husband and wife team Darin, head brewer, and Carla, general manager at backslope brewing

husband and wife team Darin, head brewer, and Carla, general manager at backslope brewing

WCR: Darrin, Carla, welcome to the program.
Darrin: Thanks, happy to be here.
Carla: Thank you.

WCR: Darrin, do you remember what the first craft beer, and I guess it goes for you too Carla, the first craft beer that you had, what was the name, what was it called, what style was it?
Darrin: I can’t remember if it was definitely my first craft beer, but the first experiences I remember having with craft beer were with the Great Lakes Brewing Company. Grew up in Ohio and they had just excellent beers out of Cleveland there.  Dortmunder Gold, Burning River Pale Ale, a couple others I can’t remember. But that was the first time I remember having craft beer. Those were the first ones that popped out. 
Carla:  Now that he’s mentioned it, I remember those as well. And it took me a really long time to even like beer, so once I had some craft beer, I can think of those as being some of the ones that stand out to me as well since I’m also from Ohio and that was the local craft brewery.
Darrin: Yeah, and I definitely, I was behind the times on getting with craft beer. I mean, I drank a lot of not craft beer once I was drinking age and then, but I remember finding both Great Lakes and also Deschutes. Which I believe both of those were founded in 1988 and so sort of some of the old school vanguard of great breweries around the nation. 

almost there! BAckslope brewing is located on us hwy 2 in columbia falls, mt.

almost there! BAckslope brewing is located on us hwy 2 in columbia falls, mt.

WCR: So how did you get started brewing and what was your set up?
Darrin: I got started brewing, I don’t know was that 12 or 15 years ago or so when Carla was pursuing her master’s degree in Indiana back at Perdue University.  I was a seasonal worker for the forest service. I was laid off, needed something to do. I enjoyed drinking beer and I enjoyed cooking so I figured I’d try making beer. I started out like a lot of home brewers to with a couple of plastic buckets in a closet and then slowly upgraded from there.
Carla: It was my linen closet.
Darrin: It became my beer closet.
Carla: There were some explosions.
WCR: Oooh…sore subject there (laughing).
Darrin: There was one explosion, I cleaned it up, and the beer was amazing! (laughing)
WCR: Did you name it Linen Closet Beer or something?
Darrin: I think, I can’t remember it was, but it had something to do because it blew up during a big thunderstorm that we were having and so we didn’t notice the sounds because it was very loud outside. It was a very, it was an experimental, sort of experimental stout where I was trying to put in some sugars and some coffee and some different things like that and it was just, the fermentation was just way too hot, just exploded all over the closet. But, like I said, we didn’t notice for a couple, a couple hours afterwards because there was a big thunderstorm all night long. I didn’t hear it pop, didn’t hear anything else happen so it was something, some sort of Thunderstorm Stout but it had a better zing to it, I can’t remember what it was.  But that’s, once again, over a decade ago. 

WCR: So that kind of answers the next question about your early experiences brewing and memorable successes and failures? It kinda seems like a little of both on that one. 
Darrin: Yeah, absolutely. Because definitely there were a lot of processes making things explode that weren’t working out well but I was still managing to make some good beers. But yeah, made a lot of good beers and a lot of really, really bad beers. Or I guess I’d say, maybe not bad…
Carla: They weren’t bad
Darrin: Not bad. They were, you’re excited about them at that stage in your beer making career. You’re like, wow, this is dark, and rich and I’m gonna call it a stout and it’s a stout. But looking back on it, you’re like, that was, by the bare minimum standards was it a stout; it wasn’t a high-quality stout. Nothing I’d be proud of now but at the time, it’s amazing, the first couple times you make beer it’s amazing.  

