Seven Montana brewers and distillers, including Lewis and Clark Brewing and Gulch Distillers in Helena, are considering exporting their products to Japan after attending a trade show in Tokyo last week.
While no Montana businesses have exported alcohol to Japan yet, the Montana Department of Commerce said an existing trade relationship and Japan’s growing affinity for craft beer and spirits creates an opportunity for the state. Japan was Montana’s sixth largest trading partner in 2016, Daniel Iverson, DOC communications manager, said.
Iverson said Montana already has a trade office in Japan with one full-time contractor. Montana also has a sister-state relationship with Kumamoto.
The Office of Trade and International Relations at the DOC used funds from a federal trade assistance program to pay for the trade show and provide a travel stipend. Iverson said they invited every business in the sector to attend the trade show, and seven businesses were interested and could realistically export their product in the near future.
The trade show lasted from April 12-14. All seven businesses had separate booths, but were grouped together with branded imagery to promote Montana. Iverson said the trade show has a secondary goal of attracting tourists to Montana.
Lewis and Clark Brewing was the only brewery from Montana to attend the trade show. Owner Max Pigman said he already has his own connection to Japan after living there in the late ‘80s while in the U.S. Air Force. He learned a bit of the language and appreciates the culture, he said.
In addition to a personal connection, he said Japan has an appreciation for craft beer and distilled spirits.
With a major expansion underway, the brewery is already prepared to increase its capacity and export to Japan. Lewis and Clark was founded in 2002 by Pigman and has grown rapidly since then. Pigman said there’s a chance he could be exporting out of the country before he distributes out of state.
“Our number one goal is to become the number one Montana craft beer, but we will have additional capacity,” he said. “Craft beer is really on a high growth mode in Japan as well.”
Pigman said Lewis and Clark would have to alter its label requirements to export in Japan and adhere to different regulations.
“We kind of planned that when we built the new setup to have some flexibility in that regard,” he said. “We could ramp this up and do this fairly quickly if we decided it makes good business sense.”
Lewis and Clark could realistically start exporting late this summer or early fall, Pigman said. The brewery has plans to build a loading dock right near the railroad. Refrigerated rail cars would carry beer to Seattle, which would be transferred onto a ship for a 12 to 14 day trip to Japan.
Gulch Distillers also attended the trade show in Tokyo and is also considering exporting to New York and Colorado. Co-owner Tyrrell Hibbard said his partner Steffen Rasile was already planning a trip to visit his wife's sister in Japan. He decided to attend the trade show to see if Japan has a good market for expansion.
"We don’t know if it’s going to work out. I’ll find out more once they get back," Hibbard said. "But we’re just exploring opportunities."
He said the potential to export outside of Montana could be limited by space.
"We have the ability to grow where we are, but we will be limited by our space before we are limited by the license," he said.
Gulch Distillers recently won a silver medal at the American Distilling Institute's Judging of Craft Spirits competition for its Burrone Fernet, an herbal liqueur. It's distilled from a base of Montana grains and herbs and spices including chamomile, myrrh, rhubarb, saffron and mint. Burrone comes from the Italian word for gulch.
Hibbard said the award-winning Fernet is one of the most unique products they distill and would likely have the most interest in Japan.
Other Montana businesses that attended include Headframe Spirits in Butte, Bozeman Spirits and Montana Malting and Wildrye Distilling in Bozeman and Whistling Andy Distilling in Bigfork.