Thursday, March 29, 2012

With Kettlehouse Pulling Out, Who Takes Over?

As we've covered in previous posts, Kettlehouse Brewing Co. announced this month they're pulling out of the Kalispell, Helena and Great Falls markets.  If Kettlehouse ramps up production to keep up with demand, they'll pass the 10,000 bbl per year mark and could no longer sell beer in their two Missoula tap rooms.  Thus, unless and until the 10,000 bbl limit is raised, if Kettlehouse wants to maintain enough production to keep it's Missoula customers happy, it has to pull out of other markets.

Go nearly anywhere in Kalispell, Helena and Great Falls with more than a couple of taps and you're bound to find Kettlehouse's Cold Smoke Scotch Ale.  It is popular and a big seller.  Even bars with primarily American macros often reserve one tap for Cold Smoke. In bars with a broader selection, there's often two Kettlehouse taps, one for Cold Smoke and a second for Double Haul IPA.

Getting tap space in bars isn't easy. Same with shelf space in grocery and convenience stores.  There's limited taps and shelf space and the resulting turf battles include all manner of unsavory accusations.  Just because a new brewery opens up doesn't mean your local favorite bar can add a tap to accommodate it. Putting something new on tap or on the shelf usually means taking space away from someone else.

My point?  Kettlehouse's decision to pull out of Kalispell, Helena and Great Falls means space is about to open up for someone else. That raises two questions. Who will that be? And, can Kettlehouse get that space back once (if) it is able to increase production?

One likely replacement? Ninkasi. Having just blanket the state with marketing and apparent agreements with distributors for pre-planned tap and shelf space, Ninkasi looks to have the means to replace Kettlehouse with speed and efficiency.  I was up in Whitefish this past weekend and stopped in at the Great Northern Bar, a usually stop on my trips up to that area.  Great Northern has 20+ taps, most of which don't rotate except for a couple of seasonals from Deschutes and a couple others.  They have long had two Kettlehouse taps.  There, at the end of the bar, hanging from the ceiling was a big banner announcing a Ninkasi kick off party for March 28-29.  Coincidence?  No way.

My broad, though informal, survey of craft beer fans has universally revealed a singular opinion of Ninkasi:  Meh.  The beer is fine, but nothing particularly new, notable, or different from what is already available in Montana.  And for my part, they've been less than forthcoming with information in response to requests. Did they have advance knowledge of Kettlehouse's decision? I have no idea, but I do know their plan to launch in Montana in May was quickly moved up to March and followed on the heels of Kettlehouse's announcement. 

What do you think?  Who will benefit the most from Kettlehouse's decision?  Can Kettlehouse get its tap and shelf space back if the 10,000 bbl limit gets raised?

(Beer) Running in 2012: What Goals?

For 2011 I started out the year with three distinct running goals: run my first marathon in under four hours, join Run Wild Missoula's 1200 Club by running at least 1200 miles in the calendar year and set a new personal record in a half marathon.  Completing the first goal was a ton of fun - and a ton of work. Completing the second goal wasn't easy either, but I finished up 2011 with 1,302 miles.  The third goal didn't happen, but recovering from the Missoula Marathon took far longer than expected.

Thanks to a tight hamstring that shows no sign of improving, running in 2012 has been a struggle.  I'm already 100 miles behind where I was this time last year.  I started the Run Wild Missoula marathon training group on March 4, my third time training with the group.  Getting to run with old and new friends has been a plus, but I'm struggling. I can feel my fitness coming back, but it isn't where I want it to be.


I thought about that over the last week and it wasn't hard to find the answer.  Yes, the tight hamstring doesn't help, but that's not it.  Here it is:  I don't have a goal.

Two years ago, I set out to run my first half marathon.  Having started running only a few months before, I was determined, fresh and perhaps stupidly optimistic, but it all worked out well.  Last year, I set out with the same determination to reach my first full marathon.  This year? I don't have a goal.  Sure, I can try and run faster, but that's not really my game.  So here I am. Training for  . . . . . something.