WCR: So when did you decide to open up your own brewery and when did you start the process?
Darrin: Well, Carla and I have talked about it for several years. And I’m not sure…I don’t know when…yeah, we’ve talked about it for a long time.  So I guess the opportunity really came up maybe 2 years ago?
Carla: Yes, well, the opportunity came last spring…was it just a year ago? 
Darrin: Maybe
Carla: Yeah, it came up last spring and we were able to have the opportunity to get the equipment that we would, that we need to start.
Darrin: Yeah, there was some decent equipment right here in the valley at a decent price so it enabled us to take that next step towards open a brewery. 
Carla: Yeah, and then, so once the opportunity was there a lot of the discussion we’ve had in the previous years about wouldn’t that be great, this is kind of dreaming, but if it ever came, the opportunity ever arose do you think we’d be could do it? Actually did arise and it was there and we were able to take advantage of it. It’s been a year, a little over a year. We actually purchased the equipment on my birthday a year ago. That was my birthday present.
WCR: Happy birthday
Carla: Thank you
Darrin: Yeah, a year and a half ago about now.
Carla: So, yeah, we’ve been now involved in the process for a little over a year. 

future outdoor seating area

future outdoor seating area

WCR: To help fund the start-up costs for the brewery you ran a successful crowd funding campaign through Kickstarter raising over 15,000 dollars. Bonsai Brewing in Whitefish had previously accomplished the same thing. What are your thoughts on building a community through fundraising and do you feel it will help the future long term success of the business? 
Darrin: First off, I’ll say that a lot of our answers you’ll see that we’re copying off everything Bonsai did because they were about a year and half ahead of us and they also have a really good business model of a low debt, small scale, get in on the, at the stage you can with community involvement. We’ve certainly been thinking about a lot of these ideas before we saw what Bonsai is doing but it’s really just a great business model that we can compare what we’re doing to theirs. But that was a tangent, Carla do you want to answer the community stuff?
Carla: We absolutely believe that the only way this will be successful is if we have the community behind us so every step along the way we have been, had that in mind. And, you know, we did take a chance with looking to the community to help us support this project and part of it was to get necessary funds to help us out at the beginning but also to gauge, is this something that the community will step up and support. And it was incredible. The outpouring of support was amazing. And we still have people now who say, oh I didn’t realize you were doing that, I wish I would have known, I, you know, I missed it entirely. So the community support has been phenomenal and we, we’re not open yet. So, but knowing that and being able to gauge that. Knowing that people will not just say they support it, but they actually put resources into our business and they believe in it that much so it means a lot. 
Darrin: And we had also done, in community involvement, we had done a lot of legwork so to speak before that. We weren’t just cold calling people for cash. Because we had been providing beer to community events for several years now. Most notably the Chili League. We have Columbia Falls Chili League…I started out just bringing out just a keg or 2, little pony kegs of beer, 1 to 2 for these chili leagues and after this last season, we’d go through I think 6 of those pony kegs per chili league. So it’s once a month in the winters so going from providing 5 gallons of beer at a time to 30 gallons of beer and so it was, people knew our product we were putting out there for the community. It wasn’t just a total cold call. 

WCR: So how did you come up with the name Backslope Brewery?
Darrin: Brainstorming sessions. We just liked it because it was; it felt evocative of the outdoors. Mountaineering, skiing, biking…
Carla: Evocative without being specific so people can read into it the things that they want to read into it but it still captures, we felt, the spirit of this place. And we did have, we had some help too with our brainstorming sessions. Hilary Hutchinson with Outside Media was instrumental in sitting down and helping us walk through that process too.  

WCR: So what’s gonna be the brewing capacity when you open?
Darrin: We’re gonna be a 4 barrel system. So making 8 kegs worth of beer per batch. 

WCR: Will Backslope Brewery package their beer and if you do will it be bottles or cans?
Darrin: We are not looking at packaging right now. If we did it would probably be cans. That’s way far in the future. We might experiment eventually with some of the mobile canning units that are out there but right now we’re focused on the taproom and small keg distribution. 

