Montana Economic Summit Explores Future of Montana Craft Beer

To understand the influence and impact U.S. Senator Max Baucus wields, one needed only to travel to Butte, Montana, earlier this week for the 2013 Montana Economic Summit.

There, on the campus of Montana Tech, assembled such industry notables as Jim McNerney, CEO of Boeing, Safra Catz, President and CFO of Oracle, Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines and Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google.  If none of them capture your attention, how about Meg Whitman, President and CEO of HP, Alan Mulally, President and CEO of Ford Motor Co., or Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook?

The sixth such summit hosted by Senator Baucus, it serves to bring investors, industry experts, and ambassadors from around the world together with top national business leaders for a dual purpose. First, to showcase Montana’s economic potential, and, second, to let Montana businesses learn from the best. The free event attracted three to four thousand participants from all parts of Montana and beyond.

Perhaps much less known, but equally important in his own area of expertise, Charlie Papazian was one of the invited guests.  Celebrated author, founder of the Brewers Association and Great American Beer Festival, and a luminary of the craft beer movement, Charlie was on hand to moderate a panel discussion about beer during the breakout sessions. 

Yes, among more heady topics like wind energy, the growth of biochemicals, and exporting 101, there was beer:  “Bottoms Up – Exploring Growth in Montana’s Craft Beer Industry.” Given Senator Baucus’ support for Montana beer and the brewing industry as a whole, this really is no surprise.

According to the agenda, the panel was designed to “feature brewery owners and representatives from the distributing industry discussing how to foster further opportunities for continued growth of Montana-made beers.”  Participating were Neal Leathers, Big Sky Brewing, Max Pigman, Lewis and Clark Brewing, Jim Devine, Beaver Creek Brewery, Ed Brandt, Cardinal Distributing, and Mark Black, Malteurop North America.

I was unable to attend, but asked Maggie Doherty, co-owner of Kalispell Brewing Company, to fill us in.  Fortunately for all of us, she said yes.  Read on for this great conversation.

Growler Fills: Set the scene for us. You’re at an economic summit with some of the world’s most powerful business leaders and everyone breaks out for panel discussions. Who chose beer?

Maggie Doherty, Kalispell Brewing Co.: After the morning’s keynote speakers, I left the auditorium with stars in my eyes. To have business giants like Elon Musk and Sheryl Sandberg give inspiring, insightful and rousing speeches in Butte is a singular experience. Both Musk and Sandberg (as did all of the other tycoons of business) echoed themes that infused the entire two-day summit: have passion, take risks and go for it. Create what you want—if you can’t get the job you’re looking for, then you can create it. Needless to say, the crowd was buzzing with excitement and motivation, and that energy carried into the afternoon panels. For me, to listen to Musk and Sandberg and then attend a craft brewing panel with Charlie Papazian, who sparked the craft brewing movement, was remarkable. All of these icons in Butte, in Montana for that matter? It was amazing and I don’t think I was alone in that regard.

The panel, “Bottoms Up—Exploring Growth in Montana’s Craft Beer Industry” was extremely well attended; standing room only. I observed a mix of current brewers, such as Josh and Andra of Tamarack Brewing Co and Chuck with Quarry Brewing, as well as a lot of people who are interested in starting breweries. Also among the attendees was a woman who grows and produces barley and was interested in exploring micro-malting options. Another audience member represented the city of Ennis and asked the panel what advice they could offer a city who wants to attract a brewery. I spoke with one guy after the session who was hoping to speak with as many current brewery owners as possible to learn how to start his own brewery.

The panel itself was good—Charlie Papazian spent the first portion talking about the economics of craft brewery in the US and in Montana. And the business of craft beer is very good. He also talked about the rumors about a craft beer bubble bursting and how those rumors have had a 30-plus year lifespan. He doesn’t believe the “bubble” will burst. The essence of Charlie’s presentation was that craft beer is a powerful and integral asset to local communities as well as changing the larger, global beer landscape.

He also added, very apropos of the atmosphere at the summit, that breweries and taprooms are the original social network.

Speakers on the panel represented three different Montana breweries: Big Sky, Lewis and Clark, and Beaver Creek. Also on the panel was Ed Brandt, owner of Cardinal Distributing and Mark Black, Procurement and By-Product Manager from Malteurop. The focus of the panel was not solely on breweries but also the larger chain of distribution and malting and those important relationships. The panel also touched upon the impact of breweries on their local economies and also how both Lewis and Clark and Beaver Creek invested in old, historic buildings in their community and renovated the buildings to house their breweries. This point was especially poignant for me as I’m in the trenches on our brewery’s extensive remodel in an aging building in downtown Kalispell.

It was insightful to listen to the perspectives of the distributer and the maltster. Ed compared the brewers to star chefs on the Food Network and distributers to the bus boys and dishwashers. And the brewers gave kudos to the distributors for their work. Mark talked passionately about the relationship between barley farmers and brewers. Both Ed and Mark touched on how craft beer has dramatically changed their businesses.

