Überbrew and the Search for Kone Fu

[Note: A version of this story first appeared in the 2017 August/September edition of the Rocky Mountain Brewing News.]

For a brewery racking up major hardware from some of the most prestigious beer competitions, Überbrew’s best feature might be its comfortable, unassuming, inviting nature that rewards patrons with top-notch beer. That unpretentious nature begins at the top with co-owner and head brewer Mark Hastings, who has never stopped learning in his twenty three years of brewing experience.

Überbrew is located on historic Montana Avenue in downtown Billings

Überbrew is Hastings’ creation, something he’d been pondering for many years before pulling the trigger. He certainly didn’t do it alone and his dedicated team contributes significantly to the positive vibe.

A search for the perfect space led Hastings and the team to Billings, Montana’s historic Montana Avenue, the spot where Billings was founded as a railroad town in 1882.

Creating an Identity

Überbrew opened in June, 2012, with a 10 bbl brewhouse and a full kitchen featuring food designed to pair well with the brewery’s signature beers. Hastings and many of the team members have significant experience in the food service industry, experience which is obvious in the quality of the food and service. Beer production at the brewery runs about 900 bbls per year.

The brewery is located in a city block that was once the site of Billings Brewing Co. which closed in 1951. The former brewery’s presence was noted when Überbrew installed a new water line prior to opening, and a few months later when the city began water main work in Montana Avenue.

Both projects uncovered discarded bottles from the old brewery covering a depth of multiple feet, some dating back to the brewery’s founding in 1909.

Today’s brewery is located in a renovated historic brick building, much like the many other businesses located on Montana Avenue, from the long-time Billings establishment, McCormick Café, to the restored train depot and plenty of arts and culture.

Inside, the brick walls, heavy wood rafters and concrete floor create a modern industrial feel to the space. Iron and wood tables complement the sturdy ambiance while windows in the back give a peek into the brewing operations.

Überbrew’s comfortable environment pairs well with the city’s outdoor culture.

A canoe hangs from the rafters, a nod to the outdoor culture of Billings, the city that bills itself “Montana’s Trailhead.”

On tap you’ll typically find some of the regulars like Iconic Pale Ale, Stand Down Brown Ale, Canϋ Recreation Ale, Pink Slip, the brewery’s Canϋ infused with fresh Oregon raspberries, and White Noise, Überbrew’s wheat beer that seems to medal in every competition entered.

Recent seasonals included Soul Adventurer, a roasted, malty sweet stout, CM7, an experimental IPA showcasing Chinook, Mosaic and Idaho 7 hops, and Humulus Eruptus, an imperial pilsner brewed in collaboration with Liquid Mechanics, a brewery in Lafayette, CO.

The eleventh beer in Überbrew’s SMaSH series was also available, a beer brewed with a single malt and single hop. This version featured Calista hops, a German hop with apricot, passionfruit and berry flavors.

“We started our Grandmaster SMaSH series a few years ago,” says Hastings. “Every time we brew a new SMaSH I have an ‘ah ha!’ moment. We use this series to understand hop varieties better. I think about hops pretty much every day to the point of obsession.”

Mark Hastings, Überbrew’s co-owner and head brewer, takes a quick break in the brewhouse.

Obsessively resealing bags for bittering hops, only using freshly opened bags for whirlpool and dry hop additions and using combinations of pellets, whole cone and lupulin powder for complexity, are some of the steps Hastings takes to ensure his hoppier beers meet his expectations.

When asked what beer best personifies Überbrew, Hastings gets a little philosophical. “There may not be just one beer,” he says. “However, our collaboration beers come to mind. Collaboration and cooperation is what sets our craft beer industry apart from other industries.

“My favorite Überbrew beers are collaboration brews. The essence of Überbrew is to achieve the superlative pint experience. The quest to brew the superlative pint is more enjoyable and effective with a posse.”

Collecting Awards

Hastings had his first taste of success as head brewer for nearby Montana Brewing Company from its opening in 1994 to 2000, creating beers garnering significant awards, particularly for his hoppier creations. He’s been trying to perfect those recipes and techniques ever since and the hard work is paying off.

