WCR: First question, do you remember drinking your first craft beer and what it was?
Chris: Probably in Boulder, Colorado with my wife and if I had to guess it was probably an oatmeal stout.
WCR: You don’t remember the exact brewery it was from?
Chris: No, I can remember the bottle and I’m, I think it might actually be the Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout.
WCR: Oh, that’ one’s good. Awesome. How long ago was that?
Chris: Probably 22, 23 years ago.
WCR: Awesome. So when did you yourself get brewing and what was your set up?
Chris: So I started brewing, home brewing about 5 or 6 years ago. Started off with, doing 10 gallon batches. I had a couple kegs that I cut the top out of and also had a 12 gallon stainless steel stockpot that I used also. I had, originally had a cabinet shop in the brewery now and, kind of the first thing I converted I got out of the spray and finish business for the cabinet work and started subbing that out and I converted my spray room into a beer room. Yeah, actually a pretty nice setup, had a really nice 3 compartment stainless sink, a bunch of room, and me and my buddies, we just, had 2 other friends of mine that we’d just kind of get after it every weekend that we could.
WCR: You were going through that beer pretty regularly with you and your friends?
Chris: Yeah, we were, we probably brewed every weekend the 3 of us and as soon as we had, we turned a big chest freezer into a kegorator and as soon as that was full we would have beer parties out here in the cabinet shop and just invite a bunch of folks from the area and part of the deal was you had to give honest feedback if you came and that was where the whole idea of the brewery was formed.
WCR: You can get people to come out here and give you feedback, you can open a place.
Chris: Yeah, free beer goes a long way (laughing)
WCR: I’m sure no shortage of people to give you honest feedback as well.
Chris: Yeah, that’s for sure.
WCR: Can you tell us about some of your early experiences brewing and any memorable successes or failures?
Chris: Yeah, so far to date, knock on wood, I think, in 5, 6 years, never had a home brew batch go bad. Learned a lot real quick. I’m an avid cook, I love cooking, I love food, I love flavor so brewing was kind of right up my alley. We had 1 batch of beer in the brewery probably the first couple months that we weren’t just happy with that we dumped and then we had one of our open batch, open top batches that somehow the phone got knocked across the room and landed plunk in the middle of the fermenter so we ended up tossing that batch too. But other than that, that’s (laughing)
WCR: (laughing) Ruined by a phone, that’s funny
WCR: Before brewing you were making furniture. Do you still have time for that or has brewery kept you too busy?
Chris: No, I thought it would be a little part time business that instantly turned into a full time job and I build the brewery with one of my, a couple of my partners and we built the addition and I still kind of, I dabble in that, do construction. Putting an addition on my house and I’ll do the cabinet work in there and the furniture in there and stuff like that.
WCR: Cool Homestead Ales is about 10 miles to the nearest town and down a country road with no real signage. I remember coming here for the first time thinking I was lost. And then thinking this will never work. However every time I come here there seems to be a crowd. What do you think has been the key to your success?
Chris: You know, we try and focus on kind of a quality beer experience all the way through. We have fun making the beer. I think the atmosphere is really inviting. People like being outdoors, it’s kind of turned into a destination. It’s not unknown for somebody from Kalispell to drive up have a couple beers and a pizza on a Sunday afternoon and drive home and…it seems like that, in our favor that’s kind of a Montana way, people aren’t really put off by driving to go do something.
WCR: Yeah, it’s Montana, everything’s far away right? I’ve done that myself too.
WCR: So, what’s your general brewing style? Is it to making big beers, session beers, balanced beers, or unique beers?
Chris: I would say, generally our beers are kind of in the 5.5-7% range. We do do some summer beers that are a little bit lower, we do some Imperials beers that are a little bit bigger. I like having, we have 5 flagship beers that we try and keep on and I like being able to brew those consistently over and over but at the same time we do do some open top, farmhouse style stuff, that is pretty fun, smells incredible. So far we’ve had just incredible success with the batches.
WCR: What do you predict will be the next emerging trend in beers is going to be?
Chris: I think, first off, I think the small local brewery is the emerging trend in beer. This is our business model right here. I mean, we’re not looking to cover the state of Montana, we’re looking to be a regional brewery that makes good beer and that people are satisfied with.
WCR: So keeping it small batch, and a lot of choices
Chris: Lot of choices, small batch. Being creative a little bit, but at the same time having some consistency people can look forward to.
WCR: What’s your process for creating a new beer and how long does it take to put it into production?
