Note: Originally appeared in Issue 42 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.
Brewing is a fine mixture of art and science. Mining is a fine mixture of science and hard work. Oversimplifications aside, when the two are thrown together, the result is something like Quarry Brewing Company. Based in Butte, MT, Quarry and owner/brewmaster Chuck Schnabel draw on the area’s rich geological resources and history for the company’s slogan: “We dig beer.”
“(Mining) is very much a motif here (at Quarry),” Schnabel said.
All it takes is a look at the beer list, with beers like Open Cab Copper and Basalt IBA (India Black Ale) to see that the folks at Quarry have rocks on the brain. With 385 barrels out the door last year, and more expected this year, it’s pretty safe to say that the miners in Montana dig beer as well – and they have been for a long time.
Last In Line
When the question of the best beer town or region comes up, Montana rarely makes the list. The hop bomb brewers from the Pacific Northwest, the experimentalists in Southern California, or the old pros from New England grab most of the attention. Midwest brewers and Coloradoans have legitimate stakes in the claim for America’s best beer. But Montana?
For those who don’t know, get to know. It should be no surprise that one of the country’s top barley producers (along with North Dakota and Idaho) is also home to a great brewing tradition. With ample grain and railroad car loads of Irish and German immigrants who came to work in the mines, Montana quickly developed a taste for both Lagers and Porters. And although Quarry is the only brewery currently operating in Butte, it is the 35th brewery to base itself in the Montana mining metropolis.
“The mining history here is huge, and generally where a mining camp sprang up so did a brewery,” Schnabel explained.
When Schnabel and his wife Lyza opened Quarry in 2007, they ended a 45-year drought since Butte Brewing closed shop in the 1960s. Surely the community is thankful for that, and as a result the Schnabels are thankful to the community.
“It’s just a great place where geologists come in from the (nearby Montana Tech) School of Mines, and we’ll having a chicken wing contest along with rock-naming party,” Schnabel said. “So we have a display of rocks that have been collected by these guys. They’ll bring in a sample of rock and name it and we’ll have everyone come in and check it out and touch it and stuff.”
Quarry also provides beer for local events such as the An Ri Ra Montana Irish Festival held every year in Butte, and hosts homebrew club meetings on the first Monday of every month.
“It’s nice to reconnect with homebrewers and get ideas because they’re always trying different ingredients,” Schnadel said. “They’re more on the cutting edge because they can do a small batch at home and see how it comes out. We as brewers have to watch how much we produce. If you get a batch you don’t sell, what are you going to do with it? So for me it’s great to hang out with the homebrewers.”
The brewery also hosts an Octoberfest each year, with 750 people in attendance last year and many more expected this time around.
Brewing Back Home
Butte may have a rich brewing tradition, but up until 2007 Schnadel had very little to do with it. Like many brewers, he got his start in his kitchen as a homebrewer, but he made his first commercial brews in Washington.
It started with Brewmaster’s Brewhouse in Tacoma, where a failed business partnership resulted in Schnabel moving on for Ram Bighorn Brewery – with Schnabel heading up the Lakewood branch in 1996. In the three years there he helped form the Washington Brewer’s Guild to protect the industry’s interests.
“I loved the brewing scene out there. It was small, and everybody knew everybody,” Schnabel said. “It’s still that way today, but back then everybody knew who everybody was and who worked for them.”
In 1999 Chuck and Lyza decided to return home to Montana, where he took a job at the Butte Post Office until he decided it was time to return to brewing, and bring brewing back to Butte as well. He and his family essentially built the brewery themselves, with a used kettle from a Canadian brewery that was first built in 1984 by Cask Brewing Systems, which now manufactures bottling lines. Along with the seven-bbl kettle, which is heated by immersion heaters, came some Price Schonstrom copper-clad tanks that had originally served as fermentors in the oldest brewpub in Canada.
Beer “The Way It Should Be”
Perhaps it’s a result of the history-rich equipment in the brewery, but Quarry’s beers tend to fall along traditional style lines. Pale Ales, Porters, IPAs and the like populate the draft list at the on-site taproom. Along those lines, you won’t find any Quarry beers in bottles either.
“I believe in fresh draft beer. Also, when you get into bottling you’re putting a lot of money into the six-pack holders, the crowns, labels, and everything else,” Schnabel said. “We’re just a mom-and-pop operation and we keep things simple. Keep them the way they should be.”
While this may seem like a pretty rigid stance in an industry that often demands adaptability and flexibility, Schnabel has proven that he is capable of bending to the needs and desires of his market.
“I think it’s great to brew traditional styles, but I really like that American brewers are expanding and not sticking to style guidelines,” Schnabel said. “I think that’s a good perk to brewing. You have to adapt to what you’re community wants. The Galena Gold, which is our biggest seller now, is a good example of that.”
The Galena Gold, which Schnabel describes as a “crossover beer,” is a Golden Ale that wasn’t in his original plans when he opened. The lightest beer available when Quarry opened was its Bavarian-style Heveweizen brewed with Weihenstephan yeast. When his customers started asking what was wrong with his beer, why it smelled like bananas and tasted like cloves, he realized that there was still some education necessary, and that perhaps not everyone in Butte was ready to dive in to craft beer.
“There’s a lot of beer education required, especially in a town that hasn’t had a brewery in a long while,” he said.
By now the locals are up to speed, and Quarry’s newest production – Basalt IBA – is on a steady pour at the tap room. Schnabel fell in love with the hoppy and dark style during a recent family trip to Oregon, and now his customers are learning to love it at well. At 80 IBU with a crisp hop bite and a clean malt profile, Basalt is not for the uninitiated.
With beers like Galena Gold, Basalt IBA, Open Pit Porter, Shale Pale Ale, Gneiss IPA (pronounced “nice”) and a handful of seasonals and special releases, Quarry Brewing Company has brought brewing back to Butte in a big way. The city may not dethrone Portland or San Diego any time soon, but the miners likely won’t mind as long as the beer keeps flowing out of the taps at Quarry.
Sean Lewis is a Boston-based journalist and homebrewer. His ancestors were coal miners, and yeah, they liked beer too.