As near as I can figure, after visiting 20 of Montana’s 23 microbreweries, Montana Brewing is unique. The company’s owners have offered craft beer fans something that comes about as close to a brewpub as possible under Montana’s archaic liquor laws.
Instead of a small brewery with a small taproom, which is the case with most Montana breweries, Montana Brewing is three businesses in one–a microbrewery, restaurant and sports bar, all separated but connected, right in downtown Billings.
The owners, a group of Billings investors, have an all-beverage liquor license for Montana Brewing, which is essentially a restaurant, not a brewery. Technically, the brewery is called Billings Brewing, but does business as Montana Brewing. The restaurant serves as the brewery’s “taproom” and has a “beer-friendly menu,” but unlike true taprooms, it has regular tavern hours and offers other brands, even domestics, but with a strong sales emphasis on beer brewed on premises, of course.
Those interested in watching sports on television and losing money in gaming machines can walk next door (without going outside) to Hooligan’s Sports Bar, which allows smoking.
All this might seem complicated, but it won’t seem like it when you’re there. At Montana Brewing, you can simply enjoy some great microbrew in a pleasant, smoke-free environment while you watch head brewer Travis Zeilstra and his assistant Chuck Sowell make it next door. The owners have successfully combined the concepts of a small brewery, saloon and a restaurant to bring you what they call “a new and unique dining experience.”
Montana Brewing is part of the de facto Brewery District in downtown Billings, where four breweries (Angry Hanks, Carter’s, Montana and Yellowstone Valley) thrive within four blocks of each other, making it convenient to stay at a downtown hotel and do a microbrew tasting tour on foot. Nobody can say why all four breweries located in such close proximity, but it certainly is serendipitous for beer buffs. Billings has it’s own microbrew tour.
Besides having a complicated corporate structure, what’s different about Montana Brewing? Like other brewers, Zeilstra struggles with that question because, of course, there isn’t much difference. He’s just happy to be part of what he calls the “brewing revitalization” in Montana.
“We’re the first brewer in Montana to use barrel aging,’” he answers after a long pause, “and we’re probably the most medalled brewery in Montana.”
But one reason for all those awards, he admits, is that he enters a lot of contests, probably more than most brewers, implying that if other brewers were in so many competitions, they might have as many medals.
Zeilstra also has more interest in the tourism market than most brewers and has managed to attract a lot of out-of-state travelers to Montana Brewing. “We’re really trying to increase beer tourism in Montana,” he said, and he has helped other brewers do the same.
Montana Brewing only sells beer in kegs, no bottles or cans, and sells most of it right on site. One reason is the cramped quarters. Most of the building has gone to the restaurant and sports bar, not leaving much for brewing beer.
|Chuck Sowell (left) and head brewer Travis Zeilstra. Photo by Bill Schneider.|
“We’re at capacity and have been there for two years,” Zeilstra explains with a hint of frustration. “We have zero growth because we can’t grow, even though we have people calling from all over wanting our beer. The restaurant business is growing, and we might not even have enough beer for on-site sales.”
Some people might consider this good news, but Zeilstra would like to see some growth and is considering several expansion plans, but nothing finalized yet. “Logistics is a real problem for us,” he sighs.
I’m sure he could grow because his beer is definitely among the best tasting and highly decorated of Montana microbrews, with Whitetail Wheat and Sharptail Pale Ale rising to the top as his best sellers.
Also trained as a chef, Zeilstra will be, starting in September, offering “beer dinners.” The first will be at nearby Rockets Gourmet Wraps. Watch for more such dinners, which will be a great chance to sample the brews of Montana Brewing. If you miss them, stop into the downtown Billings “brewpub” and sample it there. You won’t be sorry.
To read the rest of the Microbrew Montana series, click here.