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Hi-Line Living: Local brewing, distilling grows on the Hi-Line


March 22, 2019

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

With three breweries and distillery, Havre's locally produced alcohol market has grown in a big way in Havre in the past five years.

Havre went from not having a single brewery since the mid-1900s to having three - Triple Dog Brewing Co., Old Station Brewing Co. and Vizsla Brewing - and a distillery, Cawford Distillery, in the past five years, which have all been a huge success. All of them are planning to grow their businesses in the next year.

An evolving trend, evolving market

Patrick Barkey, director of the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Development, said the growth of local breweries in Montana is an interesting phenomena with many variables.

He said it is a rapidly evolving marketplace and can positively affect local economies. However, the larger the company, the larger the impact and the larger the risk, he said.

"It's pretty interesting," he said. "It's rapidly changing, that is for sure.

Smaller breweries receive a significant tax break compared to the larger breweries, Barkey said, adding that that allows them to be competitive in the market. It can make it beneficial to start smaller hometown breweries, he said, but those businesses have a difficult time expanding outside of the state. The difficulty for local brewers comes when trying to transport beer to another state, but that also makes it profitable to have hometown local markets, he said.

The increase of the breweries in the state is a good thing, he said, although it does have a bad side with market saturation.

"Overall, the beer market is flat," he said.

They are growing at the expense of other beer, he said, the competition always creates competitive behavior, he said. This leaves not much room to accommodate new growth without someone else taking a hit, he added.

"As long as they take shares from larger producers there is room for growth, without impacting other brewers," he said. "However, they compete with each other, as well, and makes it harder for one to be viable."

He said the number of breweries also does not accurately display small hometown brewers, people who save up their money and open their own business. This is because some of the newer breweries are being established are quite a bit larger than the earlier ones, he said. Some of the newer breweries start up with investors who are taking advantage of the opportunity in the market.

Barkey said there is no exact data on this for Montana, however, this is the trend that is being seen in the national market place.

As for growth for each business, Barkey said, any expansion for a business poses a level of risk. Starting any business takes initial capital, he said, as well as people who are willing to work hard and do the marketing for the business, and expansion increases that.

Another obstacle these small breweries are facing is that if they do go to other states, he said, they might not sell as well as the local beer.

Expanding after five years

But Triple Dog Brewing Co. is expanding its business, purchasing two new 20-barrel fermenters, tripling the amount of beer it is able to produce and allowing it to increase its out-of-town marketing.

Owner and brewmaster Michael Garrity and his wife, Erin, said that this is their most recent expansion of the business.

Michael Garrity said Triple Dog has also purchased a crowler canning machine so customers can come into the brewery and purchase crowlers, which is part of its five-year plan.

Erin Garrity added that this is a good way for them to gauge the number of sales for when Triple Dog wants to start a mass production canning line in the future.

In addition to the businesses expansion, Michael Garrity said, he plans to sign on with a distributor in the following months so that Triple Dog beer can be bought in every restaurant and bar across the Hi-Line.

Erin Garrity said Triple Dog already distributes to 11 venues in Havre and three out of town.

She added that the next step after getting on with a distributor for the Hi-Line will be to sign on with a larger distributor so they will be able to distribute beer farther south in the state.

Old Station also growing

Old Station Brewing Co. co-owner Steve Neiffer said business has been good and they are constantly working on improvements.

He said Old Station will be trying a few different beers this coming year and working to have more music and events for the following months. He added that they are also working on making improvements to the patio area so they will be able to hold more outdoor events.

Neiffer said that for the first year Old Station has been open, distribution has not been their highest concern.

"We'll probably do more of that, but that hasn't really been our focus," he said.

He said Old Station would need at least 100 kegs in order to properly distribute and that will have to be something for down the road with the business.

Neiffer said one of the business' big goals for the coming year is to purchase a keg washer and improve the tap room before they move further.

He added that Old Station will also be expanding their hours in the coming months. They are not set yet, he said, but he plans to have Old Station open earlier on Fridays and possibly be open Sundays.

Vizsla also expanding

Vizsla Brewing owner Raymond Miller said that Vizsla Brewing, since it opened last year, distributes around town to a few different restaurants and bars as well as a location in Great Falls.

He added that they distribute to a few local farmers and ranchers in the area, as well.

Business has been good, he said, and since they opened they have about 40 regular customers who come in throughout the week.

He said Vizsla has also added a big screen TV, as well as a shuffleboard, digital menu and live music for their customers to enjoy.

"People love to be entertained," he said.

He and his wife are also looking to hire an additional employee for the summer, he said.

He said that Vizsla does all its own distributing. He said that he has some concerns with getting on with a distributor this early and with the terms of contract agreements.

"Once you are partners, you are partners for life," he said.

Miller said that after the summer, with all of the different events, they will re-evaluate the option of signing on with a distributor. However, he wants to be able to distribute himself, he said.

Growth at Crawford

Crawford Distillery owner Neil Crawford said that he is also planning to expand, to move into a larger building with a larger distilling area to house bigger equipment and a larger tasting room after less than a year of being open.

Everything has been going great, he said. Business slowed down during the winter months, but is on track for a good year.

Crawford said that the distillery is planning to release two new flavors of moonshine, coffee and apple pie flavor, within the next couple of weeks.

"They are better on different things,"he said, "but the all-around better, I would say, is the apple pie."

He said they will also be introducing the distillery's first batch of whiskey in at least four months after it has aged for a year.

