The process of brewing beer is not silent. The rolling boil as malt and hops are combined in water to make wort and the burble of carbon dioxide escaping the fermenter as the yeast processes the sugars indicate progress, and are valued by any brewer.
Over the past few years, students in the Brewing Science and Brewing Operations Program at Flathead Valley Community College added another, noisy step at the end of the process: the slosh, slosh, slosh of thousands of gallons of finished beer being poured straight down the drain.
Soon, that sloshing will be replaced with a cha-ching.
A bill passed by the Montana Legislature is opening the market for academic institutions that have brewing programs to sell their beer kegs wholesale. FVCC’s Program Director Joe Byers recently secured a distribution deal with local distributor Fun Beverage Inc. to get kegs of student-made beer into local bars.
“This was the first brewing program in the state, and now we are the first college in the country that is legally able to sell their beer,” Byers said. “I imagine there will be some to follow, and it’s going to be great for the industry as a whole to keep growing these programs as the industry is exploding.”
Now, all that beer that was previously going to waste can be sold and consumed locally, with the proceeds used to offset program expenses and increase marketing and outreach to attract more students. Byers hopes to see kegs of the college’s Eagle IPA and Stillwater Scotch Ale in bars as soon as February.
Byers estimates that since the program’s inception, they have had to dump approximately 9,300 gallons of beer from the 36 batches they have produced on their 3.5-barrel brewing system down the drain.
STATE LAW and the lack of a pipeline for an educational institution to obtain a federal license kept brewing programs like FVCC’s from making any money off of their product. Last May, Gov. Steve Bullock signed into law a bill that was originally introduced by Kalispell Republican Rep. Frank Garner that allows the institutions to obtain a state brewer’s license.
The special academic institution license doesn’t allow the program to have a taproom on campus, but Byers said he is happy with the compromise to allow wholesale distribution. Byers also credited Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., for helping the college obtain the federal license necessary to sell their product, helping them usher their application through a system that was unaccustomed to handling academic institutions.
Byers said the added revenue from the kegs will allow the program to offset some of the costs of ingredients, expand course offerings and will also provide enhanced marketing for their program.
This past fall the cohort began with 10 students. That has been whittled down to eight, but Byers said he expects to have the program’s first waiting list next fall. The program capacity is currently 12 students, though he said they may expand it to 14 if demand is high enough. In the near future he would like to add a second hands-on brewing instructor. Right now he is the only one, though students in the program also take brewing science courses from professors in other disciplines, like chemistry.
BYERS PLANS to ease into the wholesale market, starting with a low volume and ramping up as his students are ready. He said the added pressure of having the college’s beer consumed on a commercial level will help prepare them for the environment of a commercial brewery, and will ultimately be a large boon to all the beer they create.
The maximum amount of beer the college has the capacity to brew annually is about 350 barrels, but Byers said the focus would remain on being an educational institution.
He said they have been closer to 100 barrels in the past, and if sales prove to be positive for the program they may edge closer to 200 in the years to come but it was unlikely they would eclipse that. He added there is no intention of trying to undercut competitors in the market for tap handles in the Flathead Valley, and they will charge market rate for all their kegs.
“We want to be able to cover our costs and we want to be at a competitive price point,” Byers said.
When the college has events to raise money for its foundation, they often have beer and wine available that is purchased from the same distributor the college is using to sell its beer. In the future, they would likely have FVCC-made beer at those events, though by law they would have to purchase it from Fun Beverages Inc., said Diane Skyland, director of marketing and communications for the college.
Byers hopes this beer will be the best ambassador to attract applicants and attention to the program. He said the educational landscape for the next generation of brewers is changing, and he is pleased this puts FVCC on the forefront of that change.
“We’ll get our kegs moving out the door and hopefully some tap nights so people will tell their kids and their cousins to check us out,” Byers said.
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.