If you’ve been reading the Microbrew Montana series, you may have noticed a lot of similarities among breweries. That’s true, sort of, with Red Lodge Ales, but owner Sam Hoffmann also likes to blaze his own trail. That’s why he has a Hop Diver, Forklift Cowboy, Office Slug, and Director of Good Times on staff, why he has a refrigerator door on his cooler that opens right behind his taproom bar, and why he drives around with recycled restaurant grease in his gas tank.
“We have the passion,” Hoffmann explains, “but other brewers do, too, but we’re also pioneering some great things.”
For example, “It’s part of our big plan to be environmentally sensitive.”
To do so, Hoffmann has “Montana’s largest solar thermal array” to power the brewing process, uses the chilly Red Lodge winter weather instead of refrigeration to keep stored beer cold, fuels his delivery trucks with used grease collected from his retail accounts and converted to biodiesel in his garage, and “funds lots of green things.”
Soon, Hoffmann will be doing a lot more of everything. Red Lodge Ales is in the throes of a huge expansion and putting up a new building on the north edge of town. Next March, Red Lodge’s only brewery will move from a 2,200 sq. ft. facility capable of producing 2,100 barrels of beer per year to a 12,000 sq. ft. edifice with an 8,000-barrel capacity.
“It will take us a while to sell that much,” he admits, but he strongly prefers it to the status quo, an aggravating “over capacity” situation.
Hoffmann isn’t worried about losing the current popularity of his taproom, which is always filled to capacity with bodies–90 percent human and 10 percent canine. He’ll have wood stoves and keep his famous refrigerator door that goes directly into his massive cooler. “It won’t be fancy; people don’t like fancy.”
Red Lodge has a long tradition of great beer. Pioneer brewer Fred Lehrkind started the Red Lodge Brewery in 1910 to clinch the thirsts of hard-working, hard-drinking miners employed by local coal mines. When prohibition came along, the brewery closed and became a pea cannery. Then, in 1998, Hoffman bought the craft beer tradition back to Red Lodge when he opened Red Lodge Ales.
When I visited Red Lodge Ales in August, it didn’t take long to see that Hoffmann had some similarities to other brewers. Like most Montana breweries, he clearly has, as he calls it, “a sense of community,” and a strong local following–and he supports local businesses as much as possible, including buying only malt made from Montana barley in Great Falls.
|The recent ground-breaking celebration at the new building site. The Red Lodge Ales gang, from the left, Franklin Hughes, Heather Patterson, Sam Hoffmann, Justin Moore, and Mick Thompson. Photo by Lindsey Cadwell.|
He still has to buy some hops grown out of state, but only because he can’t get them in Montana, yet. To solve that problem, he recently attended “Hop School” and hopes to grow his own hops soon. He already has a few hop plants growing around edge of the patio attached to his taproom, but he can only grow enough for one batch of beer per year.
On the marketing front, Hoffmann depends heavily on the taproom (about 20 percent of total sales) and on the local retail market. “We have handles at every place in town.”
Red Lodge sales used to account for 85 percent of his business, he notes, but that’s now down to about 65 percent because of recent marketing forays into the Billings, Bozeman and Cody. He bottles about 20 percent of his product and is considering canning.
|Sam Hoffmann and one of his “green” trucks. Photo by Bill Schneider|
More than most brewers, Hoffmann also enjoys a strong tourism market, an estimated 25 percent of sales in summer months.
All marketing bets are off, though, because starting next March, Hoffmann will have much more capacity and will be no longer restrained by his inability to produce more beer.
Hoffmann cranks up taproom sales with a “Brewer’s Club.” For a $20 annual fee, club members, about 500 of them, get pints for $2.75 instead of $3.50 and growlers for $6 instead of $7. He also has $2 specials on selected pints on Mondays and Tuesdays for all patrons.
One more difference between Hoffmann and many other Montana brewers is his high level of commitment to work collaboratively with his peers and with politicians for the betterment of the industry. He currently serves as president of the Montana State Brewers Association and was heavily involved in rebuking a recent Revenue Department effort to limit taproom sales.
So, next time you’re near Red Lodge, save time for a pit stop at Sam’s Taproom. You won’t be disappointed.
To read the entire Microbrew Montana series, click here. To track Bill’s travels, see the map of Montana Microbreweries below.