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Harvest Moon Brewing

From Newwest.net, 11-23-08 of published article, Microbrew Montana: Bayern Brewing: The Only German Brewery in the Rockies, Bill Schneider. This article is presented in agreement with Newwest.net. All rights reserved, Copyright (© 2008)

HM-the_crew
The four-man crew that keeps the beer flowing, from the left, Stan Guedesse (co-owner), Ole Wakeford (staff genius), John Ballantyne (co-owner), Andrew Onsager (brewer).
Photo by Don Lundby

The question everybody seems to ask when the Harvest Moon Brewery or their famous beers, Pig's Ass Porter or Beltian White, comes up is: Why Belt?

So, that's the first question I asked co-owner John Ballantyne.

I was hoping for something earth shaking, but it was the same old basic reason everybody uses. Ballantyne and his partner Stan Guedesse originally planned to locate their brewery in Great Falls, but higher cost of property prompted them to put it in Belt, a small rural town (population 700) 17 miles east of the Electric City where Guedesse already lived.

While working on a series of articles on Montana's breweries, I've been asked many times why there isn't a brewery in Great Falls, the state's second largest urban area, when every other large town has at least one, but Ballantyne doesn't see it that way. He considers Harvest Moon the Great Falls brewery.

"Great Falls is our main market," he noted, and "we serve it well from Belt."

By choosing the remote site in a small town, Harvest Moon gives up the opportunity for some high-profit sales in the taproom. The Belt brewery has a tasting room, but not the crowds you see in most others. "It's true that taproom sales float the boat for most other breweries," he agreed, "but not for us."

Right now, Harvest Moon has limited taproom hours (10 am to 4 pm, weekdays only), but Ballantyne is thinking about expanding those hours to see if taproom sales can be increased.

But minimal taproom biz hasn't slowed down Harvest Moon. Ballantyne said sales have been growing 30 percent or more in recent years.

When they started up in 1996, Ballantyne and Guedesse went to the Great Falls market with their tasty microbrew and immediately ran into a big problem. "This is sort of a blue collar town," Ballantyne recalled, that was used to Rainier and Pabst. It took a while for a lot Great Falls beer drinkers to convert over to more full-bodied, more expensive microbrew, he admitted, but that eventually happened.

Bringing back a local favorite also helped Harvest Moon penetrate the Great Falls market. In 2006, Harvest Moon bought the rights to the name, "Great Falls Select," which was a popular lager brewed by a now-closed local brewery until the late 1960s. Harvest Moon re-introduced the brand in 2008.

Now, Ballantyne says Harvest Moon is looking for a retail location in Great Falls to feature the brewery's fine craft beer, but no location or opening date yet.

Most people I know who have been to Belt, Montana (the only town named Belt in the whole wide USA, incidentally) think the Harvest Moon Brewery and the Belt Creek Brewpub are the same business. Wrong.

First of all, that would be illegal under Montana law. Secondly, even though the brewpub (which belies the name by not brewing beer on premises) features Harvest Moon beers, it's a completely separate business. Some confusion is understandable, Ballantyne admitted, because Harvest Moon used to lease space in the same building as the brewpub, but steep increases in rent drove them away to their own building. The Harvest Moon Brewery and tasting room are on the east edge of town on your right when you come under the underpass, and the brewpub is downtown.

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Harvest Moon Brewing

Besides its remote location, another claim to fame for the Harvest Moon seems to be the name of one of its signature beers, Pig's Ass Porter. I had to ask how it came to be.

It seems that one night after work the guys from the brewery were "having a few of our own beers," Ballantyne explained, when a woman who fed the spent mash from the brewing process to her hogs came by to join them. "Somebody threw out that name and it stuck."

Harvest Moon has at least one more claim to fame, though. To borrow a phrase from the once-famous Olympia Brewing Company (closed in 2003) from Tumwater, Washington: "It's the water." (Anybody old enough to remember Dustin Hoffman drinking Oly in The Graduate?)

The now-famous brewery from Belt, Montana, gets its water from the Madison Aquifer, which has some of the purest water around. You might have a water cooler in your office from Big Spring Water Company of Lewistown, Montana, and if not, you may have marveled at the clear water of Giant Springs State Park In Great Falls, both products of the Madison Aquifer.

Any brewer will tell you "it's the water," because the right water is so critical to the taste of good beer. But without doubt, Harvest Moon has some of the best in the West.

-Bill Schneider

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