Lewis & Clark Brewing in Helena, Montana, used to be a Sleeping Giant. And perhaps it still is.
In March, 2002, Max Pigman bought the struggling Sleeping Giant Brewing. Ever since, his business has been anything but sleepy.
“We kept the Sleeping Giant name for about two years,” Pigman explains, but then decided to re-name it. “Outside of Helena, the term ‘sleeping giant’ (a recognizable mountain north of town) wasn’t well known, and we started marking our beer outside Helena. Also, we decided the words ‘sleeping’ and ‘beer’ didn’t really go together.”
Or do they?
Also, he notes, the former owners eventually had to file for bankruptcy, so he had a hard time dealing with vendors and getting materials because the name associated him with the bankruptcy, even though there was no financial connection.
Why Lewis & Clark? “Since we are in the only Lewis & Clark County in the United States, it seemed like a good fit.”
And it seems to be working because business is good. Pigman believes the entire Montana brewing industry continues to grow, “and we’re growing along with it. We’ve had slow steady growth ever since we started. Most breweries are having enough growth to buy new equipment or upgrade equipment, and most have experienced growth in their taprooms. Those on-site sales are pivotal to our business.”
His wife, Karen, and daughter, Kaleen, put in a few shifts in the taproom, and he employs eight people total, which means Lewis & Clark Brewing should perfectly fit the mold for a small, family-owned Montana business.
“In the not-too-distant future, we’ll need a larger facility,” Pigman predicts. “Long-term, we’d like to scale this brewery down and make it pilot brewery and have a manufacturing plant somewhere else.”
A “pilot brewery” is an industry term for a small facility that only makes test beers and beer for on-site consumption.
“We have a great location for the public,” he notes, and the people upstairs enjoy the motif of having a brewery downstairs, but not so great for getting trucks in and out. We only have enough space to do one thing at a time. We just need more space.”
Pigman refers to the Brewhouse Pub & Grille, which occupies the upper floor of the same building. There’s no direct financial connection between the two businesses, but the brewpub features Lewis & Clark products on the beer list and has large windows where customers can look down and watch Pigman’s head brewer, T.J. Staples, making beer.
What makes Lewis & Clark Brewing different from the other 24 breweries in Montana? “Every brewery has its own style,” Pigman believes, “but we’re known for having the hoppiest beer in the state, our Tumbleweed IPA. And hop lovers are the most passionate about their beer.”
“Every contest we have enter it in, it wins,” Pigman boasts. “But it’s little tough for us right now because the strain on the hop supply has made us produce less hoppy beer.”
He thinks brewers must wait two to three years until the hop supply shortage subsides. In the meantime, you might not find Tumbleweed IPA in the Lewis & Clark taproom, but rest assured that will change as soon as possible.
“We’re also the only brewery with environmental friendly packaging for our six packs.” (See photo.) In fact, he notes most breweries in Montana don’t even bottle beer because it requires a large capital investment.
As mentioned in the intro to the Microbrew Montana series, Pigman also sees the trend in tourism with travelers seeking out local breweries and taprooms. “We get a lot of tourists in our place, and they do upstairs too, where they do a good job of highlighting our beers. People come down to see our place and buy t-shirts and hats.”
In closing, a small quote from the company’s brochure to illustrate the guiding principles: “Our secret ingredient is the pride and craftsmanship added by dedicated people lucky enough to be called Montanans. Our beers are hand crafted and un-pasteurized and are brewed to levels of quality, which can only be achieved in the finest of breweries.”
That pretty much sums up the philosophy of Lewis & Clark Brewing.
To read the rest of the Microbrew Montana series, click here. To track Bill’s travels, see the map of Montana Microbreweries below.