Why do it? There are a few reasons that come to mind.  Group runs with my friends are always a good time. I like the fellowship and the shared struggles and celebrations.  But I also need it.  Running allows me to maintain a good weight while continuing to enjoy far more of my less-than-healthful food preferences and, of course, all the beer.

Still reading? Cool.  My running posts are the least read of everything on Growler Fills, so thanks for sticking with me.  Beer and running are both social things and beer runners are a special breed.  Having an active, healthy lifestyle while enjoying great craft beer is a great combination.  Maybe you're a fellow beer runner looking for some new connections. Maybe you're starting on your own new exercise or running adventure and are looking for some information and advice from those who have been there.  Either way, there's room around the bar stools to talk goals, beer and everything else.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Missoula Craft Beer Week Arrives May 1-5, 2012

Craft beer weeks have become popular across the United States in cites big and small. As we've said many times, beer is social and craft beer weeks are a great way to bring together a variety of events with the singular theme of celebrating craft beer.  With the 20th Anniversary of the Garden City BrewFest fast approaching, there's no better time for Montana's first craft beer week in a city that loves its beer.

The Missoula Downtown Association, Growler Fills and Montana Beer Finder have teamed up to create Missoula Craft Beer Week, a Celebration of Craft Beer in the Garden City. We're working on nailing down the details, but so far have lined up:
  • Special Anniversary Ales to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Garden City Brew Fest
  • A beer and cheese pairing event.
  • A beer and brunch event and other food pairings. 
  • A special pint night. 
  • A beer-themed movie night.
  • Brewery tours.
  • And much more! 
For 2012, the events run from Tuesday, May 1 through Saturday, May 5 leading up to the 20th Anniversary Garden City BrewFest, Montana's largest and longest running celebration of craft beer.  If you're in the industry and would like to suggest an event, send us an email at growlerfills @ gmail . com.  To keep up with all the news, "like" the Missoula Craft Beer Week facebook page for regular updates and stick around here for more details.

March Beer Run Tours the Rattlesnake

It's the last week of March which means it's time to lace up the running shoes and head out to Run Wild Missoula's monthly beer run - the legitimate kind.  This Wednesday, March 28, the Beer Run starts from Sean Kelly's Public House on Pine Street in downtown Missoula for a little belated St. Paddy's day themed fun.  The run up through the Rattlesnake neighborhood starts at 6:00 with a five mile course followed by good beer and good fun. (Take a right at Lolo St. if you want to cut it to 4 miles and be at the head of the line for a beverage (ahem, cheater). Here's the map for this month's run:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Not Your Montana Beer Run

"Beer Runners Gone Bad" is a news headline that immediately caught my attention this morning.  I pictured a bunch of my fellow beer runners accidentally getting tricked into drinking a Bud Light Chelada. Or perhaps a foul odor emanating from the pack after a run at the Run Wild Missoula pint night at Kettlehouse.

No, this story from the Appeal-Democrat in California tells of a disturbing "beer run" trend concentrated in the Southwest U.S.  As the story notes, most of us know the phrase "beer run" to mean a night-time trip to the store to pick up more beer.  Here in Missoula, it's a popular monthly activity actually involving running and beer that pulls in 70 or more people at a time. 

In Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, however, a beer run has come to mean something of a shoplifting dare where customers walk into a store, grab a carton of beer, and walk out the store without paying.  Why is that news? Well, El Paso police report it happened at least 2,876 times in 2011, a decrease of 17% from 2010.  Authorities in Peoria, AZ, conducted Operation Chug-a-Lug using a federal grant and made 67 arrests for beer runs in less than 2 months.  Who says cops don't have a sense of humor?

What's the preferred beer of choice? Bud Light.  At least they're not stealing the good stuff.

