Some Montana microbreweries are hard to find, tucked away in alleys or side streets or even up in the timber at the end of an unpaved road, but not Flathead Lake Brewing. You can’t miss it; it’s right in the middle of Woods Bay along scenic State Highway 35 at mile marker 26, which is also the name of one of its award-winning, handcrafted beers.
And when you walk into the taproom, you don’t find owner Terry Leonard in back room brewing beer or counting his money. Instead, you find him sitting at the bar enjoying a cold brew with his customers.
“We’re not that different,” he admitted when asked how his company differed from other breweries in Montana. “We all have seats in the same boat, fighting for the same marketplace.”
But then being similar to other Montana breweries isn’t so bad, is it?
One definite similarity is the strong sense of community all local brewers foster. “We are a community,” Leonard says, proudly. “We’re sort of a philanthropic center for Woods Bay. I get intimately involved in local causes, and we raise a ton of money for them. Last year, we raised about $60,000 for local causes.”
Although most Montana brewers contribute to local causes, Leonard clearly does more than most. He hosts community fundraising events with raffles and auctions and donates “all sales” to the cause. That’s a lot different than giving the “profit.” He not only doesn’t make any money on sales during these community days, but actually loses money because he doesn’t recover his production costs.
Leonard, the sole owner, opened the doors only three years ago in September 2005, but he’s already built up a brisk business. He produces about 2,000 barrels per year and sells about 40 percent of it in the taproom with the rest going to draught accounts in western Montana. He doesn’t bottle any of his beer, but is considering it.
That right there is a minor difference from most other Montana brewers. He actually has unused capacity and could produce as much as 3,000 barrels in his current facility. Most Montana brewers are either running at capacity or expanding to increase capacity. So, no current expansion plans for Leonard; just more of the same, which again, is not a bad thing.
He also makes a point out of brewing beer in small batches of only 20 barrels each so he can “carefully monitor and care for each brew in a way that is unattainable at larger facilities.”
On his website, Leonard spells out his dedicated philosophy to beer making. “Every beer that is produced at Flathead Lake Brewing Company is hand crafted. This means that we examine every ingredient for quality before it goes into the brew process. Every hop addition, every malted barley addition, every water addition, nothing is left unchecked. There is no cookie cutter beer created in our facility.”
And then the hard part. “Each batch of beer is tested, and tested and tested again. This testing is a hard job, but someone has to do it!”
Leonard keeps his six basic beers on tap and brews three or four seasonals each year. He considers Whitecap Pale Ale his flagship beer, and he’s one of two brewers in Montana (with Bozeman Brewing) to sell beer in Palla growlers.
In 2006, Flathead Lake Brewing won two medals at what’s commonly considered the most prestigious beer competition in the world, the World Beer Cup. About 3,800 brewers compete for the coveted awards, and Leonard brought two of them back to Woods Bay–a silver medal for Mutiny Stout and a bronze for Peg Leg Porter.
In April 2008, Flathead Lake Brewing one the People’s Choice Award at the Montana Beer Festival with one of its seasonal brews, Rising Sun Espresso Porter.
When you walk out the taproom door after a pint or two of handcrafted brew, you see magnificent Flathead Lake that gives the company its name and its beers their names, much of the tourist market so vital to the bottom line, and probably a lot of the inspiration to do nothing but quality.
To read the rest of the Microbrew Montana series, click here. To track Bill’s travels, see the map of Montana Microbreweries below.