WCR: Grant, Kristin, Sarah – thank you for meeting with me today.  How’s it going?

Grant, Kristin, Sarah: Great/good thanks

WCR: First question is for you Grant - how did you get started brewing and what was your set up?

Founders & Co-OWNERs Kristin Smith and Sarah Dinning

Founders & Co-OWNERs Kristin Smith and Sarah Dinning

Grant: I first became interested in fermentation when I was about 13 and I found out that if you left apple cider in the fridge for too long it would turn hard so then I started trying to do it on purpose.  I guess you could say that I really started brewing in college.  I had a friend that had a home brewing kit and he said he didn’t have time to use it anymore and he gave it to me.  It sort of all went from there and I started out brewing on a stove top in a 3 gallon pot and just kept adding pieces from there.  Now I have a pretty sweet little homebrew setup in the garage and make about 10-15 gallons of beer at once. 

WCR: Can you tell us about some of your early experiences brewing and any memorable successes or failures?

Grant: I guess you could count the first probably 3 batches I made as failures. They were hardly drinkable…we drank them anyways because cheap beer in college – you drink whatever you can get.  Probably after that I started to make some batches that were actually pretty good.  Ever since then I make some batches that aren’t too great but most of them are considered successes.

WCR: You moved here from Lompoc Brewing in Portland, Grant, to work as the head brewer at Cabinet Mountain Brewery. Can you tell us about that decision and how the transition from a large city to a small town in remote Montana has been?

Grant: Yeah…so I actually found this job posted online.  There’s a classified section for brewers.  A classified website called and I wasn’t actually looking for a new job by any means, I was sort of seeing what was out there and I found 2 jobs here in Montana.  One as this, the head brewer position for Cabinet Mountain.  The other was actually for the lead brewing position at Flathead Lake so I applied to both those and heard back from this one. I didn’t really expect to get the job but everything just sort of kept falling into place. I came out here a few times to visit and liked the town and went from there.

WCR: Do you like living out here in Libby?

Grant: Yeah, I love it.  I grew up in a small town originally in Washington actually.  That was before I moved to Portland for school.  So it’s nice to be back out of the city and in a small town.

WCR: Kristin and Sarah, how did you two meet and what made you want to open a brewery?

Kristin: Well, we’ve been friends in a book club together for a few years and Sarah came up with the idea – I’ll let her share how we came upon the brewery

Sarah: Well, I think both Kristin and I were both at points in our lives where we were transitioning. And, I was actually sitting in Phillipsburg brewery after having spent several months trying to determine what was next for me in a career capacity and without wanting to move from Libby, what could I be doing in Libby that would actually be successful.  So sitting in Phillipsburg brewery and seeing how it revitalized that town, how tremendously popular it was, the lightbulb hit.  So I came back to town with the idea, thinking this is what Libby needs – Libby is full of beer drinkers and how could it possibly not go over well.  So, I floated this idea out to Kristin and we just decided just to do it.  So we did it.  And 13 months later, Libby had its first brewery. 

WCR: I read that building the brewery downtown was important to help revitalize downtown to you guys. What has been the community’s reaction to the brewery?

Kristin: It’s been really positively received in the community. We have a hugely loyal fan base and we see new people from Libby in here all the time.  Even coming up on a year there’s people who have yet to come in and they find it really enjoyable, really comfortable, really exciting to see there’s a Libby product being brewed right here right downtown.

WCR: You opened last summer and you are about to celebrate your 1 year anniversary. What was that first year like, would you consider it a success, and what is in store for the future of the brewery?

Sarah: I would say it was a success

Kristin: Absolutely

Sarah: It continues to grow all the time.  Libby beer now is being widely distributed throughout the state.  We’re as far south as Red Lodge, Great Falls, up to the Canadian border.  We have this huge range where Libby product is being distributed and I think the town has a lot to be proud of in that we’re manufacturing something coming out of Libby.  It’s just a real positive thing. I think that we both are not going to limit ourselves as far as potential growth.  We’ll just see where it takes us and enjoy the ride.

Kristin: And hopefully our head brewer will be with us for as much of the ride as he wants to.  It’s his product that’s really getting out there and that people are enjoying so we’re proud to be able to have selected the right brewer for us and someone who is brewing just awesome, awesome beer.

Sarah: Absolutely.

Kristin: Yeah, there’ve been no shortage of little quirky issues that have come up this first year.  Things that with a new business there’s all sorts of little bumps and hiccups but trajectory is going in the right direction.

