Rural Fortine microbrewery sees rapid growth

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Chris Neill, H.A. Brewing Co. owner and head brewer, enjoys one of the brewery's farmhouse beers at the taproom near Fortine. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

H.A. Brewing Co. head brewer and owner Chris Neill has put his own spin on that famous “Field of Dreams” quote: “If you build it, they will come.”

Neill keeps building and people keep coming.

The popular microbrewery and tap room tucked in the woods near Fortine has been on a growth spurt since it opened in August 2013. Initially it was run on a 2.5-barrel system, then high demand for the craft brews prompted Neill and business partners Karl Kassler and Andy Kvasnak to upgrade to a 5-barrel system.

H.A. Brewing now is setting up a 10-barrel fermenter.

The demand for more beer has led to the need for more space, too. An additional 500 square feet of seating area in the tap room was finished in January, using rustic, recycled materials from an old building in Eureka.

A courtyard with outdoor seating and mingling space was completed last summer.

Another project underway is an expansion to quadruple the amount of cooler space. That addition, scheduled for completion in early May, will allow the brewery to have 10 brews, including its ginger ale, available at all times. The extra cooler space also will enable the business to develop more outside accounts.

H.A. Brewing Co. beer is served at several locations in Northwest Montana and as far away as the Stein Haus in Great Falls. In Kalispell, Hops Downtown Grill serves H.A. Brewing beer, and in Whitefish beer drinkers will find the craft brews at the Buffalo Cafe, Ciao Mambo, Craggy Range, Crush, McGarry’s Roadhouse and Piggy Back BBQ. Flathead Lake Brewing Pubhouse in Bigfork also serves H.A. Brewing beer.

The crowds have been consistent at H.A. Brewing’s tap room, Neill said, with just a little lull during hunting season. The microbrewery is along a popular snowmobile route in the Eureka area, so winter is just as busy as the summer.

The home-grown business has become a destination visit for beer lovers.

“People don’t mind driving,” Neill said. “People tell us they love coming out here.”

H.A. Brewing recently started a trivia competition at 6 p.m. Thursdays and an open microphone night starting at 5 p.m. on Sundays, additional drawing cards for patrons.

And there’s more news.

H.A. Brewing just started bottling its own beer. Bottles are available only at the tap room right now, but once the labels are federally approved, H.A. Brewing beer will be available at several area bottle shops, Neill said.

A few of H.A.’s flagship beers are on tap all the time, such as the Grave Creek IPA, Pioneer Pal Ale, Big Creek Porter, Boulder Creek Stout and Black Irish.

Neill has a rotating selection of his farmhouse open-top fermented beer series, Belgian and barrel-aged beers.

Wild beer has become “a very interesting obsession,” Neill said. “The flavors that are available outside of traditional Saccaromyces (brewing yeast) are incredible. We are playing around with open fermentations, Brettanomyces and lactobacillus, to create unique, wild and funky beers.”

H.A. Brewing is adding an additional day to its tap room schedule. Starting the first week in May the tap room will be open Wednesday from 3 to 9 p.m., with serving until 8 p.m, adding to the Thursday through Sunday daily schedule.

Last summer Jax Pizza, owned and operated by Cafe Jax in Eureka, brought its wood-fired pizza wagon to the premises, allowing beer drinkers to enjoy pizza, chicken wings, salads and dessert onsite.

Neill started the microbrewery next door to his furniture workshop. He was a cabinet maker before he became a beer maker, and the growth of H.A. Brewing Co. quickly sidelined his furniture making.

Neill and his wife Siri, who does the payroll and works at the tap room, moved to Montana 19 years ago and have found the rural Fortine area to be the perfect spot to raise their two sons.

He envisions the brewing business growth leveling out a little now, though Kassler has just assumed a sales and distribution position that will develop more outside accounts. Neill is the only full-time employee; eight part-time workers keep the beer flowing.

“We have a great tap-room staff,” he added.

Kvasnak has been involved with the various expansion projects, Neill noted.

Even though legislation aimed at enabling craft breweries to expand their hours of operations wasn’t passed by the Montana Legislature this session, Neill said H.A. Brewing’s business model probably won’t change even if laws for Montana microbreweries are relaxed.

Though its been a wild, exhausting ride, Neill said making beer is enjoyable.

“Beer is pretty fun. At the end of the day we’re pretty happy,” he said.

H.A. Brewing Co. brewery and tap room are located at 2525 Grave Creek Road. Take U.S. 93 west out of Whitefish; turn right on Grave Creek Road just past mile marker 170.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

 

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