Texas has Lone Star. Wisconsin has Leinenkugel. But there’s no regional beer specific to Montana. Bozemanites Chad Zeitner and Jeremy Gregory are hoping to change that with their newly founded Montucky Cold Snack beer.
“We both wanted to start a brewery, and he had the brilliant idea of doing a lighter beer,” Zeitner said. “We were thinking the market was pretty saturated as far as the craft breweries go, so we would have had to go to a small town. Then we thought of going to the light lager and it was even more expensive.”
“We’re going for an everyday drinking beer,” Gregory said.
“You can’t drink four IPAs on the river,” Zeitner said, referring to higher alcohol content India pale ale beers.
“Well, you can,” Gregory countered. “But we wanted to shift to something lighter so they don’t end up on their lips three hours later.”
That’s when they began considering hiring a contract brewer — someone who would brew the beer while they did everything else. It’s not a new idea. Samuel Adams, now a nationally known beer, started out using craft brewers.
After a lot of online research and phone calls, they found a brewer in La Crosse, Wis., and then settled on a recipe, name and can design. Gregory describes the beer as a lager with a subtle lemon base.
“The way we had it set up was a little nontraditional,” Zeitner said. “We got a full batch of beer, canned a third of it and then every dollar we got went back into canning more beer before it went bad.
“All of our capital is in the product.”
“When you do something like that, it becomes more of a marketing thing,” Gregory said. “You’re taking on all of the giants now. You have to be pretty creative.”
Zeitner, 31, is an electrical engineer. He was born in Butte, raised in Pocatello, Idaho, and has ties to Opheim, where his father grew up, and Willow Creek, where his mother was raised. Gregory, 30, grew up in Hardin and spent a lot of time on his family’s ranch near Lodge Grass. A former hotshot firefighter, he worked the winter at a Big Sky-area restaurant.
The two men were brought together by a roommate — Sean Mattick — who they joked should have been named Otto by his motorcycle-loving parents. Since Mattick brought them together, Zeitner and Gregory may be closer than either of them is comfortable with.
“For not really knowing Chad, it’s like we’ve been married,” Gregory said he told his mother. They now share a bank account, email address and business.
What Gregory doesn’t have is a house. The money he was saving for that investment went into Montucky Cold Snack.
But as Zeitner noted, “You can’t drink a house.”
Gregory and Zeitner got Montucky Cold Snack aloft by dipping into their savings accounts as well as taking out a bank loan. Funding the startup has left them both a little strapped for cash.
“Hey, dude, I’m still driving a 2000 Honda Accord,” Gregory noted. “We got into a commodity market and the margins aren’t too high. Everything we earn we’re putting back into the business.”
The business partners did have some favorable figures to point to when they went to the bank, though. According to the Brewers Association, Montana ranks third for the number of craft breweries per capita. The state also ranks third in the nation for amount of beer consumed per capita — 40.6 gallons.
Where some may see a drinking problem, the business partners saw opportunity. Gregory figured that if Montucky Cold Snack could pick up 0.25 percent of the beer market in Montana — that’s one-400th — they could make a go of the business.
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“If you start looking at it, it’s pure speculation,” Gregory said.
The beginning was pretty bare bones. When approaching distributors early on, they didn’t even have a can to show. They wrapped a paper mock-up around a soda can and tried to sell the idea.
It wasn’t easy approaching distributors, who are busy people. Zeitner also had to learn to talk the distributors’ language, which Gregory admitted he still doesn’t understand.
“It’s really a steep learning curve,” Gregory said. “To this day I let Chad run it because I don’t fully grasp it.”
At least now when approaching a distributor, they can show them the actual product. For the can’s design, they ended up using colors from Montana’s old license plate — a blue background with an orange, yellow and red mountain silhouette — as a backdrop to a galloping white horse. The idea was to mix something retro with an innovative, eye-catching design that would attract middle-aged and younger beer drinkers.
Gregory said their target market is 21- to 40-year-olds.
Since their friends are part of the business’ marketing demographic, they’ve stepped in to help sell the product — striking up promotional conversations with other beer drinkers and wearing T-shirts to advertise Montucky.
“Our friends are more a face of the company than Chad and I in some respects,” Gregory said. “And they’re all stoked about it, too.”
At only 5 months old, Montucky Cold Snack is still a babe in the massive world of canned beers. And like parents of a new baby, the partners have lost sleep worrying about their venture. They’ve also put more hours into their infant business than they initially thought necessary.
“For Chad, it’s another full-time job,” said Gregory, whose restaurant job ended when the ski season was over.
Asked if the struggles of starting up a business had diminished or stressed their friendship, Gregory joked, “We were never really very good friends anyway.”
Still in the nurturing phase of the business, they’re keeping their view long-term and pushing their grassroots advertising by helping to sponsor events like a fly-fishing movie tour, hosting launch parties and working with nonprofits.
“We’re trying to spread the love as much as we can,” Zeitner said.
Montucky Cold Snack retails for about $6.49 a six-pack, but is sold for $9.50 in a Big Sky market alongside craft beers. Some convenience stores have priced it at $5.99, making it less expensive that the giant brands like Coors and Budweiser.
To further set them apart from more well-known brands, once the business makes a profit they plan to donate 8 percent of their earnings to Montana causes. Until then, they try to use mainly Montana-based help for everything from trucking to web design.
So far, they’ve muscled their brew into five cities: Billings, Bozeman, Helena, Great Falls and Glasgow, with attempts to get into Missoula, Butte and eventually the rest of Montana.
“Hopefully, we’ll have the whole state covered by fall,” Zeitner said.
Looking to the future, the business partners would eventually like to bring production of the beer into the state — using Montana water, grain and labor. They’ve already talked with some state-based brewers, but any move is still in its infancy.
“We’re just trying to capture the state and go from there,” Zeitner said.