From Craft Brew To Major Export: Red Lodge Ales
Touring Montana's Breweries with Dr. Paul Pope, Montana craft beer expert and educator from Billings, Montana.
On a Monday afternoon last December, I sat down for a pint with the founder and owner of Red Lodge Ales, Sam Hoffmann, to speak with him about the brewery.
Fans of Montana-made beer out there have undoubtedly enjoyed a Red Lodge Ales beer recently. From favorite watering holes to the grocery store aisles, Red Lodge Ales is ubiquitous in Montana.
The brewery is nestled nicely near the hillside on the northern edge of Red Lodge, Mont., alongside Highway 212, the design and red paint fitting in nicely with the bright red barns dotting the Montana landscape. The only exception is a massive window facing the highway which allows a glimpse of the glimmer of the stainless steel brewing tanks in the interior.
According to Hoffman, when the brewery opened in 1998 it was primarily a one-man operation, an early start-up during the craft beer boom of the 1990s.
Hoffman was a home brewer for a time before he opened the brewery, working in the ski industry and ranching before leaping into professional brewing.
Twenty years later, Red Lodge Ales is no longer a one-man show. With a dozen employees and distribution throughout Montana and parts of Wyoming and North Dakota, Red Lodge Ales is a flagship brand for the Montana craft beer industry.
Since the early days in the late 1990s, production has risen to 8,000-8,500 barrels of beer per year. As one barrel of beer equals 31 gallons, that translates to over two million pints of beer produced annually.
The brewery building has also grown. The brewery has already moved twice to accommodate expansions in production and will soon be upgrading their packaging operation to include a canning line, shifting all their six-pack offerings away from the 12-ounce glass bottle.
For the glass lovers out there, do not fret, favorite Red Lodge beers will be available in larger format bomber bottles.
Today at the Brewery
The brewery’s best selling beer has been their Bent Nail IPA. Bent Nail is a heady brew teaming with the famous Northwestern Cascade hops, bursting with pine and its signature grapefruit/citrus aroma. This beer accounts for 50 percent of sales according to Hoffman.
Red Lodge Ales is known for more than this scrumptious IPA, they also boast a wide range of year-round brews like Czech Mate pilsner, Glacier amber alt beer, Jack’s 90 Scottish ale, and Helio hefeweizen. Their seasonal offers are wide-ranging and keep about a dozen beer taps filling pint glasses year round.
Although it’s now mid-winter and heading to spring, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Red Lodge Ales’ annual Oktoberfest and brew. Worth waiting for the entire year, this annual autumn event, inspired by the original in Munich, Germany, embodies all the best of what Oktoberfest has to offer. There is plenty of food, music, and of course Red Lodge Ale’s amber Oktoberfest seasonal lager. Last year, Hoffman celebrated his twