Local brewery adds Montana grains to produce ‘love in a glass’
A road trip on the endless highway across Wyoming helped spawn the idea for a brewery. It was near Rock Springs, Wyoming, when Dave Ayers started daydreaming about starting Glacier Brewing Company. He even thought of a couple of beer names, one of which was Golden Grizzy Ale.
Chris Ayers, his wife, was asleep.
“It was almost a divine cerebral placement,” Dave said.
The dream simmered in his head for almost 10 years until Chris, her brother Bob, and Dave had lunch in Telluride, Colorado, where Dave was working at a brewery. They decided they should do something about the Glacier Brewing Company or never talk about it again.
Three months later, the couple put their house on the market, loaded up their less than 2-year-old daughter and their household goods and headed to Polson, arriving on a Thursday. On Friday Dave was on a plane to California to uninstall a used brewing system and ship it to Montana on a flatbed.
The brew tanks took up residence in Chris’ dad’s tree farm among the evergreens while the trio looked for a brewery.
One day Bob called and said he’d found a place in Polson. Driving down from Creston, Dave and Bob looked over the brewery, a building constructed in the mid-70s by the Elks as a racquetball court. Then it housed the Captain’s Log, a printer, until that business went out of business.
“It was dirty, dust-covered, grimy and the printing press was in there,” Dave said.
Bob and Dave could see the possibilities and bought the building. The bank was positively “giddy” that someone wanted it, according to Dave.
After they closed on the building, Dave said they opened the doors to begin rehabbing but the massive printing press was still there. The banker said, “Give me two days,” and somehow, somewhere, the press went away.
The brewery equipment moved out of the pines and into the building on Halloween of 2002, and in March of 2003, “We started selling,” Dave said.
The bar in the main room, built onto the brew works, was crafted by Paul Allen from a fallen tree.
“We wanted this room to be rustic but comfortable,” Dave said, displaying a photo of the Virginia City Brewery from the turn of the 20th century, the inspiration for the Glacier Brewery’s sign.
Dave credits Shawn Simons with driving the taproom.
“She does such a good job, I can focus pretty on production,” Dave said. “I’m the founder, the brewer. I unclog the toilets, I design the labels.”
He started in this trade — and “that’s what it is, a trade,” Dave explained — on the lowest rung of the ladder as a weekend keg washer in a small brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. He worked his way up to bottling and then began an apprenticeship as head brewer. One day, the head brewer walked out in the middle of a shift.
“I got a field promotion,” Dave said.
The brewery decided he needed some formal education, so he studied online at University of California, Davis, and the Siebel Institute of Technology, Chicago.
Yet the bulk of his learning came from making home-brew in his kitchen in college.
Dave makes all the beers — six beers and one specialty — and sodas at the brew works.
Glacier Brewery produces about 900 barrels a year, although the production varies. A barrel contains 31 gallons of great craft beer such as Golden Grizzly Ale, Flathead Cherry Ale, Slurry Bomber Stout, Port Polson Pilsner, Wildhorse Island Pale Ale and Glacier Select, a special one-barrel batch. Barrels also hold Polson Pepper Soda or Glacier Brewing Company Root Beer.
During the summer, with an influx of tourists, Dave brews every day, but during the winter he usually brews every two weeks.
Outside the brewery door, “impersonating a rocket,” Dave said, is a recently-placed silo containing Montana grain that’s he able to buy from a malt house in Great Falls for two months or so.
In a malt house, the harvested grain kernels are spread out on enormous floors and sprinkled with water; then the grain begins to sprout and “malts.”
“Now we have grain with a very high simple sugar content for the yeast to eat,” Dave said.
Brewer’s yeasts, Dave jokes, “are the hardest working ‘employees’ at the brewery.”
Their job is to eat the sugar, burp out the carbon dioxide gas and excrete alcohol.
Dave’s beer is made from mostly two-row barley — which has a higher sugar content than six-row barley — and some wheat. He also uses Polson water, brewer’s yeast and hops. For the Flathead Cherry Ale, he adds a cherry flavoring.
People in western Montana are beginning to grow hops, but Dave still imports the majority of his since there isn’t a hops pelletizer in Montana. Whole hops make a mess in the equipment, he explained.
From grain to glass, traditionally beer in microbreweries or craft breweries takes anywhere from two to six weeks. Each tank in the Glacier Brewery holds 310 gallons.
“You have to be so precise and so exact and so repetitive,” Dave said.
He’s approached by many people who want to get into the brewery business and are “jazzed and excited.” He tells them a brewer does the exact same thing every day, and that washes some prospective microbrewers out.
There are many craft and microbreweries around the state, and this year the Montana legislature will look at legislation allowing liquor license stacking, Dave said.
Glacier Brewing Company has a brewing license, which allows them to manufacture or brew and sell a limited quantity of beer. They don’t have an all-beverage liquor license, and bars that do aren’t allowed to have a brewing license.
“It all goes back to prohibition,” Dave said, explaining that the government didn’t want any business to control all three tiers — beer brewing, liquor and distribution.
The law coming up, if it’s passed, would allow bars to also buy brewing licenses or breweries to purchase all-beverage or beer and wine licenses.
“If this stacked license bill gets through, it’ll be interesting to see what happens,” Dave said, especially since the proposed legislation has created a coalition between the breweries and tavern owners.
“There’s been a dramatic and defined division between breweries and tavern owners,” he said.
The breweries and tavern owners like this bill, but the distributors hate it, according to Dave.
While the impact remains to be seen, Dave enjoys making the product and loves to see customers sitting in Glacier Brewery’s taproom or around western Montana, enjoying the beer he makes.
“I’ve physically touched each of these bottles two or three times, filled every one,” Dave said, smiling.
Glacier Brewery is located at Six 10th Avenue E. in Polson and is currently open from 3 to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with “flex and constriction according to the season,” Dave said, adding they open as early as 10 a.m. in the summertime. “In summer we are open as much as we can. In winter, not as much.”