Chris: You know, sometimes, this past winter we did quite a few small, kind of 1 gallon batches working on some new beers. Generally, I kind of have, I have my own guideline that I, parameters that I work on when I’m creating new beers as far as percentages of grain and flavor profiles from specialty grains and stuff like that but generally we’ll do a small batch or 2, see if we’re in the ballpark and then we’ll go for it. The open top farmhouse stuff is a little more of a crapshoot because you’ll get a lot of interesting flavors depending on how warm the backroom is when you’re fermenting and, you know, it seems like what generation that yeast, that brettanomyces, is also has an effect on the flavor. So those are little bit more of a wildcard but so far we’ve had just great success on them.
WCR: Great. I’m glad you said that word because the next question has it in it (laughing). On your website you state “Wild beer has become a very interesting obsession. We are playing around with Open Fermentations and Brettanomyces, to create unique, wild, and funky beers.” Can you tell us more about “Wild” beers?
Chris: You know, so we’re doing our farmhouse beers, we’re doing open top, we’re doing primary fermentation with brettanomyces, we’re not controlling the temperature. We’re doing them in the spring and the fall when the backroom is more of a consistent, anywhere from 60-75 degrees. Last summer we did one beer open top on the brewery floor where it got really warm and that was an incredibly interesting beer also. For me, I like messing around with those kind of beers, I like drinking those kind of beers and it’s been kind of a great surprise that they’ve been received so well in the beer drinking community in Eureka and Whitefish and Kalispell.
WCR: Are there any experiments that you started that just weren’t turning out right that you had to dump or get rid of, I think you kind of answered this earlier.
Chris: No, you know, we’ve got, I would say, so far, we’ve- everything’s kind of worked out pretty good. We’ve got, right now, it’s not on yet but it’s coming soon we’ve got a, it’s a session brettanomyces IPA and it’s different that any beer I’ve ever drank before in my life. It’s good, it takes a sip or 2 to kind of get into the whole flavor profile. But I’m going to put it on tap and see what people think. I think we’re going to take it to a brew fest in a couple of weeks and see what people think.
WCR: How would you describe it or are people just going to have to come down here and just see?
Chris: People are going to have to come and see but also it’s tangy and tart, almost like drinking grapefruit juice, bubbly grapefruit juice.
WCR: That’s right down my alley.
WCR: Last year you added barrel aging program. Can you tell me about your barrel aging program and some of the beers that you have barrel aged?
Chris: Sure. We just, just went through our first batch. We’ve been doing our Imperial, end of last summer we put our imperial porter, our imperial IPA, and our imperial stout in Jack Daniels barrels and over the winter we released about 2/3 of that imperial porter, we kegged it and put it out for the holidays and turned out incredible and then we took about 53 gallons of that and bottle conditioned it, cork and cage, and made those available for May and June and just sold the last 6 bottles on Friday of that.
WCR: Are you selling the bottles here or in retail?
Chris: You know, we thought we’d sell them retail but we sold them so fast out of the brewery that, yeah, they never made it to Whitefish or Kalispell.
WCR: I was going to say, I haven’t seen them around, I was going to ask about that later.
WCR: What is your current production capacity and are there plans to increase that eventually or do you want to stay…?
Chris: You know, I think right now, we’ve got a little, we’ve got a 5 barrel brew house which I like. It’s a little labor intensive but makes good beer and it’s a great size for us. We’ve got 8 fermenters right now and one of them is a 10 barrel so we can double batch into that. So that’s our limit right now. We do plan on getting one more 10 barrel fermenter, using it as a uni-tank like the other one and hopefully if all goes well by next summer we’ll be doing Grave Creek and the Pioneer Pale and hopefully canning with one of the mobile canning units.
WCR: Nice, nice, ok. So when you moved from home brewing to this scale was there any challenges or was it still small enough of a batch that it was pretty much the same process?
Chris: You know, yeah, it was pretty much the same process. Just getting all the pumps, just getting everything dialed in on a bigger scale was a little bit of a challenge, but you know, I like doing that kind of stuff so it was right up my alley. It took maybe just a batch or 2 to dial the recipes from 10 gallon batches to 10 barrel batches, or 5 barrel batches.
WCR: So 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 valley will help make the area a craft brew destination?
Chris: Definitely and I think it is already. I just, I had no idea that the craft beer drinkers were…
WCR: That dedicated?
Chris: That population was, yeah that big and dedicated in Northwest Montana. I mean, when we opened this I kinda Eureka was a Busch Light town and we quickly got shown differently, which was a great thing. People like beer and they like good beer.
WCR: It’s good that you’re converting those Busch Light drinkers (laughing).
WCR: The Montana Brewers Association named your IPA best in the state just months after you opened. Have you entered any of your beers into any competitions and have there been any wins?
