WCR: Joe, welcome to the program.
Joe: Thank you for having me.
WCR: First question: do you remember what the first craft beer was that you tried?
Joe: I do. I think it was St. Pauli Girl. I don’t know if that’s considered a craft brew but when we transitioned from PBR and Busch Light to the likes of St. Pauli Girl and some other imported pilsners we thought we were living large.
WCR: So how did you get started brewing and what was your set up?
Joe: I got started brewing when I moved to Montana about 6 years ago. I moved here on a whim, knew a buddy. It was kind of the whole start of the doomsday period back when the economy took a crash and his parents suggested that we start making beer just as a practical skill to have. We made a couple batches and I have a chemistry background from college and really liked and appreciated the science that went into it as well as the craft and the tangible end product. We made a batch of IPA as just a kit; a little 5 gallon extract kit. It came out pretty nice. It would be interesting to taste it now. Now that palates change a little bit but…yeah, then stumbled into this place and thought it was a really good opportunity and got a foot in the door.
WCR: When did you start here?
Joe: 5 and a half years ago. I started here almost 6 years ago as a server and bartender and then did some volunteer work in the brewery. We were making about 700 barrels at the time. Started cleaning kegs, filling kegs, and we started growing and it just kinda snowballed from there.
WCR: What is the current brewing capacity at Tamarack and are there any plans to expand? I think you were telling me earlier you just recently expanded.
Joe: We did. We just expanded our capacity about 30% back in May. We got 2 new 30 barrel fermenters and a new 30 barrel bright tank. We’re on a 10 barrel brew house. Did almost 4000 barrels last year and probably could max out at about 5000 right now. The seasonality of the brewery and Northwest Montana in general doesn’t allow us to be at capacity 12 months out of the year. We’re about 4-6 months out of the year we’re really cranking. So I think if we hit the 5000 barrel mark we’ll really be happy. As far as expanding further, there’s a couple things we can do without knocking down any more walls. After that, we’re looking a little bigger, new facility. Big warehouse, something like that.
WCR: What’s your process for creating a new beer and how long does it usually take to put it into production?
Joe: It’s usually experience driven. We’ll look back on recipes we’ve done previously and if we liked it we’ll stick with it, if we don’t we’ll make some changes. But it’s not too often that we just completely come up with something new that doesn’t have other beers’ influence on it. But when we do we’ll usually sit down with either that beer that we’re trying to mimic or a different beer that we’re not; hash out a recipe, make some adjustments depending on what ingredients we have on hand and go for it, see what happens. Take a lot of notes and go from there on it.
WCR: Are there any mad experiments that never made it to production, or even on the home brew side something you just had to dump out because it was undrinkable?
Joe: I had a couple, had 1 or 2 home brew batches that got infected. It’s pretty apparent right from the get-go that if you taste band-aids in your beer that you don’t want to drink it. You know, as far as here at the brewery, we’ll do a lot of 1 off beers. I think the craziest one we ever did was with pecan pies for Thanksgiving a couple years ago…
WCR: Sounds delicious
Joe: It had a really nice flavor. It was fun. Baked a bunch of pies one night and threw them right into the mash ton and cooked a bunch of pecans went into it. And it went over alright. We usually let the customers kind of drive what we’re gonna repeat and what was just a one-time beer. That was a one-time beer.
WCR: So what do you predict the next emerging trend in beers is going to be?
Joe: I think sours. And I think it’s already kinda starting to hit. Around here you’re seeing more guys make some sours and experiment with barrel aging and funky critters. The one obstacle to that is time. Sours take a lot longer to produce than ales so space and time is a real issue with that but I think the general craft beer drinking is starting to get a taste for it and they’re fun. They’re an interesting beer to make and have a lot of potential as far as you’re not really restricted to 1 avenue with the sours. You can go dark, you can go light, you can go huge, small – there’s just a lot of freedom as far as the flavor profiles go with sours.
WCR: I welcome that trend, I like sours.