WCR: What’s gonna be the opening line-up of beers?
Darrin: We’re gonna have 5 standards on tap: Pale Ale, IPA, Kolsch, Porter, and a Stout and then we have room for 3 rotator taps. I’m not sure what our first 3 are going to be; just depends, well it depends what season we’re opening in and whether it’s stout weather or double IPA weather or ginger beer weather or scotch ale weather or Belgian weather…but it’s almost always Belgian weather. 
WCR: And do you have names picked out for those?
Darrin: Yeah, we do.  The, let’s see if I can remember them all. The Pilgrim Kolsch, the Crooked Wind IPA, what’s our pale ale? Alright, can’t think of the pale ale. Dr. Randolph’s All Day Porter and Sun Cut Stout. So 4 out of 5 ain’t bad. 
WCR: You guys are busy building so you get a pass.

WCR: So what’s your favorite beer? I assume that you’ve brewed all these beers; you’ve got the recipes, what’s your favorite beer out of all those that you’re brewing?
Darrin: I think more and more, my favorite beer of the ones I’m brewing is becoming the kolsch. I’ve definitely gone through different seasons so to speak where I’m all about the IPAs and other times I’m all about the stouts but I’m really enjoying the balance that I’m getting out of that kolsch from just enough malt and just a hint of European hops that just give you a really nice balanced, easy drinking beer.

WCR: Have you brewed with your new equipment yet? And if so have you had any difficulties in brewing at that scale?
Darrin: Sadly, I have not been able to brew on this equipment yet and I’m sure there will be tons of problems once we get up to that scale because right now our equipment’s…I have a bunch of hand me down equipment, used equipment from I think actually at least 6, maybe 7 different breweries that I’ve been piecing together.  So there are going to be some kinks to work out for sure. But really confident about the system, but there definitely will definitely be some kinks to make it all fit. 

WCR: Question I skipped over…what’s your favorite beer from another local craft brewer? 
Darrin: Another one…right now, boy, I’m gonna have to go with Bonsai Brewing’s Lil’ Miss Thang. That ginger habanero beer is really, really nice. Not an everyday drinker but boy that one’s good. 
WCR: Yeah, it’s very good, I like it. What about you?
Carla: Oh, I feel like I’m gonna copy but I have to say Bonsai as well. And I just love their stout. It’s always good. 

WCR: Awesome. What’s the, what do you predict next emerging trend in beers are going to be, craft brewing? 
Darrin: If I could predict that, I would be a much wealthier man than I’m about to be. No, I have no good ideas. Carla, any thoughts?
Carla: I think, well, looking at how everything has been getting, going to the extreme end of hopping, the more hops the better and the more…yeah, just putting more hops in everything and focusing on that extreme end of hops, I think it’ll swing back around; it’ll go in the other direction and hops will, still definitely be an incredibly important part and everyone will still love the IPA and it’ll still be super popular but I think we’ll start to see some more experimentation and as craft beer becomes something that is more of an everyday household thing that people recognize as having a lot of…there are a lot of great, wonderful things to try with craft beer that we’ll see more, more variance in what people really enjoy.
WCR: Like maybe different malts or stuff like that…different ingredients other than just shoving so much hops in it that that’s all the ingredients you can taste?
Carla: Yes.
Darrin: Exactly. 
WCR: Just basically more balanced beers, that’s kind of that answer.

WCR: What’s your process for creating a new beer?
Darrin: Generally speaking, occasionally it’s just experimentation with what I happen to have in the house, but generally I would start with an overall theme. I’d be thinking that I want a rich, creamy, chocolaty stout and then build the recipe from there. So I try to think, try to have a general theme in mind really what I want to create and then build toward that. 

WCR: Are there any mad experiments that you had to dump out or on the flip side turned out better than you expected?
Darrin: Well, I already mentioned the exploding stout that turned out better. My first, let’s see, I tried to do a Christmas Ale, a spiced Christmas Ale years ago and I got the combination of spices all wrong and I ended up, it effectively ended up making it a ginger beer because I over gingered it. So it tasted nothing like it was supposed to, but that became the catalyst for making an actual ginger beer, I mean it’s still an alcoholic ginger beer. That’s one of my favorites now that I make and a lot of folks like that one. So it ended up being a Christmas Ale that was just overly gingered and then I changed the recipe because I love that ginger flavor in the beer and now we make an excellent ginger beer that’ll definitely be in the rotating line up for sure. 