The business also has won its first award. Milk River Moonshine took a bronze award in the 2019 American Craft Spirits Association competition.

Crawford said owning a distillery has been hard work.

"It's challenging but very rewarding at the same time," he said.

He added that the business began distributing in November to Havre's Liquor Stop Plus and since then have expanded to several restaurants and bars around town as well as a liquor store in Great Falls.

He said that with their products in high demand they need to expand their business to keep up.

He also hopes to grow the two products they serve, moonshine and rum, to 15 in the future, he added.

Beer, liquor and community

All four businesses also have been active in supporting the community where they sell.

Erin and Michael Garrity said that they like giving back to the Havre community - both of them are from the Hi-Line. She grew up in Chinook while he was a Havreite.

"If this is where I want to live and this is where I want to raise my kids, I want to make this town as great as possible," Michael Garrity said.

Erin Garrity said that people get back what they put in, adding that Triple Dog has been involved with a countless number of fundraisers, donating to and hosting events for non-profits.

They also partner with several businesses around town, she said, such as selling products to Infinity Bake Shoppe and Lady Bug Bites.

Lady Bug Bites uses Triple Dog's spent grain to make its dog treats.

Michael Garrity said one of the high points about the job is working with and getting to know other business owners in the area, adding that it is nice to see people want to give back to their communities.

"Every good deed needs to be seen somehow," he said.

Crawford said that everything always comes back full circle.

People should strive to be productive members of the community because every bit helps out, he said.

"For one, the big businesses won't," he said. "I don't think they are going to do it, so it is up to the small business or the community members that are going to take care of the people. We all have to take care of each other."

Since Crawford has opened, he said, they have donated to a variety of fundraisers and groups. He said they also have donated bottle packages to Hops For Hunger, the Hi-Line curling team, Rocky Mountain Health Foundation and Montana State University-Northern's wrestling team. They have also done several cancer benefits since they opened.

Neiffer said that many businesses do charitable, community things, although if someone is not involved they don't realize it's there.

He said his other business, Bergren Transmission, also donates but it was never as visible as at the brewery.

It's important to contribute because it makes a better place for everyone, he said.

Vizsla has also done a number of fundraisers since they opened, Miller said. He added that he is thankful for the people who have come out to attend these fundraiser. He said since they have opened they have donated to a variety of charities, at least 40 growlers, gift certificates and other things for every event.

"The community appreciates the help; it also reminds people that we are here," he said. "It is a flexible business so that you can always help out somebody else."

If someone puts out a fundraiser announcement, then the whole community comes out because they always want to help out somebody else, he said.

"So it's easy for us to help out," he added.

Kneifer said that he wants for the breweries to collaborate with each other to be a positive force in the community.

"I think there could be some cool stuff that could be done," he said. " ... "I'd like to see more things the brewers do together."

And the Havre Snowdance Ski Association will be one taking full advantage of these this weekend in its Fourth Annual Hi-Line Winter Brew Fest.

All three breweries are sponsors, and will have products for people to taste, at the fundraiser Saturday for the nonprofit ski association.

A decade ago no local breweries would have been attending.

Triple Dog celebrates five years

Triple Dog was the first in Havre, coming in sort of in the middle of a boom of microbreweries in the state. It was the 41st registered brewery in the state, Michael Garrity said, and now more than a hundred are in operation.

Old Station, Vizsla and Crawford all opened last year.

Triple Dog is celebrating its five-year anniversary this month, and the Garritys said that when they first started the brewery they were not expecting how popular it was going to be.

Erin Garrity said that they were prepared for business but, in the beginning, were unaware of just how big their business would be.

"We opened the door with nickels in our pockets," her husband said, "just hoping we could make rent that month. Just blew our minds, just onward and upward."

She said that owning the business has been hard work, but they both enjoy getting to know more than half the town. Triple Dog has been the place for birthday parties, baby showers and wedding parties, she said.

"It's fun that you get to see people enjoy this place, so much that they include it in some of their biggest moments in their lives," Garrity said.

She added that within the five years that they have been open the business has surpassed their expectations.

Michael Garrity said that, the first year they were open, he won second place in a statewide brewing competition for his Scottish ale. Since then, he has won 10 other awards, three of them for first place, he said.

"At that time I was just a kid that wanted to make beer for a living, I had no idea it would turn out to be this," he said.

He said that in order to be in the brewing business, he had to be a jack of all trades. He said he has to be able to fix everything in case something goes wrong.

Garrity said the reason breweries are becoming so popular across the country is that people like the craft and culture of the product.

"That's really the jist of it," he said. "Making the community stronger, taking care of people that need it, and we have a way to give back so it's a very easy thing to do."

Miller said that the breweries have done well because people like variety, he said. The breweries have a low-drama, nicer, establishment where people enjoy just hanging out, he said.

He added that his favorite part of owning his business is seeing people get together, coming in and having a good time.

Havre Daily News/Ryan Berry

Neiffer said Michael Garrity has done a good job with getting people away from big beer brands and converting them to local breweries.

"I think the consumers have a lot of choices," he said. "I think competition makes everybody better; I think competition is a good thing."

He said that with the closing of the larger chain stores, such as Sears, Herberger's and Kmart, small businesses have an opportunity to capitalize on the closings. He said separate from the brewery industry, hopefully Havre will see more retail businesses open up in town.

"I think the community, as a whole, we need to look at what we need and move toward some things to make Havre a better place to live," he said.


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