WCR: So Tamarack won 3 medals at this year’s North American Brewers Association competition including gold for the Raspberry pHunkenstein in the Specialty and Experimental Beers category. Does Tamarack participate in any other competitions and how important do you feel it is for the success of the brewery and getting your name out there?
Joe: We do. We’ve competed in a few competitions this year. The Brewing News publication based out of Buffalo, NY; they do a national IPA championship, a national double IPA championship, and then a global warning open. They’re bracketed tournaments that take place over about a month. Head-to-head every weekend. The double IPAs, out of 96 beers our Headwall IPA won it this year and that was pretty exciting for us. It helps with social media, getting the word out there that this is not just a beer that is really hot inside of our own brewery. I think at the end of the day then we’re doing something right but it helps get the name out there to places, you know, to people who aren’t Northwest Montana being a national competition. Hey, where’s, you know, what is Tamarack Brewing Company. I think the state of Montana represented very well this year at the North American Beer Awards. I think we took home 25-30% of the medals and there’s 16 breweries or so, I can’t remember the exact number, that took home medals, in a wide variety of categories. So, it’s helping make a name for the state of Montana and that a lot of guys out there are making really good beer. But like I said, it’s not the end all, be all.
WCR: What is the best selling beer at Tamarack?
Joe: Depends on the season. In house right now we’re Bear Bottom Blonde during the summer time. We’ll go through a couple kegs of it a night – it’s tough for us to keep on. I think year round, regionally our Hat Trick Hop IPA just based on the trend of everybody wanting to try the new IPA that’s out there and we are just emerging in the market. Sip and Go Naked Apricot is very popular as well and then our Yard Sale Amber is a good intro-style beer for craft beer drinkers so those 4, depending on the time of year and what’s going on, those come in as the top ones.
WCR: So you mentioned Yard Sale and Hat Trick and those are the 2 beers that you currently package in cans. Do you have any plans to package any other beers?
Joe: We do. We’re looking at our Sip and Go Naked Apricot as the next one to hit the shelves. It’s in a niche that there’s not a lot of beers like it in cans on the shelves right now given the shear popularity of it. We’ve discussed a couple others – our white IPA and I know the brewers here we would like to do our double IPA in cans but the reality of making that happen, that’s more of a specialty, couple times of year. Maybe we could do some bomber rounds if we have a bottle line. Hopefully Sip and Go hits the shelves this fall if everything falls in line correctly.
WCR: After Backslope Brewing opens in Columbia Falls there will be 9 breweries in the area up here, Northwest Montana. Do you think the explosion of craft-breweries in the valley will help make the area a craft brew destination?
Joe: Absolutely. I think Missoula has really set the tone for the state of Montana. I mean, people can go there and see, I don’t even know what the number is 8 or 12 breweries within a 50, 60 mile radius right now. And yeah, having that up here along with the outdoor lifestyle that we have, it will. It’s driving people. I know when I go places, I look on the map and see, alright, where are the breweries at. If I’m going here, is there 6 breweries? Sweet, I’m going to stop at each one. If there’s one then you might pass it and go to the area where there’s a few.
WCR: So how do you think the craft brewing scene stacks up to other areas that are known for their craft brewing like San Diego, Oregon, Colorado, Portland?
Joe: I think we’re getting there. As far as per capita goes, we’re …
WCR: 4th I think
Joe: 4th right now. I know we’ve been 5th, we’ve been 2nd. Just the amount of breweries blowing up all over the place, I’m sure that stat changes on a weekly basis.
WCR: Yeah, that’s true.
Joe: But, yeah, the one thing that Montana is different…it’s such a spread out state, it’s hard to get a real concentration of breweries like those big cities where you’ve got 10 within a few blocks of each other. But, going back to the North American Beer Awards…all the awards that the state of Montana took home I think it really speaks a lot for what’s going on out here. It’s a great community to be in. Everybody’s, we all get together a couple times a year at these festivals and usually throwing around ideas, talking shop out there. Hey, how’d you do this beer, this is awesome. Real openness out there, which is fun.
