A version of this article appears in the current June/July issue of the Rocky Mountain Brewing News, along with my regular Montana New column. Unfortunately for me, the Brewing News inadvertently listed the wrong author in the byline. Thus, I am reprinting it here.
Drink Local. It’s a short, easy phrase that conjures up a variety of images. Most involve a pint of beer in a friendly taproom filled with smiles and friendly banter.
“Drink local” is an accepted virtue in the world of beer. An idea as readily embraced as an ice cream cone on a hot summer day.
But why is drinking local something we seek out, even as some of the best beers from around the world can be found at our local bottle shops? And how local can it get?
“At a small, independent brewery, you can get a product that is vastly superior to the mass produced variety but that doesn’t cost all that much more and was crafted by people you probably know,” says Bill Hyland, Water Enhancement Specialist (a/k/a Head Brewer) for Bozeman Brewing Co. in Bozeman, MT. “Small craft breweries are the ultimate mom and pop establishments. They are primarily concerned with quality and their main goal is to satisfy their own home markets.”
But Hyland is quick to point out it is more than just a freshness issue. “There is also, I believe, a certain sense of pride and loyalty that a consumer has for their home town brew,” explains Hyland. “I’ve seen this all over the country but not more so than here in Bozeman. Our locals seem to really love our beer and what we’re about. Everyone who works here also has other connections in the community so in a lot of ways it’s a really big extended family.”
Those community connections are what drives Überbrew in Billings, MT at its local taproom and in its quest to enter new markets. Like many breweries, Überbrew contributes to charities and cultural experiences in the communities in which they sell beer. “We do not just send beer and expect it to sell,” says Mark Hastings, co-owner and Head Brewer. “We have two full time sales representatives who spend the majority of their time building relationships within these communities. Without these local community ties we are just another beer.”
Seth Swingley, co-owner of Mighty Mo Brewing Co. in Great Falls, MT, finds his customers seeking to “drink local” for the community connections as much as the ingredients. This is especially true in Montana, Swingley notes, where there is so much malt barley produced.
“Many consumers know someone who either grows or is involved in getting the malted barley to the local breweries,” says Swingley. “The community connection does not stop there. Many breweries are a community gathering spot, and often have charity nights, where proceeds from the beer sold are shared with local charities.
“Many of our customers never stepped foot in Mighty Mo’s tap room until they attended a Raise-A-Pint night. The people come in to support a cause, and fall in love with the beer and the community concept, and they come back again and again!”
Carl Spurgeon spent the past two years crisscrossing the state of Montana with fellow filmmaker Rob Truax documenting the local beer culture in the film Homebrewd. The two interviewed homebrewers, commercial brewers and historians to find out what drives the creation of beer.
“If there were a common theme it would be that everyone is doing this for the pure love of beer,” says Spurgeon. “Commercial brewers are working harder than they would at other professions while earning less. Hobbyists are experimenting and helping one another break new ground on styles, quality, and beer education.”
“When I hear the phrase ‘drink local’ it means drinking beer closest to its source,” says Spurgeon. “That means closest to where it is brewed, closest to where the barley is produced, closest to where the hops are grown, absolutely as close to every source as possible. For us here in the Northwest, that is pretty easy in general. In Montana, with all of our breweries as well as our excellent water sources, world class barley and proximity to the greatest hops on earth, it’s Heaven!”
Yet, while beer’s most prominent ingredient by volume – water – is usually as local as it gets, brewers commonly tout the use of ingredients from decidedly not-local sources. European base and specialty malts are frequent additions. Southern Hemisphere hops like Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin have hit the American craft beer scene with a frenzy in recent years.
Überbrew’s Hasting explains why using local products is not always the preferred choice. “The short answer is quality,” says Hasting. “We like to source locally made products whenever possible, but currently the barley that is bred, grown and malted in North America is mostly developed for cereal adjunct brewers like AB Inbev and SAB Miller Coors.”
“This is still world class malt but we are looking for low protein, heritage varieties of barley that are bred, grown and malted for all malt, single step infusion mashes like most small craft brewers use. Unfortunately, to source these malts we must import malt from England, Ireland and Germany.”
Überbrew recently began contracting with the Fort Collins Brewery in Colorado to brew and bottle its most popular brands, including White Noise Hefeweizen which took second place for the style at the 2014 World Beer Cup. It is a choice some might argue doesn’t fit within the “local” ethic.
Hastings notes the choice was partly made out of necessity to achieve growth, but also brought tangible benefits to the Billings taproom and production facility. “We simply do not have the millions of dollars required to build a facility like we have access to in Fort Collins. We went through an extensive vetting process of breweries. In the end The Fort Collins Brewery won out for many reasons including the quality of the operation and their willingness to let us participate in every aspect of the brewing process. We owe a great deal of our success to the mentorship we receive from the team at The Fort Collins Brewery.”
Hastings isn’t concerned that some contract brewing might reduce the local nature of Uberbrew’s beer. “We are a Billings, Montana born brewery that is expanding,” says Hastings. “As we expand we hope to create a regional business that is a positive presence in several Montana, Wyoming and Colorado communities. We strive to attain this growth while maintaining our quest to bring our customers a superlative pint experience anywhere Überbrew beer is served.”
Tom Britz did not set out to grow hops, but the Flathead Valley rancher now finds himself at the forefront of small-scale hop growing research in Montana. A chance conversation with local Extension Agent Pat McGlynn kicked off the idea and Britz’s Glacier Hops Ranch will grow more than 45 varieties for testing this year.
“This year will be the third year of our research plot and we’re finding varieties that are vigorous and also varieties that don’t do well in Montana, like the Southern Hemisphere varieties, which all winter-killed here,” explains Britz. “By contrast, we’re seeing solid and vigorous growth from almost all of the US aroma varieties, and some European varieties.”
Britz was elected this spring to the Hop Growers of America board of directors and will chair its new Small Grower Council. He is well versed in the challenges facing small growers, but sees an opportunity to create a niche through different processing methods.
“We looked at several alternative drying options to improve the aromatics, and began collaborating with a producer in Michigan who developed a low heat/no heat method, says Britz. “He brought some of his samples from last year’s harvest to us this winter and said ‘this is exactly what yours will be like.’”
“We sent these samples out to about a dozen of our in-state brewers and the feedback we got was black and white, extremely positive. The difference showed up in the beer. So we are betting on this low-heat/no-heat drying method that has been proven to retain more of the aromatic oils. “
While this “artisan-crafted” drying method takes longer and is more expensive, Britz believes the better quality product will help set small growers like Glacier Hops Ranch apart.
Helping beer become more local is also at the top of Britz’s work. “Glacier Hops Ranch, like many small acreage growers that have popped up from coast to coast over the last several years, has a completely different business model compared to the large-scale growers in the legacy production states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho,” says Britz. “We do not have economies of scale and we do not benefit from multi-generational institutional knowledge. However, we do offer a ‘locally-grown ingredient’ option which I have found to hit a raw nerve – the same raw nerve that has allowed craft breweries to proliferate in recent years.”
And that’s a proliferation we can all embrace in our quest to “drink local.”