The University of Montana has, for the first time, partnered with a local brewery to create a branded beer that will benefit an alcohol abuse awareness and prevention program as well as a late-night downtown Missoula bus shuttle.
Griz Montana Lager, a Bohemian-style Pilsner created by Big Sky Brewing Company in Missoula, is now for sale and will be available through next spring when UM celebrates its 125th anniversary.
Bjorn Nabozney, the co-founder of Big Sky Brewing and a 1993 graduate of UM’s School of Business Administration, said he wrote the original business plan for the brewery in a UM finance class. Afterward, he joined Neal Leathers and Brad Robinson to launch Big Sky in 1995, and it has since gone on to become the state’s largest brewery. The company now employs 40 workers and sells 43,000 barrels of beer a year in 24 states.
“UM is a major asset to Missoula and the region, and we want to do everything we can to help the university succeed,” Nabozney said. “We thought this partnership was a wonderful way to market a new product and give back to a great institution at the same time.”
Mario Schulzke, UM’s chief marketing officer, said the school licenses its trademark with a lot of different companies but this is the first beer partnership.
“When we were first talking about how we want to do this, one of the things that was important was whoever brewed the beer had a strong connection to the university,” he said. “We really thought about the audience who we are trying to reach, which is our alumni who are across the country. What brewery could we team up with that has strong connections to UM and has a reach that is far outside the state? We felt really good about Big Sky as a potential partner.”
The university also has business partnerships with companies like Nike, JanSport and Under Armour.
“Over the last year, I’ve been overseeing licenses, and one of my priorities of focus was to work with more local partners,” Schulzke said.
So, UM has partnered with the likes of Craven’s Coffee on a branded coffee, the “Wear Your Roots” T-shirt company, as well as Big Dipper Ice Cream on a “Huckle-Beary” cold treat.
“We’re focused on building more local relationships with local businesses to help them increase sales,” Schulzke added. “That money ultimately stays in our community, so hopefully it’s a win-win. We want to help them as much as we can.”
For national brands, UM gets a 14 percent licensing fee, but local companies get a discount of 12 percent. A company called the Collegiate Licensing Company manages the licensing agreement. The profits that go back to UM will be channeled to the Curry Health Center and ASUM Transportation, as well as community outreach efforts through the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce and other programs.
Schulzke said he decides which programs get the money, but the university president can override him at any time. In fact, he’s already cut a check for $5,000 for the alcohol abuse prevention program at Curry Health. A portion will be passed on to the university as revenue.
Schulzke also said he was mindful of the fact that UM is an alcohol-free campus, except for special events when folks sell beer and wine during concerts at the Adams Center or Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“We are aware that it’s not a no-risk proposition,” he said. “It has potential advantages and disadvantages, and we thought long and hard about it. That being said, there are a lot of existing relationship between the university and various alcoholic brands."
For example, there is an agreement between Miller Coors and the Athletics Department, he said.
"I see banners for the Press Box (bar) at Griz games," he continued. "But this is really the first time we’ve ventured out to do something that’s going to benefit the campus as a whole. I can see why people would be nervous, but the benefits outweigh the risks.”
The new beer features a grizzly bear designed by UM graphic designer Neal Wiegert. The initial run is now available across western Montana and select markets. In addition to cans, consumers also can buy kegs and wearable merchandise. When Big Sky is allowed to start selling beers in its taproom this October due to a law change, UM will get the same 12 percent from every pint sold.