Drink 'til MT - Craft Beer in Big Sky Country

 
 

By Chris McClellan

I've got a college buddy who lives in Bozeman, Montana. He's a Vermonter like me, but was seemingly destined to live his life somewhere in big sky country. All the college friends saw it coming.  He's a sort of modern-day cowboy; well-educated, outdoorsy, and fun. He moved to Montana right after college, and our entire east coast based crew busted him up for that. We said, "Cody, you moved 2000 miles away from us...you'll never be able to meet up with us out there". His response was usually something that amounted to "Eh...". He clearly wasn't worried.

Cody got married this past summer and I finally had a chance to visit Montana for the first time. I can now understand, in absolute confidence, why he responded that way, and why he'll never leave. It was one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, and without tooting my own horn too much, I've seen some pretty spectacular places in the world. I literally can't wait to go back.

I had to set the scene for you, simply because the feeling is still with me. Let's talk about Montana's kickass craft beer scene.

It's a beer scene that's been quietly gathering a huge head of steam in the past few years. I was staggered by the variety, quality, and sheer number of breweries that have sprouted on the Montana landscape over the past 10 years. Bozeman Brewing Company is one of the pioneers in Montana, and it was my honor to sit down with Tucker Kalberg, general manager at the brewery, to talk great beer, branding, and the growth of local business in Montana.

Bozeman Brewing Company's beers are about as ubiquitous as craft beer can be in a given geography, and there's good reason for that. Since its inception in 2001, and very quietly, they've turned into one of Montana's largest home-grown breweries, distributing within about 250 miles of the brewery. It pays to mention how impressive this achievement is, given Montana's enormity, physical geography, and population distribution. For a  brewer to cover an area the size of Montana, it would be the equivalent of an east-coast distribution footprint that included all of New England...and New York State...and New Jersey...and Maryland...and Delaware. By the way, Montana only has a million people in it.

Tucker's enthusiasm and humor was infectious, and he soon had me bobbing my head along with his seemingly endless line of anecdotes about his time at the brewery. "In terms of Montana, we fall in number seven in annual production out of 60 operating breweries in the state right now. At this point, we’re one of the old guys, but fortunately we've continued to evolve and keep people interested." When I mentioned the fact that I saw their beer in almost every bar, restaurant, and store I'd been to on my trip, he made sure to clue me into how much hard work it took to get to that point. "The local market is great now," he said, "In 2005 you fought tooth and nail for every handle you got. The craft scene is bustling now, but you can’t rest on your laurels."

A rising tide definitely floats all ships. We’re really excited to see the growth in craft beer here. More beer is great, as long as it’s still all about putting out a quality product.

The brewery's genesis is the classic story of great folks bitten by the urge to make great beer. Todd Scott, and his wife Lisa Danzl Scott, met while working in  Yellowstone National Park in the mid 80's. They're mutual love for each other, the outdoors, and the Montana countryside took them on a journey across the western US; from UC Davis where Todd took classes in brewing, and eventually back to Montana where Todd took a job working for Spanish Peaks Brewing while Lisa worked for the city. After 10 years at Spanish Peaks, the owners had decided to move production to California, and Todd and Lisa decided they didn't want to leave Montana. They opened Bozeman Brewing Company in northeastern Bozeman in 2001 and haven't looked back since.

Tucker got started in 2005 as a keg washer at the brewery (at the exact same time at their current head brewer Bill). "Most people at the brewery actually started as a keg washer. I began kegging the beer, then filtering the beer, and then helping to brew the beer.  I'm now GM of the entire operation." If anything, this sentiment resonated with me because of its authenticity, and highlighted a prevailing theme in people who work in beer industry...they're more than willing to take a risk in order to be happy. He continued, "I made the conscious decision to see where it could go by sticking my foot in the door with an unpaid internship. This year we're going to do 7000 barrels this year." I'd say that's a pretty good payoff.

Montana will continue to embrace local. We aren’t always able to get the goods and services you can find in major metropolitan areas, so you have to MacGyver it sometimes. You make it happen on your own because you have to.

On first impression, Montana seems distinctly antithetical to the regions of the country you most associate with great beer. Viewed through a political lens, historically conservative states like Montana, on balance, aren't opening breweries at nearly the pace of their more liberal neighbors. But Montana has seen the same percentage growth in breweries as the rest of our great nation, doubling the number (up to 60 now) since 2012. Their affinity for local beer is a result of the pioneering spirit that keeps Montana's communities so tight in the first place. Entrepreneurship is embraced in Montana in a thrilling way, and folks love to see you working hard for something you believe in. New breweries are making Bozeman Brewing company step up their game in innovative new ways, including a new barrel program (look for a Flanders Red coming soon...it'll blow your socks off) and a relatively new line of seasonally canned beers. All of their beers smack of quality, purity, and flavor. Trust me, I sampled them thoroughly, and I'm not just saying that.

As a marketing guy at heart, I had to ask Tucker about the branding side of the business. From my perspective, Bozeman's brand presents a complex case study in what a craft brewery can be; experiential in its messaging and imagery with a fierce tie-in to the the Montana ecosystem, culturally and physically.  They are proud of their heritage, and Tucker was quick to point out an example of this, highlighting the fact that 80% of the malt used to make their beers is made with malt that's grown and malted in Montana. You'll very rarely come upon a brewery with local credentials like that.

Their tagline, Drink 'Til MT, is a clever ode to Montana itself. But what I find most interesting in their brand architecture. The locals don't call it "Bozeman Brewing Company". In fact, I rarely heard that said. Instead, in casual conversation and on the cans of beer themselves, you'll find the words "Bozone". The "bozone" is the greater Bozeman area, and as such the beer reflects their geography. It's hard to say whether that sort of regional branding works effectively in a growing national craft industry, but I don't think these guys care that much, and neither do I.

The brewery recently finished their Fresh Hop Harvest beer, sourcing hops and malts only grown in Montana. I'm sure it was delicious. As the weather starts to get chilly, and the iconic Bridger mountains gather their layer of winter frosting, I'm truly stoked to see the evolution of great beer in Montana. There are so many delicious breweries in the state. If at all possible, I urge you to take a road trip through the state. I know I set the bar high, and I know you won't be disappointed.

 

Published October 2015 - (All photo credit, besides the first landscape shot, goes to Dan Armstrong Photography)