Of all Montana breweries, the taproom at Blackfoot River Brewing in Helena is one of the most popular, commonly crowded with devoted craft beer aficionados even on sweltering summer days when the inside temperatures climb so high the servers spray customers with plant misters to cool them off. But on a day soon to be determined, probably in the last week in August, Blackfoot’s tiny tasting room will be rocking and stuffed with loyals for the last time because it will be the Grand Closing.
The thought of it might give the Helena microbrew faithful heart attacks, but fear not. The Blackfoot isn’t closing. Not hardly. It’s merely moving. For the owners, it’s a big move, but not for customers because it’s only fifteen feet to the south.
Some customers have joked that the new home of Blackfoot River Brewing, which is nearly completed, looks like a church, and co-owner Brian Smith agrees, sort of, because he calls it “The Temple of Malt.”
“And did I mention we’ll have A/C,” he adds.
The Grand Closing might be bigger than the Grand Opening, speculates fellow co-owner Brad Simshaw, as we discussed the brewery’s huge and, for the owners, nerve-whacking expansion. Instead of the small, hot, crowded, inefficient taproom that their customers adore, Blackfoot River will have a fancy, tiled, two-story tasting room with an outside deck, and like in most microbreweries, customers will now be able to watch workers make beer through windows. You’ll be able to rent the upstairs for private events like wedding receptions and family reunions, and men and women will even have their own restrooms.
But will it be the same? Smith and Simshaw believe customers will enjoy the new facility even more, but acknowledge some might temporarily miss the cramped friendliness of the current taproom, even though the new place will also have “community tables.” Like a lot of taprooms, you always seem to meet somebody every time you “Blackfoot it,” and that probably won’t change.
The Blackfoot River Brewery opened its doors on in January 2000, and it’s still owned by the three original owners–Smith, Simshaw and Greg Wermers. The microbrewery grew out of a now-closed home brewing business called Howling Wolf Home Brew Supply owned by Smith and Simshaw.
“Home brewers really started the microbrew revolution,” Smith believes, noting that some of their most devoted customers also brew beer at home.
Like most Montana breweries, Blackfoot River sells a huge percentage of its product directly to customers on site. In fact, Smith credits the 1999 change in Montana law that allows breweries to sell pints in taprooms for making the difference for them. “I don’t think we’d be here today if it weren’t for that 1999 bill. Being able to sell to the public is key.”
Get there early, though. The taproom closes at 7 pm, but this might go up to 8 pm after the big move. “We’ll have a new building to pay for,” Smith sighs.
Despite strong taproom sales, “we’re still primarily a wholesale brewer,” he adds, and you can find those distinctive Blackfoot River “handles” at many restaurants and taverns around western Montana.
Blackfoot River makes ten craft beers, but because of space limitations can only have four on tap at one time in current location, but will have eight on tap when the Temple of Malt opens. “With new place,” assures Simshaw, “there will be so much more opportunity for us to brew something new.”
Missouri River Steamboat Lager has always been the brewery’s flagship beer and will continue to be after expansion. Blackfoot has been running at capacity for four years, turning out about 2000 barrels per year, but with the expansion, capacity will go up to about 3,500 barrels.
No bottles or cans, though, one difference between the Blackfoot and some breweries in Montana. But that isn’t the main difference. That’s the beer itself.
Acknowledging a lot of similarities, “starting with the same passion we have for brewing beer” and a zeal for ‘taking care of our employees,” Simshaw notes. That philosophy is embodied in the company’s motto, clearly stated on every glass and growler–“Real Good Beer Made by Real Good People.” You really can’t go wrong when patronizing a business with that attitude.
Similarities aside, there are some big differences between Blackfoot River Brewing and other Montana breweries.
“We’re the first and only certified organic brewery in the state,” Smith says, proudly, but not for all ten beers, only two–North Fork Organic Porter and Blackfoot River Gold Organic Pale Ale, OPA for short. And this isn’t just idle marketing talk. The Montana Department of Agriculture has certified Blackfoot River Brewing as “organic” and does annual inspections to make sure the products and process stay that way.
Smith would like to go “all organic,” but they can’t find enough organic hops and malt.
Another difference is, “We don’t filter our beer,” Smith explains. “We’re the largest brewer in the state that doesn’t filter, which makes stronger and more full-bodied beer. Filtration reduces both the hop and malt flavors in beer.”
One more difference between the Blackfoot and many–but not all–Montana breweries is “we’re not shy about our politics,” Smith says. “Most businesses play close to their vests, but we’re pretty open about our progressive politics.”
The brewery supports many local nonprofits and causes, even taking sides on controversial issues like a contentious local debate three years ago on building a road through Helena’s walking mall. The Blackfoot boasts a Conservation Donation Program where $1.00 of each barrel of beer sold goes “to an organization that we feel is doing an exceptional job of protecting Montana’s natural character.” On primary night this June, the Blackfoot worked a deal with Miller’s Crossing, a pub next door, to serve a special brew called OPA, which on that night stood for Obama Pale Ale. It was quite a hit with democrats gathering at Miller’s that night for their celebration.
So when in Helena, be reverent and visit the Temple of Malt for some Nectar of the Gods.
Footnote: To read the rest of the Microbrew Montana series, click here.