Missoula's craft beer scene added another member last week when Lakeside, Montana's Tamarack Alehouse and Grill opened its brewpub downtown on Front Street. The two-story brew pub — co-owned by Andra and Josh Townsley and head brewer Craig Koontz — features a full lunch and dinner menu and beers like the "Old Stache Porter," inspired by NHL Hall-of-Fame member Lanny McDonald, Andra's father. Koontz took some time to talk about McDonald's role, the philosophy of craft beer and brewpubs and the decision to expand into Missoula's already crowded microbrew culture.
Q: Tamarack mentions that they owe Lanny McDonald for the inspiration of the brewery and Old Stache Porter. How does the National Hockey League Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup champion fit in with Tamarack Brewery?
A: Lanny is Andra's father, and Andra and her family are significant investors in the project. Besides those details, Andra's dad has been a good friend of mine from when Andra and I went to college together. When we'd come up to Montana when I was in Arizona, we'd work on their house. He would work twice as hard as any of us young kids. He's just an incredible motivator and an incredible guy for not just the backing of his resources, but the backing of his heart and his spirit has been the leader of how we represent ourselves, and how to conduct business and how to run a properly family-oriented business.
Q: Some of Tamarack's specialty beers require months of aging in bourbon barrels or yeasts that could contaminate other beers. Where did you pick up these strategies and why do you use these processes in your beer making?
A: The fun part — the passion — of being a brewer is in creating new stuff and trying different things and crafting all the time. I totally want to get away from calling it microbreweries. We're craft breweries, and that focus is what allows us to try different and implement new things. We research, we read and we find a way to get a proper flavor in a beer that stands out amongst the others.
I think I was at the Great American Beer Fest in Denver in 2002 or 2003, and there were a few barrel-aged beers there, and there were a number of assistant brewers there. We would take turns, where the assistant would write a seasonal recipe, so I said, "Hey, next time it's my turn to do the seasonal, can we invest in some bourbon barrels? And I can try a bourbon barrel-aged beer?" So I did it in Phoenix once, and it was a great success. When I came up here and Andra and I were putting our heads together and wanted to do something special for Lanny and his famous mustache, we came up with the idea that this one gets better with age, and it's the Old Stache. He does; Lanny gets better with age, a fine wine kind of guy.
Q: Why is selling kegs solely out of your taproom cost effective compared to distributing bottles and cans nationally or statewide?
A: You're reaching the consumer at a consumer price point. The three-beer system is what we work around. Tamarack Brewing Company works in the philosophy that we're more like restaurateurs who make their own beer. The distributing brewery is a totally different business plan. We choose to do the restaurant thing. We like the people and the atmosphere that it creates, and our ability to provide jobs as well. It's also a better margin in terms of just looking at the beer. Four dollars a pint is a lot better than selling a whole keg to another restaurant, which sells it at $4 a pint.
Q: Why did Tamarack decide to expand to a competitive microbrew market like Missoula, and what do you think it is about Missoula's beer culture that makes it possible to host five successful breweries, taprooms and brewpubs?
A: We look at competition as a chance to improve ourselves. Every person, every student, every teacher, who goes to a brewery and has a good time will be willing to try the next craft brewery. So we're all in it together. We're not trying to step on anyone's toes. We're just trying to grab a hold of the fantastic beer culture that is Missoula. The town is educated, it's liberal and it's a-growing. Missoula has the energy, the direction, and it's acceptable and family oriented, so it draws people like Josh and I, who are motivated and young and want to watch our business grow with the community.
I know there are a couple of other breweries that are opening in Missoula soon, and we are all for it. I'd love to see 12, 15, 20 little breweries in Missoula. I think that's the kind of culture that craft breweries have. It's more of a fraternity than a competitive market.
Q:What is the quintessential Tamarack beer, and if you could only choose one style of beer to brew ever again, what would you choose?
A: The one that really got people talking about us is the Old Stache Porter.
People ask me all the time, "What's your favorite beer?" And my response is it depends on what I'm eating, depends on the time of year. So, if I had to choose, it would probably be our Lakeside ESB for two reasons: it's lower in alcohol, which means I can have three or four of them, unlike the IPA. I love the hoppy flavor, but ESP has this nice soft delicate hoppy flavor that I can pretty much drink with anything.