re also starting to work on our first anniversary beer that will come out in November.