Chris: We, the next…so, also part of our barrel aging program we’ve got a bunch of our saisons barrel aging in wine barrels. And we’ve got that first batch bottled and we’re working on the label right now. We entered that about a month ago in that Kalispell beer and wine open. That was the Aura Saison and that won brightest in show. So, that’s the only other beer festival we’ve entered other than…I think that’s probably the only one we’ve entered so far.
WCR: Are you looking to get into the bigger festivals like Great American Beer Fest and North American Brew?
Chris: You know, we might now that we’re kind of learning a little more. You know, like I said, for us the competitions are fun just to kind of know your beers are on the right track but even as far as beer festivals, I mean, we’re really kind of into that local beer model and we’re only, I think we’ve only got 1 account in Kalispell. We can only make enough beer to go so far away. So to, so we keep that in mind when we think about festivals and competitions and stuff. Is it just, are we doing it just for fun or are we trying to get into that, get our brand out into that market or not and do we want our brand out in that market or not?
WCR: So how do you think the craft brewing scene stacks up to other popular craft brewing scenes like Portland, San Diego, Colorado, here in Northwest Montana?
Chris: I would say, you know, we’ve got great beer in Northwest Montana. I might be a little bit biased but I think we’ve got the best beer in Montana even in Northwest Montana. I think all the breweries up here are cranking out good beer. It’s a great group of people to be involved with. We came from Boulder about 20 years ago and that’s kind of, for me the main other craft beer scene I was in 20 years ago and that was a super friendly, nice group of people that were all doing that. They were making good beers back then, but yeah, I think some of the beers in Montana are top notch. And they’re winning at national festivals and competitions.
WCR: How supportive is the craft brewing community in Northwest Montana. Did you receive help from other breweries when you were getting started?
Chris: Oh, definitely. Tim at Flathead Lake Brewing and Sandy at Flathead Lake brewing were super helpful and I mean, there’s still great folks and massive amounts of praise for Tim. He’s a great brewer, he makes great beer. He’s a great guy.
WCR: He said he makes it up here quite often. It’s quite a drive from Bigfork all the way up here.
Chris: Yeah, so we’ve become really good friends with the Flathead Lake Brewing crew out there, which is really nice. And Josh and Joe at Tamarack, they let me crawl around and check out their brewery before I opened up just to kind of get a little bit of an understanding of the mechanics.
WCR: Very cool. How has Homestead Ales dealt with the hops shortage? Do you make any sacrifices in any of your beers to keep costs down?
Chris: Nope, you know, we…luckily, our IPA and our Pale, we use whole leaf hops, which doesn’t seem to be hit that hard by the industrial brewing community. Maybe a lot more popular with the home brewers but we do use whole leaf for our IPA and our pale and then, it seems like those, your IPA hops that are the ones that you find the shortages at most. Our IPA is summit, cascade, centennial. Our pale is chinook and centennial. And, yeah, so overall we haven’t really had a problem. We don’t have the capital to really buy out into the future like a lot of the breweries do but so far we’ve been able to get everything we need when we need it.
WCR: And have you worked with any local farmers to put in your beers? I know there’s a person working on building kind of an industrial sized hop farm out here. Are you working with him in the future?
Chris: Yep, there’s one in kinda the Whitefish area and Flathead Lake Brewery and Tamarack and Great Northern are all pretty involved in that and have dibs on most of the hops that are coming out. So until there’s extra, they’ve pretty much got that tied up. Our imperial IPA last September, there’s a couple of young guys up here that are trying to start a little hop farm so we did our imperial last year all with local fresh hops, which is pretty fun. That’s what we ended up barrel aging over the winter in the Jack Daniel’s barrels.
WCR: Ok, awesome. What's the weirdest thing you've heard of or yourself have put in beer during the brewing process?
Chris: What’s the weirdest thing I’ve heard of?
WCR: I’ve got whole chicken twice…it sounds disgusting (laughing).
Chris: (laughing) Yeah, you know, I don’t know that really anything would surprise me to be honest with you. And we, we don’t really put a lot of weird stuff in ours other than last year we did a couple test batches that I’d like to do more of. Just took a couple 1 gallon batches over the summer and put them up. There’s a deck out back and after we were done brewing I put them in a 1 gallon vat that had a lot of service area, put them up on the deck overnight and just tried to collect some of the local yeast. Then fermented it off for a couple months and then it was choke cherry season so I then I just stuffed a bunch of choke cherries in one batch and a bunch of raspberries in the other batch and kinda used the yeast on the skin of the choke cherries and raspberries to finish fermenting the batches off. They were pretty undrinkable for about 6 months, and then after, now going on a year they’ve turned into incredible beers.
