Interview: head brewer Matt Long (Big Sky Brewing)

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Brewmaster Montana

Photo courtesy of Matt Long

It may have been osmosis that caused Matt Long to pursue brewing. He grew up in the heart of Miller country, and his Wisconsin neighbors would host a near-daily happy hour, so he was living the High Life from an early age. After college, Long found himself on the road in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, where he developed a passion for craft beer. He worked at Lost Coast Brewery before returning to Missoula – where he went to school for microbiology – and caught on with a start-up named Big Sky Brewing. He started out as a jack-of-all-trades for founders Neal Leathers, Bjorn Nabozney, and Brad Robinson before adding head brewing duties to his arsenal. Long and I recently spoke by phone, where he discussed his background and approach.

How did you become so interested in beer?

I had always kind of been exposed to beer. I lived most of my early life in Wisconsin, which is Miller country. My parents lived next to a guy who worked for Miller Brewing. Every day they had a happy hour around 5 o’clock or so, especially on the weekends. They’d pour Miller High Life into the proper Pilsner glasses, have some snacks and relax.

Later on, I worked up in Alaska in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, traveled back and forth a lot to California and Pacific Northwest. That was the time that Sierra Nevada was really going. Redhook, and Alaskan, out of Juneau, were making this cool new stuff. At the time those breweries were much smaller. It was a whole new type of beer. I’d been to Germany once, but never been exposed to these international styles. Then these English ales were being made and that was exciting. As soon as I settled in Missoula, I started home brewing.

How did your first commercial brewing job come about?

I was going to school to get a degree in microbiology, and my wife was one the one who said, “Why don’t you just make beer?” I knew what I wanted to do with my degree, which was work in a brewery…I worked a little bit in California at Lost Coast Brewery, which was my first brewing job. I was fortunate enough to be living here when Big Sky was founded. They started in June 1995. I came in September 1996. I helped them build the lab. I came on to do quality control and microbiology. Back then only having five employees, we did everything. I was already a brewer with Lost Coast and home brewer. I still oversee all the quality control and lab work in addition to the brewing side of things.

What was the first beer that you brewed?

I don’t even remember. We had a guy in town, JP’s Home Brew Supply, and he was kind of the connection between all the brewers…The most memorable beers were the ones that were bad ideas…Basil beer was absolutely horrible. The ones that I thought were good…commercially the first one I came up with was a hoppy amber ale and we called it Matt’s Amber. Each beer has an animal theme. The name of it ended up being Montana Mauler, with a grizzly bear type of theme.

Would you say that you have any brewing mentors?

Probably a couple. One of them would be back from my contract brewing days. There are two generations of Big Sky. When we started in ’95 and went to 2002, we were downtown in a leased facility and only were draught. By the time we moved to this new facility, a 35,000 barrel facility on the western outskirts of town, we were the largest draft brewery in the country. There was this transition period when we contracted with Portland Brewing Company.

Brad Robinson was one of the founders of the brewery and is not in the brewing industry anymore. He’s in Helena doing something different. He encouraged me and was a creative brewer, creative with his marketing, just an enthusiastic, good guy. When we started contract brewing at Portland Brewing, he was brewmaster at the time. Brett Porter was the brewmaster at Deschutes and is now at Goose Island. He was patient with my lack of knowledge with bottles and pacakageing. I’ve always kind of looked up to him as a mentor. I can certainly call him any time and get advice if I needed it.

A lot of the people I work with too. The two other founders of the brewery, Bjorn and Neal, and some of the other guys I work with. We all get along and help each other.

What distinguishes Big Sky beers from other breweries?

We are somewhat isolated. We’re the largest brewery for a 500-mile radius. There are quite a bit of breweries in Montana. We have the second largest amount of breweries per capita in the country. We’re by far the largest in a pretty big region, so we don’t not really influenced by what the other guys are doing. We come up with the beers we like to drink and come up with the the style, because you have to tell people what this is.

What beers do you typically enjoy drinking?

It just depends how I feel. I really like the Belgian style beers and if you were to come to the brewery, you don’t see this stuff as much in L.A. We hand-bottle special releases, and a lot of those are Belgian inspired. Every day, drinking beers, it could be anything from a Pilsner lager to a IPA, but I certainly have a fondness for Belgian style beers.

What are some other breweries that you really respect?

I really do like some of the breweries that have spent the time and money to just have top-notch equipment. I recently visited New Glarus and have a lot of respect for that place and what they’ve done…Obviously Boulevard is another brewery that has done an excellent job. Nice people and beautiful facility. Sierra Nevada. I also like some of the smaller breweries all over the place thar are doing cool, unique things like Kuhnhenn in Michigan, which is one that are not a lot of people hear about. They do a lot of iced fruit beers. I don’t even know how you classify some of the things they do, but phenomenal beers. I have a fondness for traditional Lambic styles in Belgium, and of course the gueuze that’s produce over there as well.

What’s the newest recipe that you brewed, and what was your approach?

Right now we’re working on a beer for one of my brewer’s weddings. Its starting gravity is 18 degrees. It’s a Belgian brown ale that we’re going to use a Rodenbach style yeast blend…it should have nice tartness to it, using Belgian malts. We’ll experiment with barrel aging some of it. And we have a nice supply of local cherries that we like to use. We’ll do some experimentation with those. We’ve done different cherry beers over time.

We recently did the 11th Anniversary beer for Bottleworks, which is a bottle shop in Seattle owned for two guys named Matt that I’m a friends with. It was a variation on our Russian Imperial Stout, which is called Ivan the terrible. That was a combination of port barrels, rye barrels, bourbon whiskey, a couple different vintages. The Matts came out last fall, we did tasting and barreling, did the big blend, and that’s totally different animal from the regular Ivan. It had some tartness to it. It was a limited release only 50 cases. Once you taste the barrel-aged version, it’s hard to go back to the non barrel aged version.

If you could only drink one more beer, what would it be?

I guess it would be one that I can’t get anymore. There’s a brewery in Belgium, called De Dolle. They did one in 2007 – they do a beer called Mad Bitch – and it’s a strong tripel, 11%, but one particular year, they aged it in Calvados casks. I had a few bottles. Whenever I go to Seattle, Matt Bonny lines me up with what he thinks is really good at the time, because we live on an island in Missoula. He put that in my basket. I was watching the Super Bowl with some people and I had it, and I started thinking, this is one of the best beers that I ever had. I called him up and he said it’s gone. A week later a box shows up because of course he stashes it away. I was able to track down some more in Chicago. It was a different label, a yellow label that says aged in Calvados casks. The regular version is good, but that version, if you can find it anywhere, is phenomenal. It has this nutty quality. If I was only going to have one more beer, it would have to be a strong beer. At least 10%, and that would be the one to have on my deathbed.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

I have a feeling we will be hearing more from Big Sky if this interview is any indication.

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