WCR: And, about the other brewers in the craft brewery community here in Northwest Montana, how have they received Cabinet Mountain Brewery? Have they been supportive of what you guys are doing?

Sarah: Oh yeah, absolutely.  In fact, several reached out to us during our process to make sure we knew that if we had any questions we could come to them.  They were very helpful in providing information that we needed to get our business plan together. Since we’ve been in business they’ve been just a fantastic group of people to work with – very laid back. There’s just this feeling of comradery among brewers.  It’s just been great.

WCR: Has Cabinet Mountain Brewery entered into any contests yet, like the Great American Beer Fest?

Grant:  We actually just registered for this year’s GABF.  But, as of yet, we haven’t entered any contests.

WCR: What beers are you going to be bringing up there?

Grant: I think we’re bringing 5 beers.  We have our blonde, pale ale, IPA, red, ESB, and I think the coffee porter.

WCR: Ok, awesome! Good luck on that! Grant, what’s your process for creating a new beer and how long does it take to put it into production?

Grant: I guess that really depends on the style of beer and if I’ve brewed that particular style before.  I’d say like IPAs, I brew a lot of IPAs at home and I sort of have an idea what’s going on and I can actually write down a recipe and brew it on the big system right away and usually turn out pretty good.  I did that with our double IPA which was really well received.  But, for other styles – I’m working on a scotch ale right now – I’ve never brewed that before so I’m trying to sort of nail down a recipe so I’ll actually do it at home on the home brew system just to get an idea of where I’m headed. I think I’m already on the second or third iteration of that recipe – trying to get it nailed down before I make 10 barrels of it. 

WCR: That segues into the next question: Are there any mad experiments that never made it to production?

Grant: You know, there again, I guess you could argue that all the homebrew batches I’ve ever made that aren’t being brewed here today are mad experiments that didn’t made it to production. I don’t think there’s any in particular – nothing that stands out.

WCR: After Backslope Brewery opens in Columbia Falls in the Valley will have a total of 9 breweries in Northwest Montana. Do you think the explosion of craft-breweries in Northwest Montana will help make the area a craft beer destination or has it become oversaturated?

Kristin: I think this Northwest corner of the state is really interesting because we have so many mountain ranges so there’s actually some geographical separation.  There’s a big reservoir between us and Homestead Ales or HA Ales in Eureka and you know the Flathead breweries so I think there’s room for all of us.

Sarah: Oh, absolutely.  In fact, there’s a - I believe there’s a tour group in the Flathead, based in the Flathead with a bus that is considering carrying patrons around from brewery to brewery. 

WCR: That would be fantastic

Sarah: We’ve got this tremendous loop now.  I mean, all the way from Polson around the lake, both sides of the lake and up through pretty soon Columbia Falls, Whitefish, Eureka, Libby. We’ve got this great path and there’s certainly room for more.  Everyone’s beer is so good and it’s just a great experience for the patrons. 

WCR: I’d love to hear more about that bus line.  I don’t know how you hit all 9 without designating a driver.  You’d need a driver.  How do you think the craft brewing scene stacks up to other areas around the state and country and what could we do better? That’s talking about the craft brewing scene here in Northwest Montana.  Compared to like, Portland where you came from Grant.

Grant:  You know, compared to around the state, I think Northwest Montana has got a really good thing going.  Just here alone we’ve got people that come in from even Missoula, which is being known as a craft beer city now and we’ve got people coming up from there saying we can’t get beer this good in Missoula. So, I think NW Montana has some really good brewers and some really good breweries.   

WCR: So, Grant, have you had a chance to check out some of the other breweries in the area and do you have a favorite?

Grant: Yeah, I’ve checked out all of them within probably a 100 mile radius.  Homestead Ales, that’s a really good one.  Bonsai, Great Northern, Kalispell is doing a really great job…they just opened up last year right before we did.  As for a favorite that’s a tough question…I really like the atmosphere and just the location at HA - they have a really cool thing going on up there. Likewise Bonsai with their new location they’ve got a really sweet thing going on too.

WCR: Kristin and Sarah, changing speeds a little bit.  On the subject of Montana brewery laws. Two bills were introduced earlier this year and failed in committee. One was a license stacking bill called the “Montana Brewers Act”, and the other a bill that would increase the limit to 60,000 barrels to operate a taproom and it was called the “Pro-Beer Act”. What are your thoughts on these bills and just in general current brewery laws? You guys have smirks on your faces!