At the Brewers Association’s 2016 Great American Beer Festival, Überbrew won Small Brewery and Small Brewery Brewer of the Year, an award given each year to a brewery producing between 1,000 and 14,999 bbls annually. At the competition, no brewery in the country brought home more medals than Überbrew, out of 1,752 breweries entering beers. That’s an astounding feat.

Just a few of the numerous awards Überbrew has won in its five years of brewing beer.

Überbrew won Gold in the Imperial IPA category for Humulus Insani, Silver in the Double Red Ale category for Average at Best, Bronze in the American-Style Black Ale category for Alpha Force Double Tap, and Gold in the American-Style Wheat Beer category for White Noise.

The same weekend Überbrew took second in the Alpha King Challenge with its Alpha Force RapDom Triple IPA. The Alpha King Challenge is an annual competition put on by YCH Hops, Brewing News Publications and Three Floyds Brewing Co. Entries must have at least 60 ibus and are judged on overall quality and balance of flavor. Winning first place in 2016 was Tamarack Brewing Co., a fellow Montana brewery.

You might forgive Überbrew for being a little disappointed in taking second place. Überbrew took first place in 2015 for Alpha Force Double Tap Tactical India Pale Ale. It was the first black IPA to finish in the top three in the 17 years of the competition. Created by Hastings, assistant brewer Connor Cranston and Matt Eisele, the beer featured sevenhop additions through the mash, kettle, dry hop and bright tank, and more than 100 ibus, despite its impressive balance of flavors.

Überbrew followed up on its success at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival with a silver medal in the American-Style Cream Ale category for Canü. Displayed around the brewery are various other awards from the World Beer Cup, the North American Beer Awards and various Montana competitions.

A Special Invitation

As if winning four medals and being named the best small brewery weren’t enough, Überbrew’s experience at the 2016 Great American Beer Festival resulted in an unexpected, but thrilling surprise: an invitation from Firestone Walker to participate in its annual Invitational Beer Fest.

Firestone Walker, one of the world’s most respected breweries, bills its Fest as an epic yet intimate gathering of 50+ leading brewers from around the nation and world, celebrating craft beer in our hometown of Paso Robles, CA. Überbrew’s success in the competition certainly had an effect, but so did a chance meeting.

“We sat right behind [head brewer] Matt Brynildson and the Firestone Walker Crew during the 2016 GABF awards ceremony,”explains Hastings. “We interacted a bit during the ceremony but afterwards Matt and some of the crew came to our booth and tried our beer. The invitation came about a month later. The hard part was we could not tell anyone about the invite for a few months.”

The Festival weekend held in June was a “dream come true” for Hastings and the Überbrew team. “We were drinking beer from some of the best breweries in the world, playing corn hole with some of the best brewers against some of the best vintners,” he says.

“I was a bit star struck but enjoyed myself immensely. The people of Paso Robles, especially Matt and the Firestone Walker Crew, really know how to make you feel at home. Paso Robles’ hospitality is top notch and the tri-tip is to die for. I hope we get invited again.”

Branching Out For the Next Steps

Seeking an opportunity to get its beer out for distribution, Überbrew took on a contract brewing partner in 2014, originally choosing the Fort Collins Brewery. They recently transitioned to Sleeping Giant Brewing in Denver, a move that allowed them to switch from bottles to cans for the 2,400 bbls of beer produced under contract.

Überbrew recently switched to cans for its packaged beers.

The move has allowed Überbrew to expand distribution to western Montana, broadening its current market from eastern and central Montana and parts of Wyoming. White Noise, Stand Down Brown, Iconic Pale Ale and Canϋ and currently available in cans.

Hastings takes great pride in Billings and its beer culture. “In twenty two years Billings’ breweries have won twenty four GABF medals and two GABF Brewing Company of the year awards, he says. “Billings may not have the most progressive beer scene but it is consistent and world class.

“Our combination of fantastic breweries, restaurants, museums, theatres, and outdoor opportunities make Billings a great beer tourism destination. It is no wonder Billings is the 2016 Outside Magazine Best Town award recipient.”

What’s next? “The quest to brew a superlative hoppy beer will keep me busy for at least a lifetime,” says Hastings. “I refer to this lifelong dedication to hoppy beer mastery as Kone Fu. I have a long way to go to reach Grandmaster but have had success again lately with Überbrew.”

It’s safe to say Hastings and Überbrew are well on their way.

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