WCR: So you kind of gave me a mini-tour, can you give me, give us an idea of what to expect when you walk into the brewery after it opens?
Darrin: Carla, would you like to field that one?
Carla: Yes. We want to be a community gathering place so when you walk in, you are going to feel very welcome, you’re going to feel like you are, this is familiar. There are the staff that is friendly and engaging, obviously happy to have you here and we want to focus on creating that feeling where it’s a gathering place for after recreation, bring your family, all of those sorts of things. And then we’ll also have an excellent kitchen with fabulous food. 
WCR: Are you guys gonna have TVs or anything?  
Carla: No, there will not be any televisions. 
Darrin: No televisions. 

WCR: Alright, good. What’s been the community responses to your efforts to open a brewery?
Darrin: It’s been really positive. We’ve, as you noted earlier, we had a great, really supportive kickstarter campaign and people are always politely asking us around town, when are you opening, we’re so excited for you, what kind of beers are you making, and just the outreach, the community response has been really good.  
Carla: Yeah, I definitely, we get that; I get that sense all the time. People are excited and they…we, a lot of people we don’t know but they know who we are now. Which is fabulous.  And I get that sense people are invested already. They want to see this be successful and they’re really excited. It makes us even more, just more excited to open, to be able to provide that for the community. 

WCR: What are your thoughts about the economic future of Columbia Falls? It seems there a quiet a few new businesses opening around town.
Darrin: Yeah, I think we’re definitely on the upswing. I think Columbia Falls has a lot of great things going for it here in the Valley. I think we’ll there, we’ll always have some growing pains and there are a ton of new businesses opening now; a couple of them might fail but I think we’re, definitely for every one business that fails we’re gonna have several more that succeed. And it’s gonna be a slow process but I think this community is building really well. We’ve got a great base here and we’re seeing a great base here. And we’re seeing a lot of younger families; folks Carla and myself’s age, with kids, who find this a really affordable place to live so we’ve got a great community establishing here.

WCR: So Cole and Maggie over at Kalispell Brewing, it took them 2 years to open their brewery, and they warned me about asking this question – they said it would get me strangled, but I gotta ask. Do you have an approximate time on when you guys are gonna be open? 
Carla: 2015
Darrin: 2015. In the year 2015.  

WCR: Ok. So we got about 7, or 6 months left…or 5 months left?
Darrin: (laughing) The window is closing. And, even if that means that on December 31 we open to sell 1 t-shirt and then close again, dammit, we will be open in 2015.
WCR: I’ll buy a t-shirt!

WCR: After Backslope Brewing opens in Columbia Falls there will be 9 breweries in Northwest Montana. Do you think the explosion of craft-breweries in the area will help make it a craft brewery destination?
Darrin: I’m not sure, I think so. I would think so, but it also feels like it’s exploding everywhere so I definitely think there’s a, this definitely can be a great craft brewing destination but you look across all of Montana and I can look at lots of other areas and say the same thing, but I think it, it definitely could, it definitely could. 
Carla: Maybe in the spirit of that question, we definitely feel like the more craft breweries that open, the more it benefits all of us. Since there’s still a lot of people who haven’t every had a craft beer and they don’t know that they would love it if they were given the opportunity to try one so I think the more, the more of us that can open and introduce more and more people to the wonders that are craft beer the better.  

WCR: And kind of on that same note, how do you think the scene here stacks up to other areas that are known for their scene, like Colorado, or Portland, San Diego? Darrin: I think it’s great. We’re definitely behind a lot of those, a lot of those you mentioned, I mean we don’t have some of those originals…we don’t have the Deschutes and the Rogues and the Sierra Nevadas here as like the baseline that started decades before the Montana craft beer scene was really going but I think we’re on the way, I think we’re on the way up. 

