In Butte, America, they dig things, like copper and silver, big statues on big hills, hunting and fishing, labor unions, big pits, and now, they dig beer, too, all because of Quarry Brewing, one of Montana’s newwest microbreweries.
Butte has a long tradition of brewing beer and has many long-ago-closed breweries, but for many years, the Mining City has been without a brewery. Now, the Schnabels have come to town and fixed that problem, launching Butte’s first microbrewery.
Chuck Schnabel, co-owner (with his wife Lyza) and head brewer, grew up in nearby Anaconda and spent many years brewing beer for the Ram Brewery in Lakewood, Washington before moving back to the Mining City. Now, he’s mighty excited about bringing back the craft beer tradition to what has become a “Bud Town.” He hopes to gradually convert the locals away from the national brands and back to microbrew, “when they are ready,” but also proud to have done a lot of conversion in his first year. The Schnabels just finished celebrating Quarry’s first anniversary on September 29.
Fortunately, first impressions are not always correct. When you see Quarry Brewing from Galena Street, it doesn’t look like much, a bland brick building in Uptown Butte, but behind the green door (you have to be at least 50 to get that), which is beside the gray door, you’ll find one of the nicest, friendliest taprooms in Montana.
Also behind the green door, you find Chuck Schnabel and his beer quilt made out of old jeans and brewery t-shirts busily multi-tasking–brewing beer, pouring pints, filling growlers, chatting with customers. But never too busy to take time to talk to anybody about his favorite subject, craft beer, or any other subject. I’ve visited all the tasting rooms in Montana except one–the new Blacksmith Brewing in Stevensville (next week for that one), and I’d say Quarry has close to the most pleasant, family friendly taprooms of them all.
“We are truly a Mom and Pop operation,” Schnabel describes his new business. “We only have two employees, my wife and I.”
Most brewers encourage the spirit of community in their tasting rooms, often with what’s called “community tables.” Schnabel has taken that a step farther by buying old church pews instead of bar stools for each side of the tables. He’s also set aside an area with a blackboard for kids (including, often, his own two children) to enjoy themselves while their parents enjoy a pint and soak in a little local wisdom.
Like many microbrewers, Schnabel has a Mug Club, but unlike most, it’s hard to get in. When visited his new brewery in November, he already had 162 people on the waiting list.
Waiting list? “If you let everybody in,” he answered. “It wouldn’t be special.”
The Mug Club has 150 members. You have to be a taproom regular to qualify, but if you get more regular, he admitted, you can “move up the list.”
Mug Club members pay $35 annual fee, which includes a filled growler and a dollar off future refills. Members pay $3.50 for a pint, like all customers, but they drink out of their own 20-ounce mug with a fill line, so they get the full 16 ounces, which you almost never get when using a pint glass.
“But it isn’t about mugs on the wall,” Schnabel added. “It’s about taking care of your regulars and knowing about their life and family. We’re really about a sense of community and enjoying a beer made by a guy you know.”
That statement pretty much embodies Schnabel’s business philosophy, not dramatically different than many microbrewers, but he’s obviously a bit more serious about it. With that possible exception, in fact, he couldn’t really come up with an answer when asked how his operation differed from his brethren in the Montana microbrewing industry.
“Everybody in this business is passionate about his beer,” he said. “The microbrew industry is here to stay. It will get more and more like Europe.”
Schnabel brews four basic beers–amber, gold, pale ale and porter–and two seasonals each year, which are released at a semi-annual Mug Club Party, so members get the first chance at them.
Quarry Brewing’s entire marketing theme is about mining–everything from the beer names to the logo on the door to the shovel-shaped taster tray made by the local sheltered workshop.
He produced about 350 barrels of craft brew his first year, which unlike many Montana brewers puts him below capacity, so no expansion plans, yet. He has a “bigger is not better” attitude, but that could change because business is good. Quarry already has their beer on draught in about 25 local accounts, but still sells more than half his output right in his tasting room.
And unlike most brewers (I think Kettle House in Missoula is the only other one), Quarry is heavy into the pig business–party pigs, that is, which are small, brown. pig-shaped kegs. And yes, they’re lovable.
Party Pigs hold 2.25 gallons, and they don’t go stale like a growler does a few days after it’s opened. Schnabel has sold about 60 pigs so far–actually, to be politically correct, they’re “adopted.” Each adopted pig gets an official “birth certificate” and names given to them by their proud parents, like Babe or Bruno. Extra special care of pigs is strongly encouraged, Schnabel emphasizes, and there’s no tolerance policy for pig abuse.
“We have to have some fun,” he says with a big grin from behind the bar as he tells me about his adopt-a-pig program. “We can’t get all wrapped up in this fast-paced lifestyle. Butte tends to have a tough image, but it’s really just a big, friendly town.”
That’s about the time when he received a call from his wife and she asked where he was and he said, “I’m in church.”
To read the rest of the Microbrew Montana series, click here. To track Bill’s travels, see the map of Montana Microbreweries below.