Check out the full story here. It's a good read.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Plenty of Places to Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

This Saturday there will be no shortage of St. Patrick's Day celebrations involving good craft beer (yes, even green beer), live music and tasty dishes all across Montana. So feel free to raise a pint, toast your inner Leprechaun and enjoy the day, and, as always, be safe out there.
  • Bones Brewing Pub & Eatery will host live music by Big Caboose (starts at 9 p.m. with $5 cover), serve Corned Beef Cabbage & Irish Stew and offer the following beer specials: $2 Green Beer
$2.50 Guinness Bottles
$3 Irish Red Pints
$4 Irish Whiskey Shots
$5 Irish Car bomb
  • Bayern Brewing will feature multiple firkins and wooden barrels of Kilarney at the following locations: 
2:00 - Firkin tapping at Stone of Accord
4:00 - Wooden barrel tapping at Sean Kelly's
5:00 - Wooden barrel tapping at Tap Room (pictured above)
6:00 - Firkin tapping at Brooks and Brown  
  • Quarry Brewing will tap two new beers, Emerald Isle Green Beer and Sandstone Stout. 
  • Bitter Root Brewing will serve up green beers upon request and offer Whiskey Glazed Corned Beef and cabbage. They will also have a live music collaboration with Tom Catmull and The One Offs.  
  • Lewis & Clark Brewing Company will celebrate its 10th Anniversary, tap two new beers (Superweed Imperial IPA and Double Dry-Hopped Anniversary IPA) and feature a concert by The Clintons (concert starts at 5:00 p.m. with an $8 cover).  
  • Draught Works says the first 50 people to buy a pint of beer will get a St. Patrick’s Day Draught Works t-shirt. The brewery will also be filled with live music by John Floridis (12:30 - 3:30 p.m.), Mudslide Charlie (5:00 - 8:00 p.m.), and the Celtic Dragon Bagpipers. A Vanilla Bean Stout and Coffee Stout will be served on cask that day.  
Know of other events at our Montana breweries?  Let us know and we'll get them on the list. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Stein Haus Serves Up 21 Montana Craft Taps

Lets be honest here.  Great Falls, Montana, has not been a hotbed of craft beer activity.  When many of Montana's other larger cities got a new brewery (or three or four), a few bars and restaurants with nice tap selections and an improving craft presence in the local grocery stores, Great Falls plodded along on the macro-adjunct-lager train. Yet, one thing is becoming clear. Great Falls' aversion to craft beer wasn't due to a lack of demand.  Rather, it seems an attitude shift of sorts from those serving up the offerings was all that was necessary.

Perhaps the most dramatic shift occurred at the Stein Haus on 1st Avenue in Great Falls' downtown core.  Long regarded as one of the city's infamous dive bars, the Stein Haus underwent a slow remodeling process that transformed the space into something that still looks like it has been there a long time. There's the wood floors and paneling that nearly every comfortable bar in Montana seems to have.  There is also a large indoor fire pit taking center stage in the back half of the bar flanked by a pool table, dart board and a jukebox.  But that's not what grabbed our attention.

Stein Haus bartender TJ is a big fan of craft beer. Through his passion, he convinced the owners to start switching out the standard macro fare in favor of Montana craft taps.  Of the 24 taps, only 3 remain dedicated to the bud lights of the world.  The other 21 feature a frequently rotating selection of Montana brewed craft beer.  Even better? They focus on Montana craft beers that generally aren't available elsewhere in Great Falls.  So, for example, you won't find Harvest Moon Beltian White, brewed 20 miles away in Belt, but you will find Lone Peak's Hippy Highway Oatmeal Stout.  On my visit, there were three Blackfoot River taps, two each for Great Northern, Madison River and Bayern, and more with Yellowstone Valley, Lone Peak and others. A keg from Great Falls' new brewery Bowser Brewing had blown just the day before. Some specialty firkins have been known to show up from time to time as well.

