PHILIPSBURG – So you’re relaxing after a day of skiing, with a recently minted degree in fermentation science on your resume, when the guy sitting at the next table says he needs a beer brewer for the pub he’s opening across the street.
“They had just signed the contract to purchase these stainless steel tanks,” Mike Elliott said of the mass of brewing gear lining the west wall of the Philipsburg Brewing Company. “But those two copper vessels had been here for 20 years. I guess sometimes life gets very busy.”
Pub owner Rob Jarvis hatched his idea of a brewery in this mountain town in 1991, and spent the next two decades piecing it together. His chance meeting with Elliot in Philipsburg’s Club Bar across the street filled the last need.
Elliott was working at Missoula’s Kettlehouse Brewery after getting his degree from Portland State University in 2007. Fermentation science has three main branches: Cheese-making, wine-making and beer-brewing. Elliott finished off No. 3 and then honed his business skills at Oregon’s McMenamin’s brew-pub network.
Jarvis and Philipsburg partner Cathy Smith had been gathering bars, back-bars, and other furnishings for years in anticipation of opening their brewery. Work started in earnest in April. That’s also when Elliott started brewing his first batches of beer.
“I was a nervous wreck trying to keep everything clean while all the hammers were swinging,” he said. “I guess I’ve got good aseptic technique.”
The taps now pour Razzu! (a raspberry-topped wheat beer), Haybag (a hefeweizen slightly more bitter than European versions), and Pintler Pale Ale. A fourth, old-German-style amber beer should be available for the brewery’s Oct. 13 grand opening.
“Right now, we can’t make enough beer to keep all our flavors on tap,” Elliot said.
The mix was just right for visitors Janis and Dick Nielsen of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The couple had wondered about the future brewery when they last visited Philipsburg three years ago.
“We prefer to buy something like this that’s got real flavor,” Dick said of his pale ale. “We’ll come back here and stop at the pub – it’s a good memory.”
The brewery only sells beer. Some patrons bring in food from other restaurants. The goal is to have Philipsburg Brewing Company kegs in every town bar and eatery that will take them, as well as sell by the glass, growler or keg inside the walls.
Those walls used to house a First National Bank that rose and fell with Philipsburg’s silver-mining past between 1887 and 1893. A walk-in vault has been converted to a semi-private seating lounge. Bartender Cheryl Barkell personally touched up the decorative rosette paintwork on the vault doorframe.
She also loves to have patrons touch the copper strip that accents the bar in front of her taps. It’s shockingly cold – refrigerated, in fact – and a novel way to keep beer glasses chilled while you chat.
The beers descend from barley grown in the Great Falls area, Washington hops, and water that’s a mix from Fred Burr Creek and Silver Spring. It takes about two weeks to brew a batch, providing the weather cooperates. For example, a passing low-pressure front minutely changes the temperature at which the beer mash boils, which can change the resulting beer’s flavor, color or strength.
Elliot expects to have all those details nailed down when the brewery has its official grand opening next month. He’s planning an Oktoberfest-style weekend, with grilled sausages, music and tastings.
“The state gave us the permit on Friday afternoon at 4:30, and we opened the next morning for business,” Elliott said. “There are people who were babies when the first ’coming soon’ sign went up who are now drinking here.”