RONAN, Mont. – It’s all “hustle and bustle” at the Ronan Cooperative Brewery (RCB), with its recent opening, and just a slight bit of tension.
Could a rural co-op brewery be the beginning of revitalizing their beloved rural town in the northwestern region of the state?
No one disagrees that the Sept. 4 opening was an unmitigated success.
“The brewery has been very successful, so far. We have an older population in Ronan, but with the brewery, we have had all ages coming in. It is a great place to gather,” said Darci Jones, vice president of RCB’s board of directors, who runs an organic berry, vegetable and seed crop farm with her family. She sells her produce through a grower-driven cooperative, so she knows how co-ops operate.
“We have had rapid growth and we are working to keep up with demand. It is a good problem to have,” she added.
In the northwestern region of Montana, seed potatoes and family-run organic farms bloom.
While many of the RCB co-op board members and patrons are producers and townsfolk who are actively working during the day, others have “retired” and moved into homes in town.
Some folks have grown up in the beautiful, picturesque town, surrounded by mountains and the great Big Sky Country outdoors and all that that offers.
The co-op members/area folks realized early on that being able to raise a family in a small town – or on a nearby farm or ranch – offers a lot of things that bigger cities do not.
But none of it would be possible if their town closed up and went the way many rural towns often go.
“The community was saying, ‘We need economic development. Let’s create a community driven brewery,’” Jones said.
Mission West (formerly Lake County Community Development Center) helped the community with a series of meetings on revitalizing the town in 2016.
“We had Mission West help us with forming the cooperative through a series of community meetings because Ronan is struggling and many of our buildings are empty and antiquated,” she said.
The community knew of small towns in the state that have had craft breweries become a success, which led to the idea of a community-operated co-op brewery.
Once the community decided on the brewery model, the board members rolled up their sleeves and got busy – building a co-op brewery literally from scratch, with advice as needed from Mission West.
“Going as a cooperative was the right fit for our town, and we hope now that we have done it, other businesses (in town) will become cooperatives, too,” Jones said. “We can help them get a start, such as a Food Truck co-op, or a main food establishment/restaurant co-op, for example.”
Most of RGB’s 300-plus investors are from Montana, but a few are from out of state. Each paid $250.
“They have a few benefits, but what they really did is they invested in Ronan,” she said.
Cooperatives help other cooperatives – that is the way co-ops are supposed to work.
RCB received funding from Shared Capital in Minnesota, a cooperative lender.
“The co-op lender was instrumental in making that last financial hurdle possible,” Jones said. “We needed the loan to get the construction done and be able to have the head brewer start before we opened.”
The whole town pitched in to help the brewery get up and running.
“The local telephone company helped us move equipment and others have helped us, too – people have been extremely helpful,” she said.
The co-op moved into an old Masonic building, renting about a third of it. It required a lot of updates, including plumbing and electrical updates.
“We worked together to turn it into a brewery,” said Bob Hall, who is a University of Montana professor of freshwater ecology stationed at Flathead Lake Biological Field Station.
Now, RCB is one-of-a-kind in Montana.
“We’re the only cooperative brewery in the state. And we’re a real co-op, where every member gets one vote,” Jones said.
The brewery needed beer, of course, but who could make the recipes?
Hall stepped up to fill the void. He was able to whip up several recipes for craft beers, creating both pale and stout beers with low alcohol content.
“I’ve been a home-brewer for 30 years and developed these recipes over the years,” Hall said.
Hall uses two-row malted barley purchased from Montana Craft Malt, which buys high quality grain from Montana barley growers.
“We are proud to use Montana-grown malt in our beer,” Jones said.
While Hall had initially purchased hops from the Yakima Valley, now he is looking into buying hops from local producers in the area.
“I am headed to a hops farm in Bigfork with our head brewer to see about purchasing hops from a farmer,” he said. “Our aim is to buy local products.”
Hall created his own recipe for a beer known as India Pale Ale (IPA), a golden amber ale with lots of hops and an “intense hop aroma.” He plans to continue tinkering with the recipes as he goes.
“We sell five beers right now,” Jones said. “The beer is very good – it is quality. We have two IPAs, a lighter summer easy drinking ale, an Alt, the most popular amber ale seller that has a malt taste to it, and a stout beer, a chocolate coffee with nutmeg and cinnamon it that is surprisingly light. I don’t know how they did it.”
Hall keeps the alcohol low to follow the spirit of a cooperative community brewery.
“Alcohol is low on all the beer so people can have another one,” Hall said.
Jones added that that way folks can gather, play board games, build community and “chat at the brewery.”
Hall started a month before the Ronan Cooperative Brewery opened in September, helping to brew beer.
Making beer takes at least three weeks, and it should not be stored too long, according to Hall.
“It takes a day to make it and then we ferment and condition the beer, which takes three weeks. At that point, we want it consumed 2-3 weeks after that,” Hall said.
There was a little uncertainty when he and head brewer James Myers, a resident of Ronan for 10 years, started the process.
The brewery purchased used equipment from the Saratoga Inn in Wyoming, which helped keep the cost more reasonable.
“We were a little nervous because neither I, nor the head brewer, had used this equipment before,” he said. “Thankfully, it went off fine. We also had a professional brewer come (from Seattle) and help us for the first few batches.”
Jones said they use social media to get out the word about the new co-op, and it doesn’t hurt to have 350 owners talk to others to help promote the brewery.
“They are promoters, as well as members,” she said.
While attendance has mostly been about in-state people, eventually they would like to attract tourists.
“We aren’t a destination brewery yet,” Hall said.
Just give them a few years – and who knows?
“Coffee, we don’t have it yet, but that is on the to-do list,” Jones added.
And food? Maybe that will happen later, as well.
For now – they are brewing up some of the best beer around the region and doing it as a cooperative, as well.