WCR: Other craft brewery destinations how we were talking about earlier have kind of a signature style like the “West Coast IPA” of Southern California, Oregon claiming the “cleanest water source”. Do you think there is a signature style for Montana beers?
Joe: It’s hard to say…I know Cold Smoke has really set the stage for a lot of guys making scotch ales and the wheat beers in Montana; Great Northern, Billings Brewing Company, or Montana Brewing Company in Billings…they’re perennial medalists at these big national competitions for their wheat beers. And then possibly sours emerging. I know Flathead Lake’s working on, they have a rotating sour program now and we’re trying to keep some more consistent…consistently keep sours on. But it’s hard to say, at this point there’s so much explosion going on…everybody’s making an IPA. I don’t know if they stand up to west coast IPAs, I haven’t been there, but definitely making a name for ourselves, but I don’t know if there’s a specific style at this point that people are going to travel to the state of Montana to seek out.
WCR: Maybe when the dust settles.
WCR: How supportive is the craft brewing community here and has Tamarack gave or received help from other breweries?
Joe: Yeah, yeah, it’s very supporting. Flathead Lake being the closest and they’re bumping out a lot of beer, we’ll talk with them every couple weeks. We’ll go borrow a box of hops or they’ll come grab a bag of malt if we’re short. Shipments don’t always arrive on time when they’re supposed to and also we, our projection is 2 weeks out, aren’t always correct. Might say we’re not brewing Amber for a couple weeks and get a huge order in and got to brew it tomorrow so yeah, it’s really nice to have a bunch of guys that are really open to helping each other out and then also like I was saying, just the community at these brew fests and meetings that we get to with everybody, seeing what new techniques they’re using, what’s working for them and what they’ve kind of phased out of their production.
WCR: Graham Hart who worked for you went on to open his own successful brewery Bonsai Brewing. How does it have to have one of your students go on and be successful themselves?
Joe: I wouldn’t call him as much of a student as a colleague. He came in and helped us out for a while, he had some brewing experience and brought a lot to the table for us, which was really nice at a time where we were going through a pretty serious transition in the brewery. But it’s awesome to see how we’ll he’s done up there. I know he’s making some good beer and its fun to get up to his place whenever we can. Wintertime usually is a better time for us; we’re just so slammed in the summer. But no, it’s really cool to see that he’s done all that on his own and we knew it was his plan when we hired him, hoped we could get a little more, couple more years out of him but completely understandable and very happy for him.
WCR: Cool. Are there any local brewers in the community that you admire or look up to, just their styles or the way they go about things?
Joe: Jeff Grant out of Draught Works Missoula. Good friend, get along with those guys really well. From day 1 when they opened up I just really liked the systematic approach that he took to starting his business, opening his taproom and growing his business. I think as far as per annual growth, they gotta be at the tops of the Montana brewers right now, they’re killing it.
WCR: Tamarack Brewing Company converted an old ambulance into a mobile brewery called the Am-brew-lance. Whose wonderful idea was that, who do I thank?
Joe: You thank Graham McDonald…he’s one of the family members that does a lot of odd jobs around here but yeah, one day he saw this ambulance for sale in Missoula. And ok, I thought it was a pipe dream at the time but a couple months later we were pouring beer out of it and now when we take it to festivals it’s a pretty big hit. Kinda have to get over that initial period of the festival where everybody just thinks it’s the drunk tank. Taking care of all the out of control folks, and then they realize there’s actually beer pouring out of it. Get a lot of, wow, cool! Graham set up a photo booth in it which keeps a lot of people in line.
WCR: Yeah, my picture has been collected by the Am-bru-lance. I didn’t know that it uploaded straight to Facebook which was kind of funny to see my picture on there.
WCR: Flathead Valley Community College is offering a new program called Brewing Science and Brewing Operations program with help from Tamarack. Can you tell us about Tamarack’s involvement in this program? I understand student’s beer will be available on tap.