I sat down and enjoyed a Madison River Black Ghost Oatmeal Stout on nitro while visiting with TJ and waiting for my dinner from the next-door Howard's Pizza, which you can order right from the bar.  Stein Haus sells growlers, too, and will happily fill you up with anything from their fine selection.  While you're having a pint, waiting for some food, or getting a growler to go, be sure and check out the braided chain hanging from the ceiling.  It's made of 33,460 bottle caps and leaves you wondering who had the patience to string them all together.  Sure, Stein Haus lost a few customers who weren't happy about losing their coors light tap, but they've gained much more with a craft beer loving crowd who frequently stops by to ask "what's new?"

The Stein Haus.  It's where to find beer.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ninkasi Brewing Co. Begins Distribution in Montana

Every once in a while a regional sized brewery takes note of Montanan's love of craft beer and decides to get in on the fun.  This week, Ninkasi Brewing Company began distribution of bottled and kegged products with a splash across Montana.

Ninkasi Brewing Co. in Eugene, OR, started brewing in 2006 and expanded to a 50 bbl system in short order, distributing beer to Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, parts of California and, now, Montana.  Co-founder Jamie Floyd has been a passionate advocate for the brewery, as you can see from this photo of him dressed as Darth Vader while pitching Ninkasi's Total Domination IPA at the 2011 Beer Bloggers Conference.

Sales Director Marty Ochs and Inland Northwest Markets Manager Peter Remington made the rounds in Montana this week talking to distributors and others in the industry.  It looks like distribution is set for Missoula, Kalispell, Great Falls, Helena, Bozeman and Billings. Based on the number of calls, emails, and requests they've received from Montanans, Ninkasi expects to have quite a following right from the start.

Spotted so far in Missoula are Ninkasi's Believer Double Red Ale, Oatis Oatmeal Stout, Spring Reign Ale, and Total Domination IPA in 22 oz bombers and six packs of Total Domination IPA and Spring Reign. The Rhino in Missoula has Total Domination IPA on tap. Have you had a chance to try any yet?  Let us know what you think.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Kettlehouse, the 10,000 bbl Limit, and a Blueprint for Legislative Success

Today, Growler Fills welcomes guest writer Eric Cioe* for his take on the 10,000 barrel limitation recently highlighted by Kettlehouse Brewing Co.'s decision to pull out of three Montana markets.

BY ERIC CIOE - Kettlehouse Brewing has unfortunately been forced to make a tough decision: either pull out of some of their markets, or shut down their two tap rooms in Missoula.  The decision isn’t forced by capacity demands.  In fact Kettlehouse has recently expanded their production brewery on Missoula’s Northside, more than doubling capacity with two new 90 barrel fermenters.  The issue is a legislative one, an issue that at least one other state has just dealt with quickly and justly, providing a blueprint for Montana legislators to support a popular and growing local business.

The rub is caused by the definition of ‘small brewery’ in statute 16-3-213:
(2) (a) For the purposes of this section, a "small brewery" is a brewery that has an annual nationwide production of not less than 100 barrels or more than 10,000 barrels.

(b) A small brewery may, at one location for each brewery license, provide samples of beer that were brewed and fermented on the premises in a sample room located on the licensed premises. The samples may be provided with or without charge between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. No more than 48 ounces of malt beverage may be sold or given to each individual customer during a business day.
What these parts mean put together is that breweries that produce more than 10,000 barrels a year are no longer considered a “small brewery” and can no longer sell pints of their beer on premises.

Big Sky Brewing is so far the only brewery in Montana that exceeds that limit.  Because of this, they have to give away their beer rather than sell it in their taproom, and in quantities less than 48 oz.  One gets the feeling that this is not an issue for Big Sky, who have successfully built a regional brewery that distributes to almost half of the states in the country.  Their goals and circumstances are unique among Montana breweries.

*            *            * 

Kettlehouse is a different animal entirely.  Their Myrtle Street taproom is an obvious hangout for the university and downtown communities, more relaxed and kid-friendly than nearby bars.