WCR: Is there any brewer in the valley that you look up to or have kinda worked with before? 
Darrin: Boy, pretty much all of the brewers in the valley I look up to and they make great beer. All of them have been really friendly, really helpful, really supportive. I don’t know if I can name one that’s been more inspirational than others, but yeah, they’ve all been really great.    

WCR: Alright. On the subject of Montana brewery laws, and I don’t know if you guys have an opinion on this since you haven’t officially opened but there was two bills introduced earlier this year that failed in committee. One was a license stacking bill called the “Montana Brewers Act”, and the other bill would increase the limit to 60,000 barrels to operate a taproom called the “Pro-Beer Act”. What are your thoughts on these bills and just current laws in Montana for breweries in general?
Darrin: Well, we were definitely in favor of, correct me if I’m wrong on this Carla and make sure I don’t have this confused, but the one that raised the barrel limit on taprooms so they could produce more beer and still serve out of the taproom, we thought that was great because the current taproom legislation now keeps breweries like Big Sky from charging in their taproom which is kind of ludicrous. The stacking bill, we were, there were some positives and negatives to that one but generally we weren’t really excited about that bill. It felt like it mostly helped tavern owners and a couple larger breweries. But that said, we’re kind of the new guys on the block and we weren’t, we didn’t get super involved.  
Carla: We do feel like there’s definitely room for improvement in the, where the laws are in Montana. There’s room for improvement and nothing was introduced that would have necessarily started the process of addressing the issues that are there. So we didn’t really have super strong feelings about anything that was put forth in the legislature this round. 
Darrin: Yeah, because I think that those bills, there’s positives and negatives to them but they didn’t address the underlying problems with all of our prohibition era laws.
WCR: So what are those underlying issues and if you were to propose a change what would that be?
Carla: Well it would need, it needs to start with the way that the licenses, the liquor license, the cabaret license, how all of those are, have been distributed in the past and still are currently. 
Darrin: That they’re on a quota system now, that they’re limited, they’re different in the city and out of the city. That places like Whitefish and Columbia Falls, we share the same quota of cabaret and liquor licenses so it’s possible that people could, like Columbia Falls could buy all of Whitefish’s permits and bring them over here or vice versa so you could dry one town out effectively. And, just the fact that these liquor licenses, unlike most other licenses I know of are sold from company to company; they’re effectively property and real estate as opposed to any other license you purchase through the state.  So I think that’s, I don’t have a great solution to that because you can’t just take someone’s liquor license and property away from them but it’s kind of silly that, the way it’s all set up now.  Once again, just prohibition area laws. 

WCR: So has the current hop shortage had any effect on the formulas that you have for your beers or the beers that you’re gonna make to keep your costs down?
Darrin: Not yet it hasn’t. Especially since we’re not actually brewing right now and I’m at the stage where I’ve done some planning and I’ve got a freezer, a chest freezer full of hops and I’ve got some others that are ordered, and some others that are contracted but I’m, I haven’t actually, for better or worse since we’re not actually brewing right now, I haven’t been pricing and looking that much. I actually overbought nearly a year ago now when I was getting ready for things so I’m sort of sitting on a little load of hops so it hasn’t but that’s cyclical stuff that I’m sure is going to have to affect us eventually. 

WCR: Do you have any plans work with local hop farmers?
Darrin: Oh absolutely. We’ve worked some with Tom Britz, Whitefish Hop Ranch; he’s a rancher, not a farmer if you haven’t interviewed him yet. He’ll tell you he runs a hop ranch, but super nice guy and he’s doing some neat stuff over there and certainly he’s committed a lot of his hops to the bigger breweries that have supported him in this endeavor because they, a lot of the bigger breweries put money into him getting off the ground but we’re definitely going to work with him as much as possible. Both for varieties that he can grow here and some of the experimental varieties that he can grow here that maybe the, you know you’re Tamaracks and your Great Northerns won’t be able to use 20 pounds of some experimental variety but that’s something that I could take his whole leaf hops and use them. He’s also, he’s setting up some, I believe some contracting connections with other hop farmers different places so that he can get some things at wholesale and kind of wholesale them to us.