Joe: Yeah, we’re still working out the kinks, it’s a pretty new program but the idea is to open up some of our facility and have their small brewing system down here initially. Some part time teaching for our brewers, helping those guys get their feet off the ground and yeah, have a rotating tap with some of the better beers that they come out with. It was, it’s been a cool opportunity to work with those guys and Heather Estrada’s really taken the bull by the horns on that one and just running with it. I know it’s been a lot for her to take on, not having any brewing experience or anything like that. Kind of cool to see it popping up and happy to see where it goes.
WCR: I’m not sure if you have an opinion on the brewery laws here in Montana but two bills were introduced earlier this year and they 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 called the “Pro-Beer Act”. Do you have any thoughts on these? I know Tamarack kinda has 2 licenses; they do have a liquor license.
Joe: Yeah, we operate 2 businesses here. The brewery’s wholesale and everything to a restaurant. So as far as those laws go and our model, I don’t see it affecting me a whole ton. I try and keep a safe distance from the whole legislation. I’ll listen to the rants and raves about it but…I think anything that opens up more opportunities for brewers is great, it’s a thriving industry. We’ve done great under the set of laws we have right now but if we can open up even more, just allow more freedom, the economy will benefit from it.
WCR: Has Tamarack, how have you dealt with the hops shortage and did you make any sacrifices in any of the beers to keep costs down?
Joe: You know, the hop shortage was a little bit before my time. I know there’s a real of a crunch for some of the real popular varieties right now and our recipes are always changing a little bit at a time. At this point we haven’t had to make any large sacrifices. I know there’s some recipes we would like to just dump one certain kind of hop into but we make due and I think everybody’s doing the same thing out there. Just working with what we got and trying to forecast for the future. At this point, you can’t really buy too many hops I don’t think. There’s always a market to resell hops. So we try and stay ahead of the game. There’s time where we have to piece a batch together, you know, we didn’t have citra or simcoe in house or weren’t able to get our mosaic variety for our double IPA again so we’ll just go with what we got.
WCR: Have you worked with any local hop farmers to put in your beers?
Joe: Yeah, we’ve done a fresh hop beer every fall the last 3 years now and for the most part it’s been guys growing hops on their sheds or on their fences or trellises so we’ll get 10 or 15 people that drop off 2 bags of hops. We don’t know what we’re getting and throw it into Bine Hopper Pale Ale. Just recently though Tom Britz is getting his production ramping up up at the Glacier Hops Ranch and so we’re working more closely with him and using 100% of his hops for the fresh hop brew.
WCR: Ok, so you guys are part of the stakeholders in that?
Joe: We are, yeah, I think us and Great Northern. He has some grant money and got first dibs out of it. So, yeah, it’s exciting to see that going up and coming to fruition and as the brewing industry continues to grow, there’s going to be more reliance on local hop farmers and local ingredients. I’m waiting for a micro malt, maltery to open up in the state and I know there’s been some interest over in Bozeman, I don’t know how far along they are with that but you know, the more local products you can have.
WCR: What’s a micro-maltery?
Joe: Same as a micro hop yard, just small scale. There’s a couple big companies right now that we get most of our malt from but if you can get some Montana grown and malted barley done in small batches I think it would bring a lot of uniqueness to some small batch beers that we can have in house.
WCR: What's the weirdest thing you've heard of or yourself have put in beer during the brewing process?
Joe: I think going back to the pecan pies. That was, that was something else. Fun process.
WCR: No whole chickens?
Joe: No whole chickens. We haven’t used any, no meat at this point. I’ve heard some home brew recipes where they use that but I don’t know, that doesn’t seem too appealing to me.
WCR: Does not to me either, sounds disgusting.
WCR: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten regarding one of the beers you created?