Kristin & Sarah: You’re getting into a hot topic here! How much time do you have?

WCR: Take as much time as you need. I actually read a comment from one of you two I can’t remember who in a newspaper article talking about these laws so that’s why I’m bringing it up.

Kristin: We were just a little bit involved in the legislation. 

Sarah: We…and I’ve never been political in my life and I found myself down there testifying in front of the house committee opposing actually, the one bill. I was in favor of raising the cap to 60,000 barrels, although I still think it should be unlimited – we, yes, absolutely we.  But, the other bill, as written, could have been very damaging to small breweries.  I think, to be very politically correct, let me just say that there is a lot of opportunity to improve the bill that would benefit more brewers throughout the state.

Kristin: Yeah, ditto, we really felt strongly that it would do more to limit breweries and their operations than it really would to expand them, which is how it had been marketed.  So we had to oppose that – we were not the only brewery to oppose that, there were a number of others. There were a number that were also silent on that particular legislation. But I think most importantly there’s just an opportunity to really evaluate all of, not just the brewery laws, but all of the alcohol laws in Montana because there’s a lot of overlap, there’s a lot of confusion, and there’s a lot of real sore spots for different pieces of the industry and I think there’s just vast room for improvement.  Other states have managed to figure some things out. 

WCR: Yeah, I don’t know any statistics on this but I think a lot of our laws are still stuck in that prohibition era here in Montana and we haven’t really done anything to update it.  Sarah: Do you guys have any ideas on what it should look like, or have talked to anybody who’s maybe introduced something that’s not made it to legislature yet?

It’s very complex and I think it requires a lot of study.  Even within the brewing industry there’s a lot of diversity in business models so there could be a lot of different solutions to some of those problems as well, regardless of the other players in the industry, the other license holders.  So, I think it’s just complicated. I think we need to sit down and look at it thoroughly and look at its relevance it today’s liquor industry. 

Kristin: Particularly the big piece of it that a lot of people just seem to not want to talk about is the quota system for all beverage liquor licenses. That’s sort of the driving piece of law that has this trickle-down effect for all of the other pieces. As Sarah said there are a number of different business models out there and I think the most important thing the legislature should be looking at, with the understanding that the manufacture and consumption of alcohol is socially sensitive, so there has to be a social consideration, but, so many businesses would just like the opportunity to be able to include it in their business model – the serving beer, the serving of wine.  And when it costs a half a million dollars for the right to be able to do that, A. that is not good for downtowns, it’s not good for main street development, it’s not good for economic development at large, and it’s really not good for the consumer. So those are the 3 areas that the legislature should be thinking about and all parties should be thinking about when going forward with some proposed changes.

WCR: Awesome, good feedback.  Grant, working at Lompoc Brewing you were probably already familiar with the hop shortage problem. How is Cabinet Mountain dealing with this problem – have you had to make any compromises with your beers?

Grant: Well, I went into this sort of knowing about the shortage so we haven’t had to make too many compromises – we haven’t ran out of hops yet or anything like that but going into this, opening up a new brewery and designing a whole line up of beers, I had to do that knowing that I can’t use a lot of the hops I can use on a home brew scale.  There’s a lot of hops out there that are contracted out 4 or more years in advance. Just to get a hold of those is incredibly difficult for a new brewery.  The guys that have been around for a while are sort of bogarting them all (laughing).  Which is, you know, I’d like to have some more varieties of hops to play around with, but at the same time, you can do a lot of cool stuff with the hops we have available.

WCR: Do you work with any local hop farmers on any of the beers you brew?

Grant: Not yet. We’re looking into working with, I believe it’s the Glacier Hops Ranch out in Whitefish.  A guy named Tom Britz is getting it started up. Got a really cool thing going on, he’s producing premium hops, I think about to start selling them in the next year or so. We’re scheduled to get some fresh hops from him during next year’s harvest and hopefully we can do our first fresh hop beer with some local hops.  

WCR: Awesome.  What's the weirdest thing you've heard of or yourself have put in beer during the brewing process? Sounds like you do a lot of home brewing so…

Grant: The weirdest thing I’ve heard of going into beer is probably a whole chicken. Actually a sort of ancient style of beer that comes from the UK or somewhere called a cock ale, where they actually age a barrel of beer with a whole chicken inside of the barrel.  I’ve yet to experiment with that. 

