High school friends turn passion into business

By SAM BROWN/Montana State News

The Montana Beer Festival kicked-off on a recent Friday night at the Gallatin County Fair Grounds. Thirty-two breweries attended the festival, each arriving with two to three different kinds of beer for enthusiasts to taste.

The energy was high and it was obvious that brewers were very excited to put their new creations in customer’s hands. Many of the brewers arrived with beers not offered in stores, or a tasty success that had only happened recently.

Blacksmith Brewing was one particular brewery that arrived with a unique barley soda. The owner, Eric Hayes, and head brew master Mike Howard were in attendance. Coconut Oatmeal Stout was their recent creation.

“It had recently finished aging in bourbon barrels two weeks ago, it came out great and we’re exited to offer our first batch exclusively at the Montana Beer festival,” said Howard. Nestled along the historic Bitterroot River in Stevensville, Blacksmith Brewing opened their doors in October 2008 and has since seen lots of business. Howard and Hayes were very energetic behind their booth at the beer festival. They spoke with passion about their craft and dedication to their customers.

“We maintain a unique relationship with our customer base,” said Hayes, “we’re always trying to get their suggestions and interact with them, beer festivals like this are a perfect way to accomplish both.”

As owner of the company, Hayes maintains very close relations with his employees, and his brew master Howard, who have been friends since high school.

“We started to brew beer seriously in college,” Hayes said, “and decided that we wanted to take our passions and find a way to make money.”

Both Howard and Hayes are native to Montana. Howard came from Big Sky Brewing in Missoula after construction of the brewery was complete in Stevensville.  Before that he worked at Stone in San Diego and earlier Bayern and Kettlehouse breweries in Missoula.

“With seven years of experience under his belt, Howard brings lots of knowledge into the brewery,” said Hayes, “his attitude reflects his true dedication to this craft, he always has a smile on his face and thrives off the customers reactions to his creations.”

“I use inspiration from many aspects of my life for my beers. I love to experiment with nontraditional ingredients yet never forgetting the important traditional elements of making beer,” Howard said. “Making beer is an art and I don’t think it gets the respect it deserves on certain aspects.  The process can be complex, especially on a larger scale. Sure people can brew beer at home, but small batches are much easier to control and monitor.”

Howard continues, “I’ve learned a lot from all the breweries I’ve worked at and carried many philosophies and lessons with me when I came to Blacksmith.  But I have a lot more freedom here and can explore techniques and brewing methods I couldn’t have at the places I worked. That’s why Hayes and I have such a good working relationship. We give each other the freedom we both need and work well together.”

The bar was built in an abandon building that was buggy sales room and then a Chinese laundry in the early 1900s.  Since then it was a shop for blacksmith Bill Snediger, who bought the building in 1951 and kept his shop open until 2000.

“There was a lot of skepticism when we opened shop in 2008, if we could compete with other local Montana breweries in a town of only 2,000 residents and a down economy,” Howard said.

“We did it anyways, and it’s obvious that we made the right choice. Microbreweries have sprouted up all over Montana, since we opened doors and our business has expanded,” he said. Blacksmith brewery has no major plans to expand or bottle their beer.

There was lots of renovation to be done, and fortunately Hayes is a contractor and homebuilder by trade and did most of the work himself.

“It was a huge project, and kind of fun in a way.” he said, “While tearing the building apart we found all kinds of stuff in the walls and floor boards: Chinese silk wall paper, whiskey bottles, old horse branding irons.”

“We tried to reuse all of the material we salvaged, like wooden boards with brand marks from surrounding ranches and old maps as decoration,” said Hayes,using old floor joist for ceiling rafters and Hayes installed earth friendly materials for what he needed to replace. “It was a huge job but all of us are happy the way it came out.”

Currently, Blacksmith Brewery offers four different beers: Brickhouse Blonde, Montana Amber, P.D. Pale Ale, and Pulaski Porter—with rotating specials like Coconut Oatmeal Stout and Barley Wine. They want to focus on the community aspect of their business and provide a relaxed atmosphere for their patrons.

Edited by Jodi Wilson.

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