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Tamarack Brewing

A Brewpub, Montana Style

From, 5-03-08 of published article, Microbrew Montana: Tamarack Brewing A Brewpub, Montana Style, Bill Schneider. This article is presented in agreement with All rights reserved, Copyright (© 2008)

The Rack, at the junction of the Blacktail Mountain road and U.S. 93 in Lakeside.

Photo by Karl Newman

When I'm interviewing brewery owners for the Microbrew Montana series, I always ask the same question: What's different about your operation compared to the other 26 Montana breweries?

When visiting Tamarack Brewing in Lakeside, a rapidly growing berg on the west shore of expansive Flathead Lake, I thought I knew the answer as soon as I walked through the front door. But when the co-owner Craig Koontz brought out the brandy snifters, I realized I knew only part of the answer.

If you live in Montana, you might not know what a brewpub is. By definition, it's an eatery that brews its own beer on premises. But if Montanans want to see the real deal, they need to go somewhere else because state law essentially prohibits brewpubs, even though every other state except Arkansas allows them.

Nobody knows this more than Koontz and his partners. When they moved here from Arizona to open a brewpub, they ran head-on into the Montana law, which Koontz calls "archaic." After the culture shock subsided, they found a way to do business legally. They opened two separate businesses, Tamarack Brewing and Tamarack Alehouse and Grill, leased space in the same building, and after lengthy delays for the state approval process and for lawyers to do their thing, they opened the two businesses last October. Collectively, it has become known as "The Rack."

Legalities aside, for tourists and locals alike, Tamarack Brewing is different than most Montana microbreweries. It doesn't have a tasting room. Instead, you can get samples, pints, and growlers of the company's beer at the Alehouse, although The Rack also offers beer made by other Flathead-area craft brewers.

Most Montana microbreweries don't serve food, nor does Tamarack Brewing, but at the Alehouse you can enjoy dinner and some great microbrew, as I did when I visited. While dining, you can watch and listen to workers make beer through internal, glassless windows into the brewery. The Rack also has the beautiful Creekside Patio for dining and lounging overlooking Stoner Creek.

"Our atmosphere sets our place apart from a lot of brewers," Koontz explains. "You can see the entire brewing process from your seat in the restaurant."

Unlike most other brewers, they sell all their beer to the Alehouse or to local markets in the Flathead. And Tamarack only sells in kegs, no cans or bottles.

Another difference is the Tamarack's emphasis on the tourism biz. Located at the base of the Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, The Rack has a strong winter business from throngs of skiers coming down the mountain and thirsty after a day on the slopes. Located right on U.S. 93, it pulls in summer travelers driving the scenic shoreline of Montana's most famous lake.

So far, business has been great, Koontz says, even with the economic downturn and the hop shortage, which has been tougher on Tamarack than most brewers. Being relatively new to the biz, Tamarack doesn't have long-term contracts more-established breweries have to avoid the pain of buying hops on the open market.

"We're young and ambitious," he says, without sounding boastful, "and we aren't going anywhere."

Brewmaster Craig Koontz and his Jim Beam bourbon barrels.

Photo by Bill Schneider.

By "we," he refers to his partners in The Rack combine. You might enjoy reading about them on their website. In addition to "Beer Man" Craig, you have Josh, otherwise known as "Shrek," Chris, the "Mac Daddy," and last and I'm sure not least, Andra, the "Chick in Charge," who admits "keeping the boys in line is a tough job."

During my chat with Koontz, he ordered up a sample tray and carefully advised the sequence in tasting his brews, basically going from light to dark. He has something tasty for every beer taste bud with the Hat Trick Hop IPA emerging as my favorite.

Then, Koontz brought out the Good Stuff, so special, in fact, that he won't sell growlers of it. Instead, he brought out a 20-ounce bottle of Old Stache Whiskey Barrel Porter and two brandy snifters.

Normally, I don't go for porters, but I was surprised how much I liked Old Stache, made just right with a few swirls in the snifter. When you go here, beg your server for one. It would be a choice after dinner drink.

Koontz then told me the story behind it. After a special "high-gravity" brewing process, he ages Old Stache another 100 days in genuine burbon barrels purchased directly from the Jim Beam Distillery down in Kentucky. And not just any barrel, only the top of the line called Knobb Creek Barrels. This unique brewing process gives Old Stache a smooth and subtle bourbon essence combined with a slight chocolate/caramel flavor found in a lot of porters.

The Creekside Patio.

Photo by Bill Schneider.

Three times each year, The Rack puts on a special "Brewer's Dinner," and it's a hot ticket, so call early if you want a seat. It's a five-beer-course dinner with an appetizer beer, new brews for the first, second and third courses, and for dessert, a special brew made just for the event. And you get food, too.

After listening to Koontz describe it, I couldn't resist. I'm going back to The Rack for the next Brewer's Dinner.

All is going so well for Tamarack, in fact, that it recently opened a second location in Missoula. "It's a restaurant and taphouse featuring Tamarack beers made in Lakeside, as well as from other local craft brewers from Montana," Koontz explained. "We have a full lunch and dinner menu--the same menu and beers we have in Lakeside."

Tamarack's new location (231 W. Front Street) also offers spirits and wine, as alternatives to beer, and is open every day from 11 am to midnight, with only pizza and appetizers served after 10 pm. Tamarack does not plan to brew beer at its new Missoula location.

As far as the future goes, the Tamarack doesn't plan to greatly expand its production and instead concentrate on making enough good microbrew to serve customers at its two taphouses and, according to Koontz, just keep happily doing what they do right now.

-Bill Schneider

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