Kristin: Well, I need to ask, because I’ve never heard of this either and I’m sitting over here with a strange look on my face.  I just want to make sure this is a cooked chicken, please tell me this is a cooked chicken.

Grant: I believe it is cooked.

WCR: I don’t know how that makes it any better – that sounds disgusting.

Grant: As for myself, I think the weirdest thing I’ve put in a beer is probably a white variety of coffee. So instead of a dark roast, it’s actually white and gives sort of a nutty flavor, similar to like honey nut cheerios or something.   Nothing crazier than that.

WCR: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten regarding one of the beers you created?

Grant: You know, the best feedback I’ve got – really just people coming in saying we can’t get beer this good back home, what you’re doing here is great. Nothing really more specific than that I guess. That’s a huge complement. 

WCR: What's your favorite beer here at Cabinet Mountain Brewing…and I guess that goes for all 3 of you guys.

Grant: My favorite is the ESB and probably the IPA after that

Kristin: I really like the Coulter Coffee Porter

Sarah: Well, my favorite was the red, until the ESB came out and as soon as the ESB came out I knew immediately we had to get it on our standard line up and it’s been a tremendously popular seller everywhere and that’s my go to beer now.

WCR: What is your go to beer when you can’t get a hold of a Cabinet Mountain Brew?

Sarah: Well, I have to say, I’m becoming a beer snob and I’m not proud of that.  I used to think that Bud Light and Miller Light and Kokanee were all great and the last time I tried them, now having tasted great beer, I cannot choke them down anymore. So now I would have to say personally my favorite is either Faceplant or Cold Smoke. 

Kristin: Yeah, I’d probably have to say Cold Smoke too, if I had to.

WCR: Keeping it Montana! Does the brewery offer tours currently?

Kristin: Yes

WCR: Awesome, more details?

Kristin: People can just contact us and line one up with Grant, or myself, or Sarah.  Mostly Grant, people like to tour with Grant and schedule something ahead of time.

Kristin:  Well, and there are tour packages available through the Country Inn as well. Kind of a stay and with the brewery tour. So, they can always contact the Country Inn if they’re going to be in the area for a while. 

WCR: If you could sit down and have a beer with anyone, living or deceased, who would that be?

Sarah: I think Thomas Jefferson, he was a real fascinating figure in US history.  He just did it all – his mind must have been going 1000 MPH.  Plus, I think he had his own vineyards and was kinda doing his own stuff.  I think he would, he’s always been a person I would be fascinated to talk to. 

Kristin: I don’t have anybody in mind

Grant: I think if had to sit down, or well, if I was given the opportunity to sit down and have a beer with anybody it would be John Palmer.  He’s sort of a home brew legend and really sort of revitalized the whole home brewing culture. Really intelligent guy – a guy I’d love to sit down and pick his brain.

WCR: Have you thought anything yet Kristin? 

Kristin:  I’m drawing a blank I’m sorry, I’m such a dud on this one

WCR: You can just use presidents, people, apparently that’s a popular one.

Kristin: You know, the first person that actually came to mind was Ben Franklin. 

WCR: There you go, I knew you had it in ya!  Grant, for those wanting to get started brewing beer at home what equipment, at minimum, is required? Sounds like you had a pretty minimal setup when you got started.

Grant: You know, at minimum, you can buy these really crappy kits.  They make some really crappy beer.  I could probably buy one for 30 or 40 bucks. I would recommend going to your local home brew supply store, talking to the people there, getting set up with a legitimate starter kit. They’ll set you up with a pot, a carboy, a few testing devices. They’ll really get you started off making good beer, which is a good thing when you’re starting out. You don’t want to spend money and make crappy beer to begin with.

WCR: What is the most common mistake new home brewers make?

Grant: I think sanitation is one.  You really need to be clean and have clean equipment, sanitize it. My biggest mistake was really just not relaxing and having a good time.  I was an engineer before I was a brewer so I’m really concerned with numbers and process and everything.  I remember my first few times home brewing I was running around in circles and I was really distraught if I wasn’t hitting the right numbers but, I had a friend who also home brewed and he sort of took the other approach and he just kicked back, drank a few beers, had a good time, and he made good beer and he showed me what it’s all about.  It’s good to be scientific and mind the numbers but at the same time, its all about having a good time as well.

WCR: Alright, that’s all the questions I had. Do you guys have anything else you want to add?

Grant/Sarah/Kristin: No, thank you!

WCR: Grant, Kristin, Sarah, thank you very much.  And congratulations!