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Wibaux has microbrewery

Pub Date: 4/1/2010

Wibaux has microbrewery

    By Paul F. Vang
    Montana Tavern Times

    “This is the best day of my life,” Jim Devine told his friend, Chuck Schnabel of Butte, in a phone conversation last summer, “I just quit my day job.”
Schnabel, who with his wife, Lyza, owns Quarry Brewing in Butte, knew just what he meant.
    Chuck and Lyza risked everything a couple years earlier to start Quarry Brewing and they were finally getting to the point of saying they had achieved success at the venture, and that was in the geographical heart of western Montana's microbrewery subculture.
    Jim Devine, on the other hand, was calling from his home base at Beaver Creek Brewery, almost 500 miles east of Butte, in the tiny ranching and farming community of Wibaux, just a stone's throw from the North Dakota border and almost light years from the state’s west-end craft beer scene.

 
From left, Jim Devine, Russell Houck, Sandon Sittett. Above, the modest exterior of Beaver Creek Brewery.

    Beaver Creek Brewery is the brainchild of Jim Devine and Sandy Stinnet. Like many brewers, they got started with home brewing as a hobby.
    “We were in a home brewing club in Glendive,” Devine recalls, “and every once in awhile we'd bring samples to our meetings, and people started asking about buying our beer for special events.” Selling home brew, of course, was not a legal option.
In the winter months of early 2007, Jim and Sandy started talking about starting a microbrewery business, and then started getting serious about looking into locations, getting financing, and other aspects of getting into business.
    While they were both Wibaux residents, their jobs were based in Glendive. Jim worked as a Family Support Specialist for DEAP; a non-profit agency providing services to families with developmentally disabled children and adults.
    They investigated properties in Glendive but didn't find what they wanted. This is where Russell Houck became part of the process, as well as a business partner.
Jim describes Houck as a person deeply committed to preserving and improving Wibaux's historic old business district. Houck owned a building, which previously housed a grocery story that had gone out of business in 1986. The building was in bad shape, but it had a unique asset that appealed to Jim and Sandy: a walk-in cooler and freezer.
    “The building was literally falling over when we started work,” Jim relates. “Our first job was to hire a contractor to shore up and stabilize the exterior walls of the building. Then we went to work. Sandy and I, and my wife, put in some 4,000 hours of unpaid labor to get the building cleaned out and refurbished.”
    In their earlier home-brewing days, Jim and Sandy had gotten acquainted with a couple Miles City men who started a microbrewery in the 1990s, and often went to them for advice on brewing. The Miles City microbrewery later changed hands and then closed. Jim and Sandy were able to rescue the Miles City brewing equipment for their new enterprise.
    While they worked to build a brewery, they took plenty of friendly abuse from people who kept telling them, “You guys are nuts.” In fact, no area banks even considered loaning them money. They finally made connections with a private investor in Billings who was interested in helping finance their project.
    In August 2008, some 18 months after Jim and Sandy came up with their business idea, they opened Beaver Creek Brewery. They started cautiously, recognizing the need to develop a customer base.
    They started with one brew, which they called Wibaux's Gold, a relatively light ale with locally produced honey as part of their ingredients. They subsequently added Beaver Creek Pale, Paddlefish Stout, and Redheaded IPA (India Pale Ale), Rusty Beaver Wheat, and Rough Rider Wheat (light ale brewed with lemon grass) to their standard list of offerings.
    “It's amazing,” Jim reflects. “Some of our first customers were local people who primarily came to support our business start, and they'd start with Gold, and now they're drinking IPA.”
    The word also spread around the world of craft beer lovers that another player was on the scene. Bill Schneider, a Helena freelance writer, wrote a series of articles about Montana's microbreweries for Newwest.net, an internet publication. He figured he had things covered until Devine called him up and asked when he was coming to Wibaux.
    Schneider writes that when he mentions this new member of the Montana microbrew community, people generally ask, “Where's Wibaux?” To which he replies, “A loooooong way from my keyboard.”
    He adds, “That might even challenge Lang Creek Brewing's claim to fame as 'the most remote brewery in America.'” (Note: Sadly, Lang Creek Brewing closed in May 2009.)
    This reporter would challenge Schneider's description of Wibaux as remote. True, it's a long way from western Montana, but I don't think we can characterize a community right on I-94, with thousands of cars, trucks, and RVs whizzing by daily, as remote.
    Wibaux, incidentally, is named after Pierre Wibaux, a Frenchman and a pioneering eastern Montana rancher, and a neighbor and friend of Theodore Roosevelt during that future president's ranching days in that country.
    Brew a better beer and, as with mousetraps, people will beat a path to your door. Devine says, “It's amazing to see how far people will come for three pints of beer,” adding, “We've had repeat visits from people from Minnesota who have tried our beer and make a point of stopping in for more.”
    They've also been working hard on expanding their market. Besides other Wibaux bars, their brews are available at several bars in nearby Glendive, plus Miles City, Baker, Circle, and Billings.
    “Some of them don't sell a lot,” he says of places like Circle, “but they want to support other eastern Montana businesses.”
    They've also hooked up with a North Dakota distributor to get into that market. “We're so small that they left it up to me to secure some accounts. But we now are in four to five locations between Medora and Dickinson," Devine says, "and we are working on a potential account in Bismarck. We're the only microbrewery between Billings and Fargo, so I like to think we have a lot of potential.”
    While they're working to expand their market, it's clear that the heart and soul of the business is to keep giving local customers reasons to come back for more.
In addition to their regular line-up of beers, they offer some unique seasonal brews. Their winter seasonal is called Sippin' Pumpkin, a contrast to the summer seasonal, Choke Cherry Wheat. “That one's popular with our women customers; it's both light and sweet,” Devine says.
    Want to mix it up a bit? They do that, with Black-N-Tan, a combination of Rusty Beaver Wheat with Paddlefish Stout. For dessert, try Pie-N-Coffee, a blend of Sippin' Pumpkin and Paddlefish Stout.
    In addition to beer, they also make their own root beer, which Devine says is needed to have something for children who come in with their parents. “We have a lot of young parents in our local customer base and we want to make it easy for them to come in without having to hire a sitter.”
    He adds, “We were never a smoking establishment, so the smoking ban is totally a non-issue with us.”
    Something that Beaver Creek Brewery offers is unique: fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies-and if you order a pint of Paddlefish Stout, a chocolate chip cookie comes with it.
    “That's something that came out of the homebrewing club days,” Devine explains.  “We started experimenting with food pairings, and chocolate chip cookies seemed to be a natural with porter and stout.”
    “My wife is an excellent baker,” Devine continues. “In the 16 years we've been married I don't think we've bought bread more than three or four times. So, we put in a commercial oven in our tasting room so we can make cookies and bread. We make bread from the spent grains left over from the brewing process.
    "During the summer and fall we offer bratwursts with fresh-baked rolls. This has been a popular quick snack with local farmers and hunters. We bake every day, so that if you come in right after we open and order a Stout, the cookie is not only fresh, it's still hot from the oven.”
    Beaver Creek Brewery is open on Thursday through Sunday, from 4 to 8 p.m. Devine suggests, “Check our website, at <www.beavercreekbrewery.com>. We just re-did it and I think it's pretty good.”
    Wibaux isn't necessarily remote, but it certainly is a “fur piece” from the microbrew centers of western Montana.
    So, if you're headed east, it's right on the way, and if you're curious about their motto, “Our Beaver Tastes Better,” it's definitely worth a stop – especially if the idea of a hot chocolate chip cookie washed down with a pint of stout seems almost too good to be true.