Montana’s first co-op brewery opens in Ronan
RONAN – Montana’s first cooperative brewery opened in Ronan on Sept. 4, and a steady crowd has filtered through the side doors of the establishment at 400 Main Street.
“It’s a relief to finally open up,” said Heidi Fleury, director of the Ronan Cooperative Brewery. “To finally open, we are so very excited. All of our hard work has come to fruition, and it’s almost unbelievable. We are still in shock that this actually happened. We really truly opened Montana’s first cooperative brewery.”
The long journey to get the brewery doors open began after the Montana Economic Development Association brought people together in 2016 to discuss the town’s needs. Revitalizing Main Street was identified as the biggest priority. Locals talked about the many businesses closing up shop and wondered what would happen to the town if the trend continued.
The idea for developing a brewery was soon developed with the hopes that it would be a place to bring people back to Main Street to support small-town business, allow people the space to come together as a community and pull tourism off the highway and into downtown businesses.
“It’s working already,” Fleury said. “We put up signs on Highway 93, and we had people see those signs, turn off on 93 and come down Main Street. They came in to check it out. We had people come in and say that they had never turned onto Main Street before but saw the signs and decided to turn.”
The Ronan Cooperative Brewery had its first public event in 2017 where people were asked to purchase shares and become part owners in the project. The shares are $250 each. The brewery hopes to eventually have 1,000 owners. A cooperative business is one that is member-owned, and the profits are divided up among the owners. Fleury said the brewery isn’t seeing profits yet, but members get benefits like free drinks.
Getting the doors open wasn’t an easy task. Licensing the establishment caused many state officials to scratch their heads in confusion. “It had never been done in Montana before,” she said. “The state didn’t have a process for it.”
She said the state originally decided that every co-op member needed to be fingerprinted with a background check and have their names on the license, which included about 300 people. The requirements were eventually changed and only board members needed to be fingerprinted.
As far as similar models, Montana doesn’t have any other cooperative breweries. The folks in Saint Regis might be trying to develop one, but the closes brewery to Montana is the Flying Bike Cooperative Brewery in Seattle, Washington.
Several times the brewery was going to be opened during the past three years, but circumstances caused delays, including everything from equipment needs to hiring people to run the place.
“We learned that there was a lot that needed to be done before we could open,” Fleury said. “We also found out that it was much harder to find a head brewer than we thought.”
Six people applied for the job of head brewer. Organizers thought it would be a good idea to have the head brewer also develop the house recipes for the brew, but as it turned out, head brewers with the skills to develop special brews are paid about $60,000 a year on average. “We didn’t have that kind of money, so we had to change our plans,” she said.
Jim Myers was on the co-op board and thought about the problem. He offered to step down from his position and become the head brewer and the other board members accepted the offer, but the co-op still needed someone to develop those special recipes. Bob Haul, another board member, offered to share his expertise and create house blends. And finally, a taproom manager was found. Alex Endsley was hired to fill the position. She is in charge of scheduling employees, pouring beer and developing community events.
“We would like to eventually have community and family-friendly events,” Fleury said. “Our first event will be a grand opening on October 23 to the 24, starting at noon.”
Everything finally lined up so that the brewery could open to the public, but the COVID-19 pandemic required a few more guidelines than organizers originally anticipated.
“At the phase we are at with the pandemic, we can only be at 75 percent of capacity, so that is 45 people at a time. We also have lots of people filling up growlers to go. We have them for purchase or people can bring in their own. We have curbside pick up available as well.”
Patrons can check on the four different brews made with Montana products, currently available for $4 for a glass or $16 for the growler. For now, the brewery is open seven days a week with the last call at 8 p.m. People can sit in the taproom until 9 p.m. Each patron is allowed four 12-ounce brews.
As for the future, Fleury said she hopes the co-op continues to grow with more members, more merchandise and community events, and she hopes that it brings the community together and helps Main Street thrive again.