One of the first questions I asked when I started the Microbrew Montana series was: “What’s a microbrewery?” But there’s no answer–no official line a brewer can cross to grow up from a microbrewery to a macrobrewery.
That question sure came rushing back during my tour of Big Sky Brewing in Missoula, which is not only far and away the largest brewery in Montana, but also maker of the state’s most famous beer, Moose Drool Brown Ale.
And a major stretch for the word, microbrewery.
Most breweries in Montana brew around a 1,000 barrels (31 gallons each) of beer each year and sell most of it within a half-day’s drive of their fermenters, but Big Sky produces 38,000 barrels per year and sells its products in 16 states, as far away as Arizona or Wisconsin.
If you doubt me, go to Big Sky’s new 33,000-square-foot facility near the Airport Boulevard Exit on the west edge of Missoula and see for yourself. You can get a tour, too, and I’m betting you’ll be a little awe struck just like I was. (You can even get a virtual tour from your own computer by clicking here.)
While you’re there, cozy up to the tasting bar where you can get up to four free six-ounce samples of the Big Sky brews and check out the gift shop’s huge selection of branded clothing and beer-related merchandise.
“It’s more of a gift shop than a taproom,” co-founder Bjorn Nabozney admitted when we met there and he heard me comment on the size of the tasting room and its assortment of beer stuff. “But we’ve become a bona fide tourism destination in Missoula.”
And sure enough, while we chatted at about 2 pm, a steady stream of people, some obviously out of town travelers, came in to buy gifts, throw down a sample or two, or fill growlers.
Most Montana breweries are crowded into undersized buildings where five or six employees multi-task all day, but Big Sky and its 40 employees occupy a huge, modern, mostly automated facility. They have a sweeping bottling chain and an automated keg washing, sterilizing and filling machine that allows the company to fill the same number of kegs in two hours it previously took two days to fill by hand. Big Sky even has a “beer lab” where head brewer Matt Long meticulously monitors quality and experiments with new brews.
(“We also like to have fun,'” Nabozney noted during the tour, pointing at the basketball hoop tucked in behind the mountain of kegs, “and we always have a few powder days each winter.”)
I didn’t have to ask what makes Big Sky different from the other 25 Montana breweries. Magnitude is the obvious answer, but there’s more.
During my two-hour interview, Long and Nabozney managed to work their emphasis on quality control into almost every answer. Not that other brewers aren’t concerned about quality, because they all are, but at Big Sky, it’s obviously an obsession.
“We could grow even faster,” Long explains, “but it might sacrifice quality.”
Another reason Big Sky has ridden away from the pack is the emphasis on marketing, something many Montana breweries don’t prioritize, mainly because they already sell all the beer they can produce–and they’re so into making good beer that they aren’t interested in marketing to other states or having 40 employees. Being a marketing fan myself, I didn’t need to ask about it. I could see marketing and branding everywhere and wasn’t surprised to hear Nabozney stress it several times as a key to their success.
I haven’t talked to all Montana brewers yet, but I’m fairly sure Big Sky Brewing will be the only privately held C Corporation I’ll find along the Microbrew Trail. You probably can spot the company’s 80 stockholders by their permanent smiles, looking sort of like I do after my third pint of IPA.
Big Sky started up in 1995 and moved into its modern facility in 2002. Growth runs 8-12 percent per year, Nabozney notes, but it could be higher. “We get requests for our beer from other states all the time.”
Ironically, this growth has made the business a victim of its own success. Under Montana’s much-maligned (by brewers, at least) law, brewers who produce more than 10,000 barrels per year can’t sell beer in the taproom, so there’s one more difference between Big Sky and its brethren. Big Sky is the only brewery selling 10,000 barrels per year, so it has been penalized for growing and providing Montana jobs by not being able to sell pints (i.e. high margin sales) to customers like all its competitors can, a glaring inequity Nabozney hopes the legislature addresses soon.
The list of differences goes on. Another thing you see in the Big Sky Brewing building is a huge conference room where Long and his co-workers give beer educational classes, like how to home brew and now, the new rage, classes to introduce women to the joy of beer.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that men consume at least 70 percent of the beer produced in this country, so you don’t have to be a marketing genius to know the female population offers a huge potential for growth. Long now teaches classes for aspiring female beer drinkers (7 pm, Mondays) and two female Big Sky employees have started the only women’s beer club in the state called Betty’s for Beer.
One similarity between Big Sky and its fellow Montana brewers is its strong support of the local community. Big Sky always has a “community beer” on tap in the tasting room. You pay $4 extra for a growler of community beer and that money goes to a long list of local nonprofit efforts supported by Big Sky through the years.
Also like other brewers, Big Sky loves all of its beers, but Moose Drool has not only become the company’s signature beer but the best-known Montana microbrew. Big Sky brews five major brands year around, two seasonal beers (Powder Hound Winter Ale and Summer Honey Seasonal Ale) and a host of specialty blends, some of them getting extra aging in wooden barrels. But the brand people remember is Moose Drool.
Did you ever wonder why they call it Moose Drool?
The short answer is: It was Bjorn’s mother’s fault.
In the early days of Big Sky Brewing, back when they brewed a great-tasting brown ale, but had no name for it, the founders were trying to figure out what to call it. Then one day, or so the story goes, Bjorn’s mother drove by a now-closed business called the Moose Breath Bar and thought that sounded about right, so she called her son and said let’s call it Moose Breath. Bjorn and his partners liked it.
Since they were so poor they couldn’t afford an artist, and Bjorn’s mother did a little painting here and there, Bjorn asked her to do the art for the label–for free, of course. When she showed up with the artwork, one of Bjorn’s co-founders Neal Leathers looked at the drawing of a moose breathing and said, “That looks more like Moose Drool.” And it stuck.
So, now you know how Moose Drool came to be.
I’ve heard it called “gross,” but in reality, it’s a branding home run. You remember it, right?
And its taste deserves its reputation. Draft Magazine recently applauded Moose Drool and said, “This may be the best brown ale made in the world today.”
Now, all I have to do is get one of those Moose Drool cycling jerseys and be a big hit at the starting line.
To read the rest of the Microbrew Montana series, click here. To track Bill’s travels, see the map of Montana Microbreweries below.