I would add that a lot of discussion on the panel was an overview of each person’s job role which is good and informative but I was hoping for a more dialogue that centered on how Montana breweries can/should push forward. Montana is certainly one of the nation’s top states for breweries and for beer drinkers. Perhaps the panel was appropriate for those who are interested in learning more about Montana breweries but for me, I wanted less history and overview and more of: here’s where we’re headed next.

GF: The description of the panel said it would discuss “how to foster further opportunities for continued growth of Montana-made beers.” What were some of the ideas discussed?

MD:  This part of the panel could have benefited from more time. The session wasn’t long enough to explore this topic. There was a bit of talk about the possibility of hops production in Montana—all the brewers were positive but also realistic. Yes, hops can be grown in Montana, but a hops production facility is an entirely different and extensive operation. Montana grown hops have entered into a popular statewide discussion, but the real issue is how to process hops.

The majority of the discussion was based on how breweries interact with their communities and how it’s not just the relationship between the brewer and the consumer. The chain is much greater than that and breweries have positive impacts on their communities from supporting local non-profits to helping other local businesses with their patronage.

Charlie talked a bit about how Montana can certainly become an international destination for craft beer fan enthusiast. I think that is a key area for the state’s breweries to explore. I mean, California has their Napa Valley, why can’t our entire state, which has exceptional landscapes worth visiting also showcase its fine breweries? I think more can be done to promote Montana breweries as a destination. I believe that Charlie is correct in his assessment—in fact, a lot of the summit as a whole was an ongoing discussion on how we can promote Montana itself–and I think our breweries can and should be a part of that dialogue.

GF:  Did the panel discuss constraints to growth or any current problems facing Montanan’s breweries?

MD: This was not discussed on the panel but one constraint, the restrictions on Montana’s breweries, was brought up by an attendee during Q & A. In fact, it was the last question. The woman was very clever in her approach and talked about how beautiful our summers are, how we have such nice long days and how it’d be wonderful to drink a beer at 9 and what do the brewers plan to do about changing legislation so they can serve past 8pm. This got a big rise out of both the crowd and the panel and someone mentioned Baucus’ rule of the conference: no politics. Max from Lewis and Clark took the lead—or perhaps he was encouraged to do so from Jim and Neal—and said that as brewers they’ll be more pro-active with the partners, which I took to mean the Montana Tavern Association. Essentially, the question was dodged but in good spirit among the members on the panel.

No other constraints were discussed, other than maybe, how breweries try to meet the increase in demand, which was explosive, especially over this past summer.

GF:  Were any distinctions drawn/apparent between, say, Big Sky and Beaver Creek?

MD:  There was a discussion on growth and how each of the breweries, who all vary in size, scope and company mission, have dealt with growth. All three of the breweries talked about the increase in demand for product and how they handled it or are currently handling it. Essentially, no matter your size, craft beer is in high demand statewide. A lot of the discussion focused on each brewery’s impact on its local community, how many people each brewery employs, etc. But there weren’t any specific distinctions drawn between Big Sky, a regional brewery, and Beaver Creek, a remote microbrewery.

GF: What was it like getting to meet Charlie?

MD:  Oh man. It was thrilling. I bombarded him after the panel and thanked him for coming and moderating the session. His sheer knowledge of the industry—craft beer’s history and current trends is staggering. He truly is the father of the craft beer and homebrewing movement. And he’s so down to earth, so kind and I had the instant impression that he was truly invested in Montana’s craft beer scene. He wasn’t some figurehead brought in only to attract attention. He cares and is impressed with what Montana breweries are doing.

I’ve been a longtime fan and it was an honor to meet him. And I just had to have my picture taken with him! Charlie is a legend and it’s so wonderful that he’s supportive of Montana breweries as this was his second appearance in Montana in two months. In August, he attended the Montana Brewer’s Association special event boat cruise on Flathead Lake.

GF:  As the co-owner of Montana’s soon-to-be newest brewery, what did you take away from the presentation?

MD:  One, a bit of reassurance with taking on such a giant remodel project with our building—Jim and Max had a lot to say about old buildings and breweries and the work they require. It’s a helpful reminder, especially when the construction seems to never end, that so many others have been exactly in the same place that Cole and I are in. Secondly, the passion for craft beer is palpable and it’s not just with the brewers. Mark from Malteurop’s talk about the relationship between brewer and farmer was completely inspiring.

What truly resounded with me and what has continued to astound me since Cole and I first launched Kalispell Brewing is enthusiasm and camaraderie that Montana brewers have for each other. Since Cole and I started this venture, the breweries across the state have been nothing but generous, supportive and encouraging. It’s an incredibly giving group of people: brewers who are willing to give their time and knowledge. I think that’s one of the most valuable assets Montana brewers possess, besides our incredible beer, is that we recognize the community of brewers. And we support each other and we support our communities and the extension of our operations like the maltsters and distributors. Also, between the brewers on the panel and the others in audience there is a distinct pride in brewing and in supporting their local communities. Charlie is right, breweries were how people connected long before social media and will continue to do so. And I think the community of brewers very much identify with that and create relationships to make that atmosphere flourish. I know I’m damn proud to brew in Kalispell.