Brewing Community

In the Mission Valley community of Ronan, locals turn to beer to help revitalize downtown

By Butch Larcombe
A flight of beers at Ronan Cooperative Brewery in Ronan on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Jessie Mazur/Picture Montana

Nearly a century ago, Ronan, the little community framed by the spectacular Mission Mountains and bounded by seemingly endless farm and grazing land, was proud of itself. Between Polson and St. Ignatius, the local newspaper declared Ronan to be the “Center City,” a community able to meet just about any commercial need.

The mountains remain but the newspaper, The Pioneer, is long gone. Ronan, like so many smaller Montana communities, finds itself in a need of a fresh jolt of commercial activity and civic pride. While thousands of vehicles scurry through Ronan daily on U.S. Highway 93, few turn into the city’s downtown, an area dotted with empty storefronts and faded paint.

But local residents are fighting back. One of the key weapons? Beer.

Working with the Mission West Cooperative Development Center about five years ago, folks interested in revitalizing Ronan developed a community assessment process. The assessment sought answers to questions like “how can we bring people to Main Street Ronan,” recalls area resident Darci Jones. “The main result was brewery, brewery, brewery.”

A community meeting that drew more than 100 folks led to a committee tasked to develop a community-owned brewery. Over two years, there was discussion of operating ground rules, alcohol regulations, questions about management and of course, financing. While Montana is awash in breweries, with almost 100 in 2022, according to the Montana Brewers Association, most are privately owned, financed by deep pockets or a hefty load of debt.

In the initial stages, more than 200 people ponied up $250 each to buy shares in the Ronan Cooperative Brewery. Organizers, committed to using many ingredients produced in Montana if possible, landed a state Growth in Agriculture grant. They also landed a loan from Shared Capital, a Minnesota-based cooperative lending and investment fund.

Patrons of Ronan Cooperative Brewery in Ronan enjoy beers on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Jessie Mazur/Picture Montana

The initial sale of shares was “a generous response from the community,” says Jim Myers, a member of the brewery’s first board of directors and now the head brewer. The brewery was started with about $287,000 in the bank. 

“It sounds like a lot of money unless you want to start a brewery,” Myers says.

The brewery found a spot to lease in a former Masonic Lodge just off Main Street and relied on volunteers for remodeling work. They also scrounged around for used brewing equipment, finding some key components in Wyoming.

From its conceptual days, the brewery, which has just two full-time employees, has relied on its nine-member volunteer board of directors, who share backgrounds ranging from agriculture and science to sales and banking. Decision-making has been largely harmonious.

“We are pretty careful not to trample all over each year,” said board member Bob Hall.

Since it began serving beer in September 2020, the brewery has seen its shareholder list grow to more than 450. And those who stop in seem to like the beer. The menu board includes the typical items you would see at a local brewery – a pale ale, an IPA and a Kolsch. But Myers, the brewer, and Hall, an avid homebrewer and beer judge, also take pride in producing traditional German styles including Marzen, Meibock and Dunkel.

“What we’ve found by and large,” Myers says, “is that Ronan likes malty beers. Ronan has been pretty good about trying new things.”

The brewery battled a strong headwind from its opening day in the form of a global pandemic. After years of work and with brewing equipment ready to go and loan payments looming, the brewery unlocked its door with no certainty that customers would show up. 

“At some point, you just have to open, so we did,” says Jones, the board vice president.

Fresh beer is poured at Ronan Cooperative Brewery in Ronan on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Jessie Mazur/Picture Montana

There were bumpy times and the brewery relied heavily on special events to generate revenue in its early days. The brewery also landed federal funding to help it stay open and pay its employees during the pandemic.

At the end of its first year, the brewery posted a small profit, thanks in part to the federal money. But board members say relatively low overhead expenses and community support have the brewery close to operating in the black.

“It looks optimistic,” says Anssi DuMontier, a board member. “It’s not far from being a profitable business.”

But making a profit isn’t the primary goal of the cooperative enterprise. “The brewery was definitely founded with the idea of bringing people downtown and providing a gathering place,” says Kaylee Thornley, director of the Mission West Cooperative Development Center, the non-profit that helped with the early planning.

In Thornley’s eyes, the cooperative structure is a good fit for the little brewery. “There is no single owner that is trying to make a bunch of money,” she says. “There are other goals along with being a sustainable business. It goes beyond the monetary aspect of it.”

Matt Leow, the executive director of the Montana Brewers Association, credits the community’s drive and persistence for making the brewery a reality. “Rather than just hoping it happens someday, they took the steps to start a co-op and made it happen as a community,” he says, noting while there are no other co-op breweries in Montana, the Ronan model could easily be replicated elsewhere.

The ground rules established for the brewery required it be located downtown, not along U.S. Highway 93, which offers greater visibility, more traffic and likely more potential customers. A number of tent signs along the highway are an attempt to steer folks to the brewery just off Main Street.

The taps at Ronan Cooperative Brewery in Ronan on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Jessie Mazur/Picture Montana

A group called the Ronan Revitalization Committee, part of the local Chamber of Commerce, has taken the reins in improving the appearance and attractiveness of downtown Ronan and encouraging new businesses to locate there.

“There are a lot of layers and nuances, but from my perspective it seemed a number of businesses left Main Street for various reasons,” says Whitney Liegakos, a member of the revitalization committee who works for St. Luke Community Healthcare in community education and public relations. “Maybe they needed to be closer to the highway, maybe they didn’t have a succession plan or someone to pass the business on to, maybe they just couldn’t make it in a small town. For whatever reason, the number of vacant storefronts grew and it visibly affected the look and feel of the town.”

A drive down Main Street offers a clear view of the challenge. Late in 2021, the marquee on the Entertainer movie theater displayed only one word: Closed. Even the Main Street face of the building occupied by the brewery sits vacant.

But there has been progress. Several new businesses, including a tea-and-soup shop, and another selling popcorn, have opened on Main Street. Armed with grant money from Mission West and Glacier Bank, the revitalization committee has worked with volunteers and local contractors to spruce up a mechanics shop on Main Street with stucco repair and fresh paint. The shop is now occupied. The building also features a new tin mural that depicts the town’s Main Street in about 1910.

There are plans for additional murals, Liegakos says, noting that the grant money has also helped pay for the installation of bike racks designed by a local high school student. The committee has ideas for additional projects, and is working to improve communication about events and potential marketing opportunities.

Many of the revitalization committee members are shareholders in the brewery and view it not just as a source of good beer but a community hub.  Likewise, brewery board members are very supportive of the broader community development work taking place.

“The brewery has always been more than just beer,” says Jones. It’s about how do we make this town thrive and be a sustainable community.”

For more information, visit www.ronancoopbrewery.com.