WCR: That’s amazing how that happens, that’s crazy.
Chris: I know. So I’d love to do more with, I’d love to mess around with getting a little local yeast and cultivating that and doing a little local terroir beer. Fresh water, fresh yeast.
WCR: So it doesn’t sound like its unusual ingredients, it’s just you’re experimenting with different ways to brew beers that a lot of people aren’t doing.
WCR: Very cool. What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten regarding one of the beers you created?
Chris: You know, winning that gold for the IPA right out of the gate that was a great feeling, to know that the beers were…that we were making good beer, that we just didn’t think it was good beer, that other people thought it was good beer. So getting a lot of that kind of feedback helps to know that…you know, especially when you’re doing some of the kinda farmhouse stuff. You and your crew might think it’s good but it’s nice when, it’s nice to get feedback from other people that they’re enjoying it and liking it and drinking it. Yeah, for me, just getting that positive feedback from the community, that, continually is inspiration to keep doing stuff. I’m never really super happy with just figuring something out and then doing it that way forever. To me, that’s what the flagship beers are for…we’ve got flagship beers, you do them the same every time. For me I’ve got to have something on the side that’s keeping me interested.
WCR: On that note, what is the most popular of flagship beer for Homestead Ales?
Chris: In the summer time it would be the Pioneer Pale and the rest of the year it would be the Grave Creek IPA.
WCR: And what's your favorite beer that you’ve brewed in the past or have currently on tap?
Chris: You know, I like, I really like the Belgians and the Farmhouse style beers but when it comes down to it at the end of the day I pour a Grave Creek IPA. I like the IPAs.
WCR: So does Homestead Ales offer brewery tours?
Chris: Sure, yeah, we encourage folks, I’m here business hours pretty much Monday through Friday. Anywhere from, like today 6 in the morning till 5 at night. And, I pop in and out throughout the weekend but I generally try not to spend my entire life here on the weekends, try and have a life outside of the brewery.
WCR: Absolutely, so how do people sign up, do they got to sign up or just say, hey I want a tour?
Chris: Yeah, I think just calling is the best way. I got a little, there’s a plug in about that on our website. You know we generally, when we’re really brewing, we’re brewing Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, sometimes Thursdays. So, they, yeah, probably, that’s probably the best way-call ahead and see what our brew schedule is.
WCR: If you could sit down and have a brew with anyone, living or deceased, who would that be?
Chris: Who would that be…probably my gramps. We named that Imperial, Imperial Porter after him; Harry’s. And, it was our first beer aged in a Jack Daniel’s barrel and he was a devout Jack Daniel’s man.
WCR: Very cool. I’m going to throw another question in here I didn’t have. What has been the local – I mean, I know you’re 10 miles outside Eureka – but what has been the community’s response to it? Have they kind of embraced this as, this is Eureka’s home brewery?
Chris: Definitely. And actually, kinda the inspiration for doing it was, when we first moved here just maybe 4 driveways down the road was the Antler Inn which used to be a steakhouse and it was consistently the most busiest restaurant in the Eureka area. It’s since, the past few years has closed but I had the building from my cabinet shop and I knew that if, if the beer was good and the environment was good people would travel for it. And yeah, the community has come out in full force. Summer time, we get…and actually, Eureka community comes out full force and Whitefish we get incredible amounts of support from Whitefish people driving up and then summertimes we’re a Calgary resort town, so yeah, probably it just kinda…June is really busy and July and August are insanely busy.
WCR: Really too insane.
Chris: And then we get a bonus of a winter season with the snowmobile parking lot just up the road from us so we get great support from the snowmobilers throughout the winter.
WCR: Can cars get here in the winter time?
Chris: Yeah, so we got the pizza year round and so they park their snowmobiles just about 4 miles…or park their rigs and go snowmobiling about 4 miles up the road and stop in for a pizza and a beer afterwards.
WCR: Awesome. Last question I have, what is your advice for those getting into brewing and what are some good resources and what is the most common mistake new home brewers make?
Chris: For me, I would say the hardest part of getting into opening a brewery is the paperwork is lengthy.
WCR: This is for people that are just home brewing…what is your advice?
Chris: Don’t be afraid to try stuff. And definitely brew with all grain; it makes a massive difference. I think I did one batch when I started out with a kit I got for Christmas and yeah, there’s no difference to all grain brewing.
WCR: Ok, anything else you want to add?
Chris: No, I think that’s good. I appreciate you taking the time.
WCR: Alright, thanks Chris, thank you.
Chris: You’re welcome, thank you.