Today, Lewis & Clark Brewing Co.’s tap room is tucked into the corner of the brewery on Helena’s Getchel Street where OSB sheeting serves as wall coverings and a heavy pine bar guards the tap handles. Visitors enter through a nondescript door and make their way past fermenters, mash tun, kegs and other brewery staples to enjoy one of the many flagship beers and frequently rotating seasonals.
On a recent Thursday evening, an eight piece brass band was setting up for some live entertainment. A brass band? The bartender said it was a first and we were both curious to see what would happen. When the band launched into a version of “Tequila” 30 minutes into their set, we had to admit it worked, particularly in the lively and eclectically simple space that is the Lewis & Clark tap room.
But big changes are on the way. Less than a mile away, on Dodge Ave., sits another eclectic building that dwarfs the current space in both size and character. Co-owner Max Pigman was kind enough to take time out of the busy construction work to give me a quick tour a couple of weeks ago. Talking with Max, it quickly becomes clear he has a passion for making beer, nearly equaled by his passion for and fascination with the history of the building set to become the new Lewis & Clark Brewery. The building is a curious hodgepodge of two original structures now surrounded by various additions built throughout its 120+ year history.
The oldest part of the building has seriously thick rock walls and dates to 1888. Its top floor, accessible by an ancient elevator of sorts, served as ice storage to cool the meat packing business for which the building was constructed. The ice room has wood walls and floors (and no windows) and the ceiling must be twenty feet up. Ice blocks would be cut from the area’s lakes and hoisted up to the storage area where the cool air would radiate down to the lower levels. A drainage system built into the wood floor carried the melting ice water out of the building. The building later became the Columbia Paint factory from its founding in the late 1940s until it’s closure in 2007.
Down on the lower levels, construction is ongoing at a frenetic pace turning the old structure into a modern brewery and tap room while retaining and revealing much of the wonderful old character. Visitors will enter the main entrance and walk past walls decorated with historic photographs. Metal bars on some interior windows – suggesting its one time use as a temporary jail – remind visitors of the building’s varied past. Opposite the barred windows, patrons can peer through windows into the far larger brewery facility to watch the operations. The main tap room has two levels, great natural light, and a long, concrete main bar. The upstairs part of the tap room will have the same chunk of pine that greets beer drinkers in the current location.
Other rooms will serve as a game room and stage for live music, group meetings, storage and possible expansion. Not that more space will be needed soon. The new brewery will allow Lewis & Clark to eventually increase production by a factor of five. An outdoor area provides a second stage for live music and plenty of room for outdoor seating. The surrounding fence is already planted with hops – as is a bed on the side of the building – providing a source of hops for their annual fresh hop ale.
The new location is also allowing Lewis & Clark to switch from bottles over to cans. Cans, Max says, are far cheaper to transport due to their lighter weight and have the added advantage of being impervious to light and more easily recycled. Another bonus? One canning machine replaces the four machines currently needed to bottle Lewis & Clark’s beers.
Lewis & Clark is shooting to open the new location around the week of June 20. All signs suggest everything that makes the current tap room work well are about to be taken to a whole new level. Another visit soon is definitely in order.