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Beaver Creek Brewery employee Jayson Eslick mans the bar on the afternoon on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 in Wibaux, Mont. Nick Nelson / Agweek

Beer, barley and breweries: Craft beer boosts Montana barley, tourism

WIBAUX, Mont. — Near Interstate 94 and close to the North Dakota border, Wibaux, Mont. — population about 590 — is sometimes the first or last thing in the state that travelers see. The same can be same for Wibaux's Beaver Creek Brewery, part of Montana's increasingly prominent Brewery Trail.

"There's just more and more interest in craft beer, and that's good for us and the other (Montana) breweries," said Jayson Eslick, a Beaver Creek employee.

The Wibaux brewery reflects craft beer's growing popularity both in Montana and nationwide. It also reflects expanded opportunity for Montana farmers who grow barley, a traditional crop that has seen major challenges in recent years.

"Barley production has been a significant industry (in Montana) for many, many years," albeit one now facing serious concerns, said Collin Watters, executive vice president of the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, based in Great Falls.

In recent years, however, growing demand for barley for craft beer has augmented existing demand from large brewers, countering some of those concerns, he said.

What's a craft beer? Definitions differ. But it's generally considered a beer made by a small, independent brewery that emphasizes quality, taste and brewing technique.

By all accounts, craft beer is a rising star, with many Americans intrigued by its promise of better, fuller taste. Two sets of numbers make the point:

• In 2016 there were 5,234 craft breweries nationwide, up from 1,977 in 2011, according to information released this spring by the Brewers Association, the trade group representing small and independent craft brewers.

• In 2016, craft beer accounted for 12.3 percent of U.S. market share by volume, up from 5.7 percent in 2011, according to the Brewers Association.

But craft beer's once-explosive growth has slowed. Global brewers — attracted by craft beer's success — have acquired some craft breweries, removing sales from those breweries in the craft beer category. Increasing interest in wine and spirits among young adults also is a factor.

The 12.3 percent market share by volume in 2016 was only a fractional increase from the 12.2 percent rate in 2015. That tiny increase makes it unlikely that craft beer industry will reach its goal of 20 percent share by 2020.

"The growth is tapering off," though slower growth is welcome nonetheless, given overall flat demand for beer, Watters said.

Craft brewers use more barley to make one pint of beer than big brewers do, making craft beer even more attractive to barley growers, he said.

Montana's craft beer industry, for its part, continues to expand. It now has 68 craft breweries, roughly double the number in 2011. And its nine breweries per 100,000 people ranks second behind only Vermont's 10.8 breweries per 100,000 people, according to the Brewers Association.

Elsewhere in Agweek Country: Minnesota ranks 16th with 2.8 breweries per 100,000 people. South Dakota ranks 45th with 2.5 breweries per 100,000 people. North Dakota — which often leads the nation in barley production — ranks 50th with 1.9 breweries per 100,000 people.

More than 60 breweries cooperate on the Montana Brewery Trail, created in 2008 by the Montana Brewers Association. The group promotes the production and sale of Montana-made beer.

Compete, cooperate

Montana breweries "all compete (for sales) but we're friends and cooperate, too" Eslick said.

Jim Devine, Sandon Stinnett and Russ Houck opened the Beaver Creek Brewery in 2008 in a former grocery store that had been vacant for years. Devine and Stinnett were long-time craft brewers; Houck — who subsequently left the business on good terms — owned the building, which Devine and Stinnett renovated, Devine said.

Beaver Creek, of which Stinnett is brewmaster, makes everything from light to dark beers. Over the course of a year it brews 17 to 20 different beers, with eight or nine on tap at any given time. All the beers — with the exception of one costly-to-make specialty beer — sells for $4 per pint.

Many of the breweries' customers come from southwest North Dakota and southeast Montana. "But we get a lot more tourist traffic than people would imagine," Devine said.

Beer tourism, as it's sometimes called, also is more significant than some people might suppose. At least 10 million people toured small and independent breweries in 2014, according to the Brewers Association.

Karsten Finseth, a Twin Cities resident with in-laws in the Plevna, Mont., area, was at Beaver Creek Brewery on the same day that Agweek visited.

"They make really good beer here," Finseth said.

Beaver Creek gets the majority of its barley, as much as it can, from Montana, Eslick said.

"Farmers and ranchers from Montana ask us about that (the source of the barley) all the time. We can call it a Montana-made product," he said.

'Risky to grow'

Barley has a long and prominent role in Montana agriculture. The crop is grown in many parts of the state, on both dryland and irrigated fields. That diversification gives buyers more security when unfavorable weather hurts barley fields in some areas, Watters said.

The crop fits nicely in rotations with corn and sugar beets on irrigated fields and as an alternative to wheat on dryland, according to information from Montana State University Extension.

This year, Montana farmers planted 700,000 acres of barley. That led the nation, topping the 500,000 acres in North Dakota and 470,000 acres in Idaho. The three states dominate U.S. barley production.

But Montana barley acreage — which hit a record high of 2.4 million in 1986 — has been on a long-term decline. Disease has hit the crop, making it riskier to grow. Scab, a fungal disease also known as Fusarium head blight, is particularly onerous.

Scab has pushed barley out of eastern and central North Dakota, and is a problem in Montana, too. But Montana is substantially drier than North Dakota, which typically makes Montana barley a little less susceptible, Watters said.

Barley can be sold as either malt or feed. Malt barley is used primarily for beer, while feed barley is fed to animals. Many factors, including protein levels, determine whether barley is sold as malt or feed. Malt usually, though not always, fetches a higher price, sometimes much higher.

Selling barley at the higher malt price gives farmers a better chance of being profitable, but doesn't guarantee it. Not making malt can ravage the budgets of farmers who planted the crop expecting to receive the higher malt price.

"Barley is risky to grow," Watters said.

Barley generally is sold under contract, which means farmers sell a specified amount at a specified price, well in advance of harvest. The price and amount fluctuate from year to year.

Given the uncertainty of making malt grade with their barley, Montana farmers understandably are attracted to other crops, including corn and pulse crops, Watters said.

Pulses — the collective name for a dozen crops that include lentils, dry beans, dry peas and chickpeas — are increasingly popular to many Montana farmers.

"I hope the price of barley, and the demand for barley, is sufficient to keep farmers interested in growing it," Watters said, adding that some Montana farm families have a long, strong connection to the crop.

Popular place

For now, at least, craft beer fans remain committed to drinking it, at least judging by Beaver Creek Brewery.

This summer, for the first time, the brewery was open seven days a week, with good results, Eslick said.

Beaver Creek now is on its winter schedule, open from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Devine suggested calling ahead, especially if the weather isn't good, to make sure the brewery is open.

The Gem Theater, attached to Beaver Creek Brewery, offers food, live entertainment and beer.

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Wibaux has several other restaurants, too. They bring people to town, which helps Beaver Creek Brewery. And the people that the brewery brings to Wibaux helps the other restaurants, Eslick said.

Beaver Creek Brewery typically brews up to four times per week. Its products are sold at a number of other locations in Montana and North Dakota, too.

The brewery celebrated its ninth anniversary this summer.

"We thank our customers for that. We've made it because of them," Devine said.

Craft beer appeals to many people, and that's not going to change, Eslick said.

"A lot of people try it and like it, and they stick with it," he said.