COLUMBIA FALLS – Peering through the rear window of what will soon house the Desert Mountain Brewing and Draughthaus, the nascent microbrewery’s namesake rises from behind a pine grove, splitting the gap between Columbia and Teakettle mountains.
Views of Glacier National Park and the Flathead Valley are spectacular from atop Desert Mountain’s horizontal summit, and the new craft brewery – a first for the community of Columbia Falls, and now the state’s closest in proximity to Glacier Park – is embracing its natural landscape, which is as much a draw as any in this small community.
With a projected opening date of mid-January, the taps at Desert Mountain will all be named after prominent features of Glacier National Park – Two Ocean India Pale Ale, Siyeh Sweet Stout, Bad Marriage Blonde Ale – and much of the interior is made of repurposed local materials.
“We love living here, and we’re trying to be as local as we can,” said co-owner Kelley Christensen. “We love to hike and play in Glacier and in the Flathead Valley, and we really enjoy living in Columbia Falls.“
“But,” she added, “it’s time this community has a brewery.”
Christensen and her husband, Shawn, are originally from Nebraska but lived in the Flathead Valley for years before the economy steered them back to school in Bozeman. Then, baby Jonathan entered the couple’s lives and, seeing an uptick in business permits in Columbia Falls and a rebounding economy, they decided to return and build their passion for craft beer into a full-time venture.
Since moving back in April, they’ve devoted much of their time to the brewery, preparing to open while raising 1-year-old Jonathan. And, following a recent, month-long tour-de-force, the brewery has started taking shape.
Last week, four stainless-steel fermenting tanks and a brite tank arrived, all gleaming and polished to a high shine. Then, the kegerator and taps arrived. An inventory of growlers, mugs, and T-shirts are ready to go.
The Christensens can’t start making beer until after an upcoming state inspection, and they estimate they still have two more weeks of construction before they can begin brewing, which will take an additional month in order to mount a sufficient and diverse supply of craft beer.
“Our opening date is a moving target right now, but we’re shooting for mid-to-late January,” Shawn Christensen said.
He’s been an avid home-brewer for years and, with the help of friends and brewery employees Matt Hicks and Darrin Fisher, is hoping for a smooth transition to brewing larger batches of beer.
The four-barrel system holds 125 gallons per tank, which, while small compared to most breweries, is considerably larger than the six-gallon fermenting jug common in a home-brew operation.
Still, the couple exudes confidence, buoyed by the brewery’s digs in the new Cosley Building on Nucleus Avenue, located directly adjacent to Three Forks Grille and representative of the gentrification taking place in Columbia Falls, the “Gateway to Glacier.”
“Columbia Falls has always been kind of a late bloomer, but now it’s really coming into its own,” Kelley Christensen said. “A brewery can really help a town grow. It can help anchor a community. We really enjoy living here. It’s a great place to raise kids and everyone has been really supportive of the brewery.”
The closure of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company and major declines in production at Plum Creek Timber resulted in high unemployment in this community. But its proximity to Glacier National Park, the North Fork Flathead River and the Flathead National Forest, as well as its historic downtown, continue to serve Columbia Falls favorably.
As a young family working to build strong ties to a community and a region they love, the Christensens say they are totally invested in the brewery, which they believe will reinforce the direction the town is moving.
The community support has been overwhelming, they said, as city officials help them navigate the red tape and residents offer help and encouragement.
“They want to see businesses succeed, and we see the brewery as an opportunity to create a really great community gathering place for people from all walks of life, be they local or tourist. We want it to be a place where you can bring your family or go unwind after work,” Kelley Christensen said.
The couple is not taking a cookie-cutter approach to craft brewing. Describing the brewery’s aesthetic theme as “rustic industrial,” the Christensens are laying a hardwood floor of blue pine, while the bar is being constructed by a local builder out of re-purposed corrugated tin and reclaimed old growth blue pine dredged from the depths of Flathead Lake.
The proposed suite of beer varietals aren’t the standard fare, either, and once the business is off the ground they intend to experiment with juniper, heather, locally grown hops and other local ingredients.
“The great thing about being as small as we are is that it really allows us to experiment with some very different and funky beers,” she said. “This is the place where you’ll be able to get a juniper beer or a heather beer.”
The local community garden has offered up a plot for the brewery’s hop garden and they’re using Montana grain.
Meanwhile, membership to the Dry Peak Mug Club is growing, and the ceramic mugs are crafted by a local artist. Mug-club members will enjoy exclusive beer tastings as the couple introduces new brews.
“I think Columbia Falls has been ripe for a brewery for years,” she said. “It completes the loop.”
Learn more about the brewery at www.desertmountainbrewing.com and follow them on Facebook.