From the very beginning, the beer was the thing.
Big Sky Brewing Company was started by Neal Leathers, Bjorn Nabozney, and Brad Robinson. Brad and Neal had been homebrewers in Michigan since the mid 1980’s, and had moved to Missoula with a group of friends in the summer of 1990. In the early ‘90s they worked at Sportsmen’s Surplus and High Country Sports where they met Bjorn. One of Brad’s first nights in Missoula was spent at the old Iron Horse when it was attached to Bayern Brewing Company down at the end of Higgins Avenue. He was impressed by Bayern’s lagers, but felt that there was room in Missoula for a second brewery; and since Neal and Brad specialized in brewing English style ales he felt that an ale brewery would be producing very different beers than Bayern Brewing Company did. Neal agreed, and the two began to work on starting up a brewery.
Their first step was to produce and “star” in a series on MCAT (Missoula’s local cable access television station) called Beer Talk. The show consisted of Brad and Neal tasting various beers, usually microbrews or imports, and commenting on what they liked and did not like about them. The program immediately set viewership records and led to many of the most successful call-in programs in MCAT’s history. If nothing else, Beer Talk showed a lot of Missoulians that Brad and Neal were passionate about beer! Unfortunately, neither of the two had much business experience, nor did they have a lot of local connections. That is where Bjorn entered the picture.
Bjorn was just finishing his B.A. in finance at the University of Montana. As a final project he was assigned to write a business plan. He chose to write up a plan for the brewery that Brad and Neal had been babbling about for a couple of years, and it was that business plan that really got the ball rolling towards making Big Sky Brewing Company a reality. Bjorn, Brad, and Neal took the plan to local attorneys, accountants, and bankers. They rewrote and improved it numerous times and finally went out to find investors. Bjorn is a native Montanan and he knew a lot of local business people. Also, both he and Brad are great salesmen, so while Neal stayed at home and brewed test batches of beer, Bjorn and Brad went out and raised capital. After about a year and a half, Big Sky Brewing Company had enough cash in the bank and a large enough bank loan to begin purchasing equipment and renovating its original location at 120-A Hickory Street. We brewed our first batch of beer, Whistle Pig Red Ale, in mid-June of 1995 and hit the market with it just in time for the 4th of July weekend. A couple of months later, Moose Drool Brown Ale and Scape Goat Pale Ale followed, and Big Sky Brewing Company was on its way.
In The Beginning
The company was a draft only brewery (no bottled beer) for its first five and a half years. We brewed everything on Hickory Street, but we realized that to really become a regional player we had to find a way to put our beer into bottles. The Hickory Street brewery was not nearly large enough to allow for bottling, so we began working toward building a new brewery. While we were raising funds for the new brewery, we worked out an arrangement to brew our beers at Portland Brewing Company a few days a month. Then Portland Brewing Company bottled our beers and shipped them out to our distributors. Finally, in early 2002 we broke ground on a new brewery on Trumpeter Way just north of Missoula’s airport. We began brewing in the new brewery in September of 2002 and started bottling our beer there in January of 2003. Since then, we have been where we always wanted to be, brewing and packaging all of our beer right here in Missoula.Fortunately for us, we’re brewing a lot of beer here! For the past several years, we have been selling between 40,000 and 47,000 barrels of beer a year. That works out to around 640,000 cases or well over 2,500,000 six-packs of beer. We sell our beers in twenty-four states, basically everywhere west of the Mississippi (except Arkansas and Louisiana) plus Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. Montana is still our #1 state for sales.
How did you learn to brew?
Neal and Brad were students at Michigan State University in the 1980’s. During a couple of summers, they traveled with friends to Alaska to work in the fishing industry. Both trips consisted of buying the cheapest van that seemed dependable in town, loading it up with friends, and driving to Alaska. Those trips passed through Oregon and Washington where microbreweries were just starting to really get going, and Brad and Neal fell in love with the flavorful brews they discovered on those trips. Their favorite beer was probably Chinook Amber Ale (now known as Alaskan Amber) from the Alaska Brewing Company. When they returned from Alaska, they took up homebrewing as a hobby and have been brewers ever since. As Big Sky Brewing Company has grown larger, we’ve hired brewers with more scientific backgrounds, so our beers continue to be that mix of art and science that lets us continue to brew on the wild side, but also makes sure that our beers are consistently high quality brews. Neal passed on the title as head brewer to Matt Long back in the late 90’s and Matt has led the Big Sky brew crew ever since.
Where do the names come from?
When we first starting looking at naming our beers, we knew that we wanted to use Montana critters as our theme. We had Bjorn’s Mom Jane doing artwork for us and we told her to paint a bear, a moose, a marmot, a buffalo, a fox, a mountain goat, etc. Then we would look at the paintings and try to come up with memorable names to go with the images. The most famous of our brands, Moose Drool, came out of that process. Bjorn and Brad were looking at Jane’s painting of a moose lifting his head from a pond with water streaming off of his muzzle. Neal walked past, and seeing the painting for the first time immediately suggested “it’s a moose, he’s drooling, let’s call it moose drool.” Bjorn and Brad loved the name which Neal immediately began backpedaling on worrying that it would be seen as distasteful to too many folks. Obviously, most beer drinkers love the name and the beer that goes with it! Recently we’ve backed off of the animal theme since so many breweries produce “critter beers,” but you never know what we will come up with next.
How many employees did we have/do we have now?
When we started we were a four man operation. Bjorn, Brad, and Neal were joined by Bjorn’s brother Kris pretty much as soon as we actually began brewing beer at Hickory Street. Kris is now our Vice-President of Production (yes, we do use professional titles like that around here every once in a while!) Right now we have about 45 employees, most of whom are full-time and many of whom are the primary wage earners for their families. I’m sure that the total payroll for our first year was well under $60,000! Total payroll for 2016 exceeded $2.5 million.
How were things different in the beginning?
A lot of things are still the same as ever. We still tend to “wear a lot of hats” around the brewery, and no two days are alike. Big changes would include the number of people working in the brewery now compared to then. There is also a lot more machinery doing the drudge work of cleaning and filling kegs for example. Having a fully operational bottling line is a huge change, adding loads of people and machinery to the place. Just walking into the production area which covers around 24,000 square feet and seeing it full of fermenters, bright beer tanks, and bottling equipment is still a really cool experience after working in the Hickory Street brewery’s 7,000 square feet for so many years.
Goals in the beginning and today?
When we wrote our original business plan, we talked about being a regional brewery that brewed, kegged, and bottled its beer in Missoula and sold it throughout the Northern U.S. So, I think we are really still on track to meet our original goal. The route we’ve taken has certainly taken a lot of unexpected turns, but we’ve never lost sight of where we were going. For the future, we intend to continue to expand our territory in a slow and steady manner. At the same time, we still have a lot of growing to do within our current territory. In states like Washington, Oregon, California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin we’ve barely scratched the surface of where we would like to be in five or ten years. Even in Montana we are constantly looking for ways to get our beers into more stores, restaurants, and taverns. Basically, we just want to keep growing, providing good wages and working environments to our employees, and having fun running a great company.