Joe: We put out our double IPA this spring and we had one of our regular customers tell us that it’s the best IPA that he’s ever had and that was really cool to hear. About a month later the beer won the national double IPA championship and so that was kinda reconfirming that feedback. And anytime we put out something new and the regular customers go out of their way to let us know that they really like it and ask us about the ingredients and processes that went into it that’s just fun to, that’s our end goal is to make something that the customer’s enjoying and when they let us know they are loving it, then that’s great. Then also if we’re flying through a batch of beer then that speaks for itself that people are liking it
WCR: I don’t think I got to try that one.
Joe: The Headwall?
WCR: I don’t think I did
Joe: We’ve got another one in the tank right now, it should be back on tap in about 2 or 3 weeks.
Joe: We’ll have 2 double IPAs on for a couple weeks. We’ve got our anniversary double rye, which is an experimental double IPA we do every anniversary party coming out on the 28th of July and then Headwall’s not too far behind it. So we have fun time for IPA
WCR: What's your favorite beer that the Tamarack brews currently or has brewed in the past?
Joe: The Headwall Double IPA on a regular basis…just balance and a sole hop flavor in that. We’re really happy with how that one came out. One of the beers that we made one time then the next time we didn’t change the recipe at all. Typically we’ll make a few tweaks but something that came out of the gates and we’re sticking with this one. A lot in part due to the mosaic hop that we finally were able to get our hands on and have a small contract of. Then our Raspberry pHunkenstein, the sour blind, we had a few different sours in barrels and put it all together with some raspberries and it’s done well. Did well in the North American Beer Competition, it also got 2nd last weekend in the Global Warming Open for refreshing beers in the country and unlike an IPA, the longer that sour sits, it develops more unique flavors and really like how it’s progressed. Just wish we had more notes and ability to recreate it more quickly. It’s about a year and a half beer to get our 12 kegs.
WCR: What’s your go to beer when you can’t get a hold of a Tamarack Beer?
Joe: Deschutes beer. I love their beer – they make, make some great hopped beers. Their Fresh Squeezed and Pine Drops, the new IPAs they have out are really tasty. There just always coming out with some new hip varieties that, great barrel aged beers. I wouldn’t say there’s a beer, I like changing it up, I don’t like drinking the same beer every day for 5, 6 days in a row. But yeah, those guys are just consistent, clean and keep it interesting.
WCR: Does Tamarack offer brewery tours?
Joe: We do not. You know, we’ll put some out there sometimes, more so in the fall if we’ve got a group that wants to come in, but we’re working, the brewery is running anywhere from 10 to 15 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week and a lot of chemicals, pumps, pressure, and 2 to 5 guys running around the brewery and it’s a little tight on space but we have a nice balcony that you can look in and it’s open from the restaurant so you can hear what’s going on back there and see all the tanks.
WCR: Self-guided tour right there.
WCR: If you could sit down and have a brew with anyone, living or deceased, who would that be?
Joe: Probably my grandfather. Either of my grandfathers. They’re both living, but neither of them drinks and it would be nice to share some old-time memories and what I’m passionate about with them.
WCR: Very cool. And last question, what is your advice for those getting into home brewing and what are some good resources and most common mistake that new home brewers make?
Joe: I don’t talk to a ton of home brewers…I would imagine the most common mistake they make is trying to do too much at once. I think keeping it simple and starting from a very clean slate is a good baseline. Take a lot of notes and clean everything more than you think it needs cleaned. Because if it’s not clean and sanitized, you’re not gonna be able to use those notes and go back and make some adjustments to your beers. But yeah, notes. Anytime we get someone new in here its take notes, take notes and we’re pretty fanatical about every single brew we have a couple pages…even if it’s a batch made over 300 times. We’re taking every number every time so that if something is off a little bit we can go back and troubleshoot.
WCR: Is there anything else you want to add?
Joe: Just keep brewing. All the brewers out there are really killing it and it’s fostering an awesome environment for beer in Montana. It’s really raising the bar and having all the new guys getting in to the game is a lot of fun and every time you go to a festival, get to see new faces and try new beers. And if the people keep drinking it, it’ll keep us in business.
WCR: Job security
Joe: Yes sir.
WCR: Alright Joe, thanks for your time.
Joe: Thank you.