Well, here we are, at the end of the Microbrew Trail, my last taproom visit for this yearlong series of articles, and what did I find? An old buggy salesroom and blacksmith shop transformed into Montana’s newest microbrewery, Blacksmith Brewing Company.
Is that Montana-esque or what?
One of the first questions I asked when I visited Blacksmith’s spiffy, new, 3,600-foot taproom in Stevensville was how Montana’s newest microbrewery expected to make money in a fairly crowded market, which includes four other prospering breweries.
That was a softball Blacksmith’s brewmaster Mike Howard had obviously answered it once or twice. “We’ll just brew better beer,” he said quickly.
“I don’t think there’s really that much competition from other brewers,” added co-owner Eric Hayes, who believes he can stake out a good market around Stevensville and not compete with breweries in Hamilton and Missoula.
He also thinks locals have been waiting a long time for a family friendly place like the Blacksmith Brewery. “We get a lot of families coming in that won’t go to taverns. We’ve had a great response so far.”
Stevensville, Montana’s oldest community, has only 2,000 residents, but many rural developments around town greatly magnify the size of the market. “A lot of people live in this valley,” Hayes notes. “It’s all about making good beer and being a community. It’s a small-town thing.”
It all seems to be working so far. The Blacksmith opened on October 29, and according to co-owner Pamela Kaye, who used to work at Bitter Root Brewing in Hamilton, the taproom has been packed every night.
Stevensville bills itself as “where Montana began,” so it seems apropos that Blacksmith Brewery, Montana’s newest brewery, is in Montana’s oldest community. And it’s right on main street in the 100-year-old McLaughlin Building, built in 1907 out of locally manufactured red brick by the former mayor John McLaughlin for a buggy salesroom. After various businesses operated in the building in the early 1900s, including a Chinese laundry opened in 1915 (Hence the fading sign, STEAM LAUNDRY, on the side of the building) until Bill Snediger, a local blacksmith, bought it in 1951. Amazingly, Snediger operated his blacksmith shop for rest of the century, until 2000.
The building has been mostly vacant since then until Hayes and Kaye decided the aging structure had a higher purpose and it became Stevensville’s local brewery. It took a major renovation, to say the least, with Hayes, a contractor and homebuilder by trade, doing most of the heavy lifting and Kaye, an artist, designing the historic taproom gradually emerging from the rubble. They also used as much earth-friendly materials and furnishings as possible.
During the seven-month project, they uncovered a wall with “cowboy graffiti,” old brands going back to at least 1936, which Kaye preserved and put on display in the taproom. Later, she added a similar board of current brands used by nearby ranchers, and even had a “branding party.”
During the renovation, they also found silk Chinese wallpaper on the walls and old whiskey bottles under the floorboards.
After construction, Howard moved over from Big Sky Brewing in Missoula to craft the good stuff for the new brewery. Before brewing at Big Sky, he worked at Stone Brewing in San Diego and earlier, for both Bayern and Kettlehouse in Missoula, giving him seven years brewing experience. He expects to cook up about 600 barrels the first year and at least 1,000 the second year, which will be close to his system’s 1,500 barrels per year capacity.
All of that output now sells in the taproom, Howard said. The company might consider canning or bottling beer later, but “right now, we’re trying to get a few tap handles around town.”
Howard brews five basic beers–Brickhouse Blonde, Twisted Paddle Pale Ale, Burnt Fork Amber, Cutthroat IPA, and Pulaski Porter. No seasonals planned at this point.
One of the first things Kaye did was start a Mug Club, and she immediately filled up the quota of 150 members with more than 200 already on a waiting list. “I want to keep it sort of exclusive,” she said, when I begged her to let me in.
On “Mugger’s Mondays” members can buy pints for $2 instead of $3, which probably allows muggers to recover the $25 annual fee, which includes a filled grower ($7 normally).
Kaye plans to have some “Brewer’s Dinners,”, but right now, they serve no food at the Blacksmith. “We might have things like pretzels and brats later,” she said.
She also has “Hoppy Hour” for everybody Wednesdays from 4-5 pm and live music later on Wednesdays.
Kaye also values the local, community atmosphere with every table filled with good people, good conversation and good beer. “I’m a stickler about having the best service,” she said. “I just want the local people to keep coming back with a smile on their faces.”
She also said they plan to have a beer garden by summer.
“To me, it’s not about seeing our beer over at Super One,” Kaye said. “I’m not even that hot on distributing our beer. I’d like this to be the only place you can buy our beer.”
The Blacksmith is part of a trend to extend the marvel of microbrew into smaller and smaller communities. Montana already has six breweries in what I’d consider small towns, but that still leaves a lot of small towns without them. How long will it take to fix this problem?
Footnote: Although the Blacksmith was my last official taproom visit for the Microbrew Montana series, this isn’t the last article Check back next week to read one more about Montana’s microbrew oasis.
To read the entire series, click here