BIGFORK, Mont. –The Flathead Lake Brewing Co. celebrated its 15th anniversary last month with a week-long party and a limited-edition Bière de Garde, a farmhouse ale brewed with more than 200 pounds of locally-grown Sweetheart cherries, aged six months in oak barrels and released on tap and in 750ml cork and cage bottles.
The brewery is one of the 84 craft breweries in 45 communities across Montana generating $442 million annually and supporting 2,732 jobs in agriculture, tourism and manufacturing, according to the Montana Brewers Association.
There’s little doubt: craft brewing is here to stay – and it’s hyper local.
“We advertise that we use locally-grown malt,” said David Brendgard, director of brewery operations at The Flathead Lake Brewing Co. “Anyone who grew up in Montana has a friend or family member in the agriculture business and that does play a role in our business model. The raw materials come from the region, and then the product is consumed here.”
Brewer Greg Johnston started the Flathead Lake Brewing Co. in Woods Bay, Mont., in 2004. The brewery has since won two World Beer Cup awards, a Bronze medal for the Peg Leg Porter (now the Painted Rock Porter) and a Silver medal for the Mutiny Stout (now the 369′ Stout). It sells beer on tap and in cans and bottles in stores throughout Montana and Northern Wyoming.
In 2015, Sandy Johnston, the founder’s daughter, converted an old bowling alley in Bigfork into the FLBC Pubhouse, a green restaurant and bar. Last year, the Pubhouse received the inaugural Sustainabrew award sponsored by the Montana Brewers Association, the Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund and the Montana Renewable Energy Association. This year, the brewery placed third in the nationwide Brews from the Sun competition put on by Solar United Neighbors.
The Pubhouse has plans to convert their basement into a lounge and music venue and later this year FLBC will expand its lineup of craft brews served there by releasing two new styles, the Zero Day Double IPA and Fair Winds Scotch Ale.
The brewery uses malt from Malteurop in Great Falls, Mont., which creates base, specialty and distilling malts for craft brewers and distillers. It collaborates with craft brewers and barley growers to develop new varietals.
“Part of being sustainable is getting locally-grown and malted grain,” Brendgard said. “We feel it’s important to be a part of the local supply chain. We know the source of our grain and we’re supporting the local economy in the state of Montana. Every brewpub thinks that.”
It’s why visiting a local brewery is a top 10 activity for tourists in Montana, according to a recent report from University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Economic Research.
Most malt used by Montana craft breweries is processed by large facilities like Malteurop, but two smaller craft malting facilities operate in the state and a larger facility is under construction in Butte. The $15 million Montana Craft Malt facility will produce 10,000 tons of malt barley a year. It will be the state’s only craft beer malt-house making product exclusively from Montana-grown barley.
Not too long ago most of Montana's barley was grown for animal feed, but now the majority is sold for malting, said Jamie Sherman, director of Montana State University’s Barley Breeding Program, which develops barley varieties for malting.
“It’s more effort and investment for farmers to grow barley for the malting industry, but it’s much more profitable to sell to maltsters than to sell that product as feed grain, which is lower quality grain and doesn’t sell for as much,” Brendgard said. “For maltsters that grain is worth three to four times as much if it passes inspection.”
Malting involves soaking, partially germinating and drying grain to preserve its sugars and enzymes. It’s an art as much as a science and it’s what differentiates a Pilsner and from a Scotch ale and a Pale Ale from an India Pale Ale.
Last month, the 2019 Craft Malt Conference organized by the North American Craft Maltsters Guild and held at MSU featured a tasting of nine beers produced by Montana brewers and a tour of MSU's Malt Quality Lab, one of two labs in the country that offer their services to independent craft maltsters.
Montana, with its high-quality barley, state-of-the-art breeding program and lab and numerous breweries was a natural fit for the conference, which illustrated just how connected the industry is to agriculture. Malthouses contract with growers after consulting with brewers about quantities and beer styles.
“I tell the maltster, ‘We’re going to buy 200,000 pounds of malt in 2020,’ and they give contracts to growers, ‘This is how much we’re going to produce, this is how much acreage I’d like you to plant,’” Brendgard said. “We like contracts because it stabilizes the pricing market for our raw materials, but we all have to work together otherwise we get too many acres of the wrong sort and over or under producing effects prices.”
The brewery produces 4,000 barrels of beer annually, which calls for approximately 200,000 pounds of malt and 3,500 pounds of hops. About 80 percent of FLBC’s malt comes from Montana-grown two-row barley known for its low protein and high plump. Occasionally, FLBC brewers use specialty malts from Wisconsin to brew stouts, which have distinctive head retention, color and flavor, Brendgard said.
Most of the hops used by FLBC brewers come from Washington’s Yakima Valley. Hops are finicky like grapes; they prefer a certain elevation, pH and climate.
“In the craft beer industry hops are everything,” Brendgard said. “The Noble Hops in Europe have low alfa acids and low aroma, but today every beer drinker wants super bitter, hop-forward beer and the U.S. is the forerunner in planting these new modern variety hops like Mosaic and Simcoe, which brew aromatic, bitter IPAs.”
Occasionally, FLBC brewers will collect hops from the Glacier Hop Ranch, an experimental hop farm in Kallispell, Mont. The hops are gathered directly from the field, loaded into burlap sacks and that day brewed into fresh hop ale, which captures the uniquely mild flavor and aroma of just-picked hops.
“The thought is if we can grow cherries here, we can grow hops in the Valley,” Brendgard said.
The locally-grown cherries in the anniversary Bière de Garde come directly from the fields that skirt Flathead Lake. Brewers used 100 pounds of whole cherries and another 100 pounds of cherry juice produced from Flathead cherries juiced in Columbia Falls, Mont. to make 10 barrels of the anniversary beer.
It’s all about being local.
“It is an American-made industry,” he said. “Almost all the products we use are American-grown products and we employ the local community and distribute to the local community.”