Even more obviously community oriented is the Northside taproom. There, Kettlehouse hosts Community UNite each Wednesday where $.50 of every pint poured goes towards varying organizations within Missoula.  These events are booked through the end of 2012 already.  Important community groups like the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, the Caras Park Fund, and the Missoula Senior Center are all being represented in the first few months of 2012.  Every Wednesday there are bikes chained up outside and street parking full for a hundred yards in both directions.

With both of their taprooms, Kettlehouse supports the Missoula that has supported them through the years.

*            *            *

So when faced with the choice of brewing beyond the 10,000 barrel limit for selling beer in their taprooms in Missoula, or reigning in production by pulling out of markets where their beers are popular, Kettlehouse has chosen to side with Missoula.  No doubt Cold Smoke fans in Kalispell, Helena, and Great Falls are disappointed with the choice, but Tim O’Leary recognizes the importance that his taprooms have in Missoula and is unwilling to give them up, even at the cost of potential profits.

But he should not have been faced with this choice to begin with.  While arguments can be made for most of the other provisions that govern breweries, such as the 48 oz law and the 8 pm last call, one can scarcely see a point in the 10,000 barrel limitation for beer sales in taprooms.

Who are the beneficiaries of such a law?

Not the bar owners in Missoula.  Because of the other regulations on the Kettlehouse, there is hardly competition between local bars and local breweries as is.  

Not the bar owners in Kalispell, Helena, and Great Falls.  They will no longer be able to supply their customers with the Cold Smoke that they enjoy.

Not local small brewers.  Missoula newcomer Draught Works is already pouring beer as fast as they can brew it and, like both Kettlehouse locations, are busy almost every night of the week.

Not the state.  The more beer Kettlehouse sells, the more tax dollars that go to Helena.

Not the local economy.  Kettlehouse employs brewers and bartenders at two locations in a town with a distinct job shortage.  Their growth would mean more jobs in Missoula.

Not the local communities.  Both taprooms are friendly, safe places where locals can grab a pint after work without being in bar environment.

Those who will benefit most of all from the Kettlehouse not being in three large Montana markets are large out of state brewers like Sierra Nevada and Deschutes, who will doubtless fill major parts of the void left by Kettlehouse’s departure.  And as much as I enjoy the beer from those breweries, I can’t help but feel they are doing fine without help from the Montana legislature.  

*            *            * 

Fortunately we are not in uncharted waters.  In 2010 and 2011 I watched a similar regulatory hitch encountered and eventually overcome while living in the Midwest.

The Three Floyds Brewery in Munster, Indiana realized in 2010 they were on course to surpass the 20,000 barrel limit that the state government had imposed in the early 1990s.  After reaching that limit breweries would no longer be able to operate a taproom, among other things.  Three Floyds teamed up with Sun King and Upland, two other breweries in the state who were approaching 20,000 barrels per year to lobby for raising the limit.

Recognizing the economic benefit to the community and the state as a whole that these three successful business provided, the Indiana legislature quickly voted to raise the limit to 30,000 barrels per year in May of 2011. With Three Floyds recently growing at a rate of almost 5,000 barrels annually, this law will no doubt be challenged again in the next few years.  But when pressed on the issue, the Indiana legislature was able to take quick action to prevent successful businesses in their state from being forced to make tough decisions regarding their production.

*            *            * 

Unfortunately for Montana, Kettlehouse has already had to make a tough decision to comply with state law. Kalispell, Helena, and Great Falls residents are already beginning to see fewer Kettlehouse cases at their beer stores and fewer Kettlehouse kegs at their bars.

Tim O’Leary has committed himself to raising the 10,000 barrel limit through legislative action.  Doubtless the beer communities of Kalispell, Helena, and Great Falls support his efforts.  And Bayern Brewing, who is likely the next brewery to reach 10,000 barrels in Montana, also stands behind him.  But beyond that, any Montanan who cares about the growth of its local business, especially those who support the community they are part of as much as Kettlehouse does, should support him to get the limit raised or even eliminated.

