Spend a day on Beaver Creek: Wibaux brewery has grown from hobby to year-round business
WIBAUX, Mont. — Budweiser was always the king of beers in this town. That was until a few local guys got together and joined the craft beer movement by forming Beaver Creek Brewery.
What started as a craft beer club based out of nearby Glendive, Mont., has turned into a popular regional brewery whose products can be found at restaurants and bars throughout eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
“Our motto is that we educate one palette at a time,” co-owner Jim Devine said. “That’s why we made the Gold. … The Wibaux’s Gold we brewed specifically for opening the brewery because we knew we would need what we call a ‘domestic transformation beer.’”
In the late-1990s, Devine started Beaver Creek with his friend and fellow social worker Sandy Stinnett, of Glendive.
Over the years, the men talked about opening a brewpub. In 2008, the dream became a reality.
“The legend goes that we had too many pints and wound up opening a brewery,” Devine said with a laugh.
Devine and Stinnett were operating Beaver Creek full-time within two years, leaving their social work jobs behind.
“Our initial thoughts were that Sandy and I thought we’ll run this place and keep our other jobs for about 10 years and then maybe we’ll retire to it,” Devine said. “That lasted a year.”
In 2009, its first full year of operation, Beaver Creek brewed 279 barrels of beer, or about 8,600 gallons. That increased to 791 barrels, or 24,500 gallons, by 2013 — all in the Wibaux brewpub.
“I distributed by myself, self-distributed in Montana only for about a year, year-and-a-half,” Devine said. “Things are spread out so far I could only do like — I think I had 12 accounts — because I could only go to them every other week. They were so far away. It wasn’t very cost-effective.”
Beer from the brewery is distributed between Billings, Mont., and Bismarck.
Beaver Creek Brewery is only available on tap, and the only way to bring it home is to purchase a growler, a half-gallon glass jug, from the Wibaux location. Growler owners are encouraged to bring their jugs back for refills.
“We’d have to probably triple our production or more in order to package the beer in cans or bottles,” Jim said. “That means we’d have to have another building (and) a million dollars in equipment.”
The brewpub is open four days a week — Thursday through Sunday — leaving the other three days, and the hours not spent open, for brewing.
“When we first opened, Sandy and his wife would bartend two nights a week, my wife and I would bartend two nights a week, and then Sandy and I would do all the brew work on weekends or at night,” Devine said. “So we were doing 80 hours a week.”
The brewpub was once a grocery store, but before it became Beaver Creek Brewery, co-owner Russ Houck used it for storage. It took 4,000 hours of labor and sweat equity over 18 months to turn it into the brewpub.
There are always six beers on tap at the brewpub, plus two seasonal brews and a special root beer that can only be purchased in Wibaux.
Beaver Creek’s success has hindered its creativity a bit.
“We get so busy providing our distributors with beer sometimes we can’t — we don’t make all the beers we want to make,” Devine said.
Last year, Devine’s wife, Sandra, and her brother, Frank O’Connor, reopened The Gem Theater.
It is a historic building that, like its neighboring brewpub, had been used for storage before its renovation. The Gem serves wine, Beaver Creek beer and oven-baked appetizers and pizzas.
“My wife is a terrific baker,” Jim said. “She’s can make anything taste good.”
The Gem hosts live music, local groups and national acts. Doug Stone, who had four No. 1 singles on the country charts in the early 1990s, is scheduled to do an acoustic show April 26.
By Montana law, the brewpub — which is technically a tasting room — has to be closed by 8 p.m. and can’t serve more than three pints to any single patron. The Gem serves food from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and closes at 11 p.m. The two are separate but adjoining businesses.
On Friday, Valentine’s Day, The Gem reopened after a six-week furlough for cleaning and general maintenance with a special three-course dinner and performance by Jim’s band, The Fermenters.
Beaver Creek is available at 61 bars outside of the brewpub, including three locations in each Dickinson and Medora. The brewery works with five distributors, including Braun’s Distributing in Dickinson.
“It’s fun with these guys that you get to go talk to the owners and the founders, and you don’t get to have that kind of access with the other brewing partners that we work with,” said Kevin Braun, Braun’s Distributing co-owner. “They’re great guys to work with and they do really make some quality beers.”
Beaver Creek Brewery hosted a beer-pairing event at Players Sports Bar and Grill in Dickinson, where Jim worked with the chef to create a menu paired perfectly with beers from Beaver Creek.
“The chef would come out with a course and he would say this is what it is and this is how we did it, and then I would say, ‘This is the beer we’re going to pair it with,’” Jim said.
“It was pretty cool.”
Players will continue to carry Beaver Creek Brewery beers, Manager Wayne Rau said.
“We had been getting some customer requests because it’s more of a local brewery,” Rau said. “The brewery has very good beer.”
When they started, the goal was to brew beer to be sold in Montana and the Dakotas.
“We’re two-thirds of the way there,” Jim said. “We started at an old age. A lot of brewers will start at 25, 26. We started at 40. Some of our compadres in Montana that started early, they’re bottling and shipping all over the place. Well, they started when they were 25.”
While there are no plans to begin bottling, Beaver Creek the type of business that carries a never-say-never attitude.
“If somebody comes, slaps us down with two million and wants 10 percent of the company — OK,” Jim said. “But we’re just going to keep going with it.”