WCR: Alright. What's the weirdest thing you've heard of or yourself have put in beer during the brewing process?
Darrin: The weirdest thing I’ve heard of is brewing a garlic beer. 
WCR: Oh that sounds disgusting.
Darrin: Yeah. The weirdest thing I’ve ever, I don’t know if it’s the weirdest, but it’s the most surprisingly good beer. I made a lemon balm wheat beer. That was really nice, really refreshing with the lemon balm that just at that point…oh, I just thought of another one. The lemon balm was great but I was trying to grow with just, brew with a bunch of things from our garden. You’re thinking about the nasturtium?
Carla: Um-hm 
Darrin: So I brewed a beer with nasturtiums from the garden and we called her a nasty ale and it was amazing. It was bright and spicy and peppery just like the nasturtium flowers you might get from the garden to put on your salad and they just have just this peppery little zing. 
Carla: That one was really good. 
Darrin: Yeah, that was really good. 
Carla: It also didn’t last. I mean, it was, it lost it’s...
Darrin: It lost its zing really quickly

WCR: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten regarding one of your beers?
Darrin: I like honest critical feedback and I don’t know if I can think of one particular comment but I like when craft beer drinkers give me honest comments and don’t just say, oh yeah that’s good, that’s good, that’s great. I like when they can say, you know, that porter’s a little bit hollow on the back end, it feels like something’s missing there. And even if they can’t articulate what it is, it’s nice that they’re putting that effort into finding, well there’s something missing on that porter or this IPA’s a little too piney or to get as specific as they can. Because anytime anyone just says, oh yeah your beer’s great Darrin, your beer’s great and if they don’t mean it. This is, once again this is their investment in their community…if you tell me that’s a good beer, that’s what you want to drink. Well, if it needs to be better, I want to make it better but I want to make something you’ll drink.
WCR: You’ll keep making it the same way
Darrin: Exactly 

WCR: Will Backslope Brewing offer tours when you open?
Darrin: Yeah, probably, I’m sure we will.
Carla: We don’t have the specifics of that, but yes. 

WCR: If you could sit down and have a brew with anyone, living or deceased, who would that be?
Darrin: For me, it would probably be Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Amazing author and I’d love to pick his brain. Yeah, he’d be good for it.
WCR: What about you Carla?
Carla: I think probably Jeannette Rankin. I would love to hear about her experiences being in Congress in the early 20th century. And especially we would need probably a beer or 2 to talk through all those experiences. 

WCR: I imagine. And last question, what’s your advice for those getting into brewing and what are some good resources and what is a common mistake new home brewers make?
Darrin: Best advice I would give you is just keep making beer. Start out as simply as you can. You don’t need to have all the fancy equipment just to make beer and I’ve seen plenty of brewers who buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of equipment only to find out they don’t enjoy the hobby so you know, for 150 bucks, you can get a nice starter kit, try it out, and then you can slowly keep upgrading.  But just keep brewing and don’t, don’t settle for the beer you have. If you want to make better beer you can keep making better beer by improving your products. Excuse me, improving your production methods and reading a lot. I read tons and tons of books. Ask questions of everybody. The brewing community is really, really helpful I’ve found. Ask questions of everybody, read a lot, and just keep brewing. 

WCR: Alright, do you guys have anything you want to add?
Carla: Nothing I can think of. Come visit Backslope Brewing when we open. 
Darrin: Please do
WCR: In 2015
Darrin/Carla: In 2015!
WCR: Alright, Darrin, Carla, thanks for coming on the program. 
Darrin: Thanks so much, appreciate it.
Carla: Thank you.