Of course there will be complications involved.  Any alcohol-related decision made in Montana must contend with the biggest lobby in the state, the Montana Tavern Association, who have not proven flexible with previous challenges to brewery regulations.  But because the main beneficiaries of the limit seem to be out of state brewers who stand to gain sales while Kettlehouse loses them, the Montana legislature and any other interested parties should work quickly so that the natural growth of this successful business is not inhibited any more than it already has been.

* Eric Cioe lives in Missoula, MT, having arrived not long ago from the great beer havens around Lake Michigan. He's a fan of big stouts, cask-conditioned ales, fresh local brews and - as I can attest - sharing brews with friends.  You can find more from Eric over at Montana Beer Finder.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Kettlehouse Pulls Out of Kalispell, Great Falls and Helena

Montana, we have a problem.  Back in January we highlighted an issue mentioned in a Missoulian article that featured a recent expansion at Kettlehouse Brewing Company's northside location. Local brewery expansions are always worth celebrating, but this one came with a troubling quirk.  Montana law allows breweries to sell pints for on-premise consumption within a framework of regulation that is often perplexing to those unfamiliar with its history.  Now, one more of those regulatory prongs is rearing up in a noticeable way.

Montanans are now familiar with the daily 48 oz. limitation for on-premise consumption in Montana's tap rooms and know you'd better order up that last one before 8:00 p.m. Yet, it's been easy to overlook the fact that only breweries which brew fewer than 10,000 barrels are permitted to sell pints for on premise consumption.  Missoula's Big Sky Brewing Co. is the State's only brewery exceeding 10,000 barrels in annual production. By comparison, Flathead Lake Brewing Co. currently brews 700 barrels. For most of our great, local craft breweries, it isn't a number they've had to worry much about.

With Kettlehouse's expansion, they're right on the cusp with a big decision to make. Keep expanding to fill demand - but stop selling pints at their brewery - or sit tight on production while restricting distribution.  Kettlehouse announced their decision today:
We have recently made the terrible decision to pull out of the Helena, Kalispell, and Great Falls markets.  Our draw down will start in March.  The reason is we’re selling so much beer in bars restaurants and stores in Missoula and Bozeman that we can’t keep ourselves under the10 k bbl limit that allows us to operate our taprooms and charge for beer.  We are unwilling at this time to close down our taprooms and risk alienating ourselves from our core market of Missoula supporters who got us here in the first place.  I call it “selling in”.  If we closed our taprooms, our Missoula base could say we “sold out”.  
Reading the rest of Kettlehouse' announcement provides a good feel for the difficulty that went into the decision as well as a sense of frustration with a regulation that lacks much logic.  Sure, we're read numerous news reports of breweries like Dogfish Head, Avery, Terrapin and others reining in distribution, but such moves reflect brewery capacity issues, not regulatory hangups. It's a choice Kettlehouse should not have to make.

So . . what to do? Change the law, an effort Tim O'Leary, founder of Kettlehouse, says he's ready to embark upon:
For the remainder of the year  I’ll be working to collaborate with our trade partners to improve the business climate for mid sized and established Montana craft brewers. I’m looking forward to meeting with all interested parties to discuss what we can do to remove the 10k bbl limit in the next legislative session. 
Kettlehouse is going to need our help.  Not in vilifying those who are resistant to changing our brewery regulations, but by building support for cooperative efforts in advancing the entire industry.  Touting our local breweries is easy.  They bring good jobs and use Montana agricultural products.  Almost universally, they have created taprooms which mimic the community social centers - the pubs, if you will - of yesteryear.

A great benefit of creating Growler Fills has been the connections we've made among craft beer drinkers, brewers, breweries, industry reps and other fans and participants in this great social experiment we call beer. It's clear Montana's craft beer industry is on the rise and it's supporters are up to the challenge. We look forward to making more connections on our craft beer journey whether it be rallying around legislative needs or sharing a pint over the latest great beer.  Who's in?