Philipsburg Brewing Company opened its doors where boring beer ruled the land--ranchers, forestry workers, shop keepers, teachers, and everyone in between exclusively sipped suds shipped from the far corners of the country and owned by big corporations. You know, those watery concoctions that have been around for over a hundred years, the stuff the craft brewing industry calls “yellow beer” as a not-so-loving nod to their uninteresting approach to beer (if you can even consider this stuff beer!) ––and frequently consumed from a can reading Coors, Bud, or Miller. Hey, there’s certainly a time and place for those beers, but our taproom isn’t one of them.
A key difference between craft beer and the “traditional” American beers referred to above is the super wide variety of styles. Most craft brewers take the basic ingredients––water, yeast, malt barley, and hops––and experiment with adding herbs, spices, fruits, or whatever, or even testing new production techniques.
So, yes, aside from the delicious smorgasboard of flavors, aromas, and textures to choose from, the superiority of craft beer also lies in the way it’s made. Brewers actually go to school to study this ancient trade, and more and more colleges are launching beer brewing degree programs. Mike Elliott, Head Brewer at PBC, attended Oregon State University’s Fermentation Science program and Ben Johnson, Lead Brewer and Recipe Developer, completed Siebel Institute of Technology’s Concise Course in Brewing Technology.
These days, we’re in good company when it comes to Montana craft breweries, yet we’ve also managed to stand out in some pretty interesting ways. Here’s just a taste.
Adventurous and Approachable
We brew with purpose. Ben chooses styles to brew based on many things but that doesn’t include what’s trendy––in the rest of the state, country, or world. *GASP* No Hazy IPA?! Nope, not one around here. That doesn’t mean we brew just for beer snobs. Developing approachable styles that locals can get behind is fundamental to Mike and Ben’s brewing philosophy.
Some of our brews are lost styles that are hard to find in a taproom country-wide; they aren’t the hoppiest or boldest in the land, yet still rich with history and full of character. Case in point: There and Back Again Dark Mild is a taproom favorite that clocks in at 3.9% (session beer, anyone?) and is a rich mahogany color that has a slight maltiness and zero hop aroma and flavor. It’s a real mind-bender for the hop heads out there but anyone who likes beer and has an open mind will appreciate it. (By the way, cheers to the Tolkien family. We’re fans––hence the name––and we’re sorry for your loss.)
Of course, we don’t always build on historic styles. Oftentimes we start from scratch. Exhibit A: 5 Phantoms Pumpkin Spice Barley Wine is pretty damn unique. It’s brewed with real, locally-grown gourds and pumpkins, and Ben hand-grinds the vanilla bean, cloves, ginger, and other spices (we can’t share all our award-winning secrets). Can you really say you’ve had something like it?
Did you know that we use whole-flower hops in all of our brews? The only other brewery that we know does that for sure, like 100% for sure, is Sierra Nevada. The alternative approach is hop pellets or oils, which work fine… But we find that the finished product aroma and flavor is much more predictable (and super tasty) with dried, whole-flower hops. We also appreciate their more natural, unprocessed form.
So why would most breweries use pellets and oils, you ask? Great question. Using whole-flower hops is more time consuming in the brewing and cleaning process, it’s less cost-effective (modified hops like pellets are cheaper), and the hops take up more space in the coolers. We think the benefit to the final product is well worth the extra time and expense. Montana 1 IPA and Tramway Rye Pale Ale, two of our hoppiest of brews, just wouldn’t be the same without those beautiful blooms.
Before water chemistry was well understood, regional beer styles evolved to suit an area's underlying water characteristics. In Dublin, for example, brewers found the highly alkaline, calcium-laden water could balance the acidity of roasted barley, so the resulting Irish stout was full and sweet rather than thin and astringent. Similarly, the sulphate-rich waters of Burton-on-Trent in England helped to give hop-derived bitterness a refined, smooth character and eventually led to the development of hop-forward IPA.
Philipsburg's municipal water supply is a unique combination of two sources; the pure, nearly mineral-free alpine water of Fred Burr Lake is blended with ancient artesian mineral-laden water from Silver Spring. The 3:1 lake-to-spring water ratio yields a lightly mineralized, slightly alkaline brewing liquor that is easy for our brewers to manipulate with mineral additions in order to achieve the desired levels of calcium, sulphate, chloride, and residual alkalinity, each of which helps lend individual character to every beer we create. For example, in our Badfinger Imperial Stout, the raw water is insufficiently alkaline to balance the large amounts of highly roasted malt, which is quite acidic. To counter the acidity we add calcium carbonate, commonly known as chalk, and we use calcium chloride to accentuate the richness of Munich and Vienna malts.
“Water is a brewer's most fundamental and precious resource, yet is often misunderstood or simply overlooked when writing recipes or building breweries,” according to Mike. We consider ourselves mighty lucky to have both perfect brewing water and brewers who are dedicated to understanding how to best use it. During his time at Oregon State University, a quarter of Mike’s curriculum and coursework was dedicated to water chemistry. This taught him to develop his recipes by calculating residual alkalinity and researching what other brewers have done with similar styles to achieve the best results with the water supply he is brewing with. For instance, when building IPA recipes, the conventional wisdom is to have elevated sulphate levels in order to accentuate hop bitterness (we did this in our Tramway Rye Pale Ale), but in the modern juicy IPA trend, some pioneering brewers advocate drastically increasing chloride additions in order to give the beer a full, soft mouthfeel and sort of underplay the bitterness of the hops. This is the approach we took in our Montana 1 IPA.
Our brewers never tire of unveiling new creations. Last year at the Vault we brewed 20 different beers (70% staple brews, 30% specialty) totaling 72 batches, which translates to over 156,000 pints! We’re serving 10 in the taproom now, and plans are under way for the first new brew of the year.
Now hop on that New Beers Resolution! (If you aren’t already on the bandwagon, get in on the New Year, New Beer challenge here.)