Montana State University

MSU research team to produce documentary about state's microbreweries

May 5, 2009 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service


MSU student Ryan Bone said his trips to microbreweries to gather footage for a documentary made research come alive. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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When Ryan Bone started doing research for the first time at Montana State University, he went to places far removed from computer screens and test tubes. Rather than being in a laboratory or classroom setting, Bone investigated breweries all over the state of Montana, and he received funding from MSU's Undergraduate Scholars Program to do so.

Bone is part of a team of researchers led by College of Business marketing professor Graham Austin that gathered on-camera interviews about the culture of microbreweries throughout Montana and is now producing a documentary film with the footage. The team wanted to find out what it is about Montana that makes people receptive to its breweries, said Bone, 25, a senior marketing and graphic design major from Butte.

Many of the team's discoveries occurred when they began visiting microbreweries across the state in February.

Bone started out at Quarry Brewery in Butte and then visited Flathead Lake Brewing Co. in Polson. In all, Bone estimated that the team - which also includes student Anthony Varriano - visited about 20 microbreweries in the state. The visits made research come alive, said Bone and Varriano, who both became part of the project after taking Austin's consumer behavior class last fall.

"We had such a great response everywhere," Bone said. "People were really excited to talk to us."

At each brewery, team members spent about two to three hours asking brewers and owners a number of questions, including questions about the history of the brewery, how the owners and brewers became interested in brewing beer, community involvement with the microbrewery, and thoughts about the culture of microbreweries in Montana.

Common themes began to emerge. The first was simply that Montanans have long had a taste for good beer.

"Montana is a big state, and people like good beer. They're not going to travel 300 miles to get it," Bone said.

"Another common response was how family-oriented breweries are, as opposed to bars," Bone said. "There is usually an area in the brewery for kids, and many of these places (also) make cherry sodas and root beer."

Bone added that a law imposed on microbreweries by the Montana Legislature, limiting individual consumption in breweries to three pints per day, helps teach kids at a young age to drink responsibly.

"There is also a social aspect of breweries," Bone said. "They rarely have TVs, and instead focus on face-to-face interactions."

Another common response the researchers discovered was that the owners and brewers tended to be heavily invested in their communities and their craft, rather than in the idea of making huge profits.

"Montana is very community-oriented," Bone said. "A lot of the (brewers and owners) aren't there to get rich. They're there for the passion of brewing."

Currently, 25 microbreweries operate in the state, Bone said, which places Montana in the top five states for the largest number of microbreweries per capita.

In fact, the microbrewery scene even appears to be growing throughout the state.

Several microbreweries, such as Tamarack Brewing Co. in Lakeside and Blacksmith Brewing Co. in Stevensville, have opened within the last several years, Austin said. Several other breweries, she added, including the Bozeman Brewing Co., Glacier Brewing Co. in Polson and Blackfoot River Brewing Co. in Helena, have recently increased production. Neptune's Brewery in Livingston has been recently renovated.

Other breweries have worked with new technologies to create "greener" facilities. For example, Red Lodge Ales Brewing Co. is in the process of moving to a new facility. The new location has the largest solar array in the state and a refrigeration unit that detects when the outside air temperature is cool enough to allow it to shut down. Austin said the unit should allow the refrigerator to shut itself down about 160 days out of the year, resulting in substantial energy savings. Red Lodge Ales also fuels its local delivery truck with biodiesel made at the brewery, using spent cooking oil from the bars and restaurants that serve its beer, Austin said.

With their interviews completed in mid-April, the team is in the process of creating an hour-long documentary, "Beer Country," with its footage.

It's been challenging to edit about 30 hours of footage down to just one, Varriano and Austin said.

"There is so much good information, it's hard to narrow it down," said Varriano, a senior film and photography and marketing major from Glendive. "It's just like writing a research paper except with video clips. You can't be too broad or you won't get your point across."

Austin is excited about the possibilities that come with producing a documentary.

She hopes to have the film completed by the end of the summer, and then plans to enter the documentary into academic film festivals as well as regional and culture-specific ones, such as mountain and food festivals.

"Once we get it in the can, it might have legs for two years in festivals," Austin said.

In addition, she'll send copies of the documentary to each of the breweries the team visited and hopes to arrange for a premiere of the film on campus.

Bone's experience working on the research project has been so positive, he said, that he'd like to do more research in the future. He also thinks the skills that were important in conducting the research - putting people at ease during the interviews and finding points of connection with them - will be a great help in his future jobs. He'd like to find advertising work in the Northwest after graduating this spring.

And though Bone isn't calling himself a beer connoisseur yet, it doesn't stop him from enjoying it.

"My palette isn't as refined as a brew master's yet, but I do love beer," he said.

Graham Austin, (406) 994-6193 or caroline.austin@montana.edu