This article first appeared in the June/July edition of the Rocky Mountain Brewing News. Look for it at your favorite breweries and bars, or subscribe here.
Big Sky Brewing Co. Reaches Drinking Age
Twenty-one years after beginning their first brew, one thing remains clear: brewing Montana’s most recognizable beer remains as fun as it is successful for co-owners Neal Leathers and Bjorn Nabozney at Big Sky Brewing Co.
Leathers, Nabozney and Brad Robinson started Big Sky in 1995, in part as a way for the three friends to stay in Missoula, Montana. Their idea was big from the start.
Big Sky’s business plan, born out of Nabozney final project for his finance degree at the University of Montana, called for distribution to half the U.S. They installed a 30 bbl brewhouse and two 60 bbls fermenters just off downtown Missoula years before “craft” was an adjective applied to beer.
They swore off cascade hops, a variety used in the majority of beers at the time. Instead, they set about brewing balanced, more English-style beers featuring healthy doses of East Kent Golding hops.
The beers picked up whimsical names like Moose Drool Brown Ale and Pygmy Owl Itty Bitty IPA. The labels feature artwork created by Nabozney’s mother. The current facility, built near Missoula’s airport in 2002 with enough land to host a summer concert series, accommodated Big Sky’s move into bottles and eventually cans.
Now distributed to 24 states, Canada, South Korea and Australia, Leathers, Nabozney and the whole Big Sky team are ready to celebrate reaching drinking age.
Cracking into the Craft
A born salesman, Nabozney had a good sense of the hard work it would take to break into the beer scene in the mid-1990s. “I was working on that for two years before we even had any beer to sample,” he explains. “We had t-shirts, we were hanging signs in bars. We wanted to establish a presence and were generating recognition before we even had the beer. We were telling the story, long before we had the beer.”
Yet, finding a market for beer that had not been brewed was no simple task. “It was really a hard thing,” says Nabozney. “I got called so many names going into bars initially. Missoula was friendly and was on course. But elsewhere, there was a lot of resistance. Bars had three tap handles. Four if you were lucky. To get one of those was pretty prized.”
Accounts in hand, business still started out with a near flop. Big Sky’s first beer, the short- lived Whistle Pig Red Ale, was an “ahead-of-its-time” hoppy red ale according to Nabozney. But the first batch was significantly under-carbonated when it left the brewery.
“We caught it soon enough,” says Nabozney while laughing at the memory. “We got it back and fortunately had our second batch already in play and got our carbonation adjusted. We pretty much had no idea what we were doing at that point.”
“We had a recipe and it was a very tasty beer,” adds Leathers, “but it was maybe a little more English style than we wanted that first go around.”
“Whistle Pig was actually doing pretty well once we got beyond that very first batch, but then Moose Drool came out it just eclipsed everything,” says Leathers. “ The name was catchier and then we had Slow Elk, Scape Goat and Powder Hound and those four beers were what we did for the first three or four years.”
Quality Control from the Start
“Our first real employee was a lab guy,” says Leathers, a hire Big Sky made within the first six months of opening. “Throughout that fermentation cycle you’re making sure you are pitching the proper amount of yeast and it is viable and healthy yeast, or that’s going to lead immediately to flavor issues.”
“But as much as anything it’s the cleaning. Doing dishes as well call it, so no critters are getting into your process.”
Big Sky utilizes an x-ray machine to check the quality of the seal on its cans to ensure there is no way for oxygen to sneak in. “If you’re shipping beer down to Texas, you don’t know how long it is going to be a the distributor, how long it is going to be on the store shelf, whether it has refrigeration, so you have to make sure everything is done right on our end,” says Leathers.
“The focus on numbers is a sexy, easy story to tell,” Nabozney says. “But the focus on quality isn’t. We love that story because that’s what we do. One of the things that defines and contrast us amongst our contemporaries is the amount of dollars we spend on quality control.”
“When I get to California and I have one of our beers and it tastes just the way it is supposed to? Wow!” Nabozney cheers. “The team effort that brought it to that point is so outstanding and is a testament to quality control practices.”
Throughout its history, Leathers and Nabozney have ensured Big Sky retained a close connection to its community by providing support whenever possible. The brewery averages well over $100,000 of giving to the Missoula community each year with youth programs being a primary focus.
Activities that focus on an active, healthy lifestyle also received significant support from Big Sky. All age-qualifying finishers of the Missoula Marathon receive a free Big Sky beer at the finish line. Proceeds from Big Sky’s 21st birthday celebration and its summer concert series will be donated to a local mountain biking nonprofit to support trail construction.
“This is our community, this is our home,” says Nabozney. “Let’s make it as great as possible.”
Why an outdoor summer concert series? “We are big live music fans, so we wanted to do concerts,” Leathers explains. “When we built the brewery we bought enough land that we had a pretty big back yard and finally found a promoter to do our first concert. John Fogerty was our first and it was awesome. Our concerts are a giving tool for us.”
Big Sky will host fourteen concerts this summer, with major acts like Fitz & The Tantrums, Brandi Carlile, and Boston making stops. Wilco and Widespread Panic have made repeat appearances.
Success in the West
Sometime around 1998, Nabozney uttered two proclamations he calls the most profound things he’s ever said. “We’ll never sell a lot of growlers and IPAs will never take over the market,” he says with a big laugh. “Totally wrong.”
Still, nearly everything Big Sky penned in its original business plan from 1993 has come to pass. Aside from being a regional brewery covering the western states instead of across the northern states, it has carved out its space in beer as expected.
Even as craft beer focuses more and more on “local,” Big Sky has maintained its success in many pockets of the West like craft-rich San Diego, CA.
“We make such different beer than what they build in San Diego and we’ve developed friendships down there over the years with the right bar owners and they love our beer because it is so different,” explains Nabozney. “Moose Drool is a very approachable, sessionable beer.”
Scot Blair, owner of San Diego’s famed Hamilton’s Tavern and other notable beer spots, agrees. “Big Sky makes really good beer,” explains Blair, who frequently places Big Sky’s beer alongside taps from San Diego’s stalwarts and rising stars. “The beers are well balanced and flavorful this can’t be understated on why they see love in Southern California. Moose Drool is a damn good brown ale and it’s hard pressed to find many accessible beers in that category that are so much better.”
Yet Blair says Big Sky’s success is due to more than the quality of its beer. “It’s my sense that Bjorn can connect the human aspect of beer with a dignity and leadership that ties to both business and community and less about fast money making schemes,” says Blair.
“There is an altruism and transparency in what Big Sky does that resonates with me and I think like minded small business owners who not only want great local beers on tap but great beers from around the globe that come from good people that are leaving the same footprint and ideals that you want to or already do foster in your own home.”
A Deliberate Future
Like the methodical, balanced growth Big Sky has exhibited over its twenty one years, Leathers doesn’t see any big changes on the horizon. “We like our footprint, we like being a western brewery, so we’re happy where we are for the foreseeable future,” he says.
“We’ve been selling somewhere in the 45 to 48 thousand barrel range in the last three to four years, and we don’t have a problem with that. We like longevity and being in the game for a long time and we have a size that we are all comfortable with. We don’t feel any huge need to do anything dramatic to change things up.”
“We have the privilege of making great beers for folks who enjoy our beer,” says Nabozney. “And I hope that long after we’re all dead that our beer still has relevance and we’re still an independent brewery. A good beer always has relevance at the table.”
Big Sky is throwing a 21st Birthday Party at Caras Park in Missoula on Friday, June 17. The festivities will include 21 Big Sky beers, including a one-time return of Whistle Pig Red Ale. Leathers promises it will be fully carbonated.