20 Years of Brewing Beer in Bigfork

As one of Montana’s oldest breweries passes the two-decade mark, its owners rewind through the years that forged them into a lakefront staple

By Micah Drew
Taps at Flathead Lake Brewing Co. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead Lake Brewing Company began, as breweries so often do, without the intention of becoming the full-time career for the Johnston Family. 

In 2004, Sandy Johnston, and her then-husband Terry, bought a nano brewery from their friend Lisa, who owns the Raven in Woods Bay. 

“We kind of just bought a concept at the time,” Sandy said. “We didn’t really know what we wanted to do with it. We thought it was going to just a fun little hobby that would maybe be a little bit of income on the side.”

Renting the old hardware store across the highway from the Raven, Sandy opened the doors of Flathead Lake Brewing Company for the first time. At the time, there were just 25 microbreweries operating in Montana.

Their hopes for the brewery to be essentially a side hustle were dashed within a year, after they submitted two of their creations to the prestigious World Beer Cup. 

Since 1996, the World Beer Cup has identified the top three beers in each style recognized by The Brewers Association, essentially a malt- and hop-filled Olympiad. Pitted against established breweries such as Firestone Walker, Leinenkugel, and Left Hand Brewing, FLBC earned a bronze medal for their Peg Leg porter, and a silver for their Mutiny Stout (since renamed the 369’ Stout, best enjoyed when poured on nitro). 

Owner Sandy Johnston, marketing manager Sarah Peterson and owner Greg Johnston of Flathead Lake Brewing Co. in Bigfork on Feb. 27, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“I’ll never forget when Terry called me from the World Beer Cup, telling me we won two awards in our first competition,” Sandy recalls. “We were the youngest brewery to ever have done that and suddenly we realized this could become something more. Things started to really boom.”

Twenty years later, FLBC is one of the oldest breweries still operating in the state — over that period just in the Flathead Valley four breweries have opened and closed. 

“We’re kind of the old guard in Montana brewing now and that’s a really special place to be in,” Sandy said. “You see the new kids on the block and feel kind of like an older sibling, getting to watch them grow and develop, but having fun knowing we were an original.” 

Despite 20 years of changes and turmoil, if you walk into the Bigfork brewpub you’ll still find the same small town “cheers” atmosphere it’s always been known for, award-winning brews on tap and never-ending plans to keep doing more. 

Flathead Lake Brewing Co. in Bigfork on April 3, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Eight years into the brewery’s life, Flathead Lake Brewing Company needed to grow up. At the time, Sandy still ran the brewery, with her father, Greg, joining her in the venture. As demand for microbrew exploded across the state and the country, however, it was clear they’d outgrown their small Woods Bay locale and its 10-barrel brewing system, and they set their eyes on a spot five miles to the north. 

“We bought this old bowling alley as is,” Greg said from a bar stool in FLBC’s current location in the heart of Bigfork overlooking the shores of Flathead Lake. “I’d say it’s my one regret, buying this place as is, but it let us fully remodel the building and make it into one of the most sustainable brewhouses in the country.”

Over the better part of three years, the old bowling alley was completely remodeled, but the modus operandi was to reclaim, reuse and recycle as much material as possible, making FLBC one of the first fully sustainable breweries in the country. For the ceiling fans, the crew repurposed old jib sails from boats that once cruised around Flathead Lake. As workers cleared trees on the property, they were milled and used as trim inside the new brewpub, with an array of solar panels adding to the sustainable design alongside a geothermal heating and cooling system, which runs on clean effluent borrowed from the Bigfork Water and Sewer and waste from the brewing process is given to local farms to use as livestock feed. 

Even the bar top is reclaimed, a relic of the original Woods Bay taproom.

“We moved here for the environment, for the beauty of this place and we wanted to make sure that we were responsible in how we conducted our business,” Sandy said. “If we were going to build something that we wanted to last, we wanted it to fit into the environment we’re living in now. It meant spending a lot of extra research, time and money, but it was absolutely worth it.”

The new brewpub debuted over Valentine’s Day weekend in 2015 and increased the brewery’s capacity from 800 barrels a year to 8,000. But the Johnstons didn’t stop their innovating ways there.

 In 2019, they added a sour beer room to the pubhouse cellar, a temperature-controlled environment in which the brewers could experiment with barrel-aged sour beers. The beer is inoculated with a wild yeast strain that takes between six and 24 months to mature into a melange of tart flavors that are offered on tap and as special bottle releases. 

Next on deck was another kitchen expansion and the addition of the pizza cellar, which began serving just before COVID hit. The lower floor features a lounge atmosphere with its own deck overlooking the lake. The Cellar is open three days a week and offers New York-style pizza along with a full complement of taps. 

Most recently, the addition of a new two-barrel brewing system has allowed head brewer Logan Nelson to begin experimenting with small-batch brews.

“That’s one of our big goals for the near future — become more experimental,” said marketing manager Sarah Peterson. “Things can’t always be standard. You’ve got to change them up and see if the public likes what we come up with. We took four brand new styles to the Bigfork Brewfest, and that was a fun way to engage with the community differently — see what they like and what we should make more of.” 

Artwork at Flathead Lake Brewing Co. in Bigfork on Feb. 27, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In 20 years of operating, FLBC has become a pillar of the Bigfork community, which Sandy says is crucial to the success of the brewery — it’s always been about more than just beer. 

FLBC hosts monthly Science on Tap events with the Flathead Lake Biological Station and the Flathead Lakers and have regular comedy night. They’ve bought new uniforms for Bigfork High School’s track team and sponsored scholarships for graduates; the kitchen staff help supply school lunches one day a week to ensure kids can eat healthy, local food.

“This community has always backed us 100%, and we do what we can to return that,” she said. “Just like the way we built this brewpub, those relationships are circular and sustainable.”

As for the next 20 years? Sandy says the only plan is for the brewery to do more: more with the community, more with the brewpub, and more with the basic art of brewing beer itself, as well as the amount of brewing — Greg points out that they’re currently only using around half of their brewing capacity. 

“At some point it becomes a simple question of ‘is it still fun?’ And if it isn’t, then why do it?” Sandy said. “Everyone we work with and everyone in this community makes it fun.” 

“When you get to a certain age, you think about whether life was fun and whether you’ve made a difference, and I think both of those are true for us. And as long as they are, I don’t think we’ll run out of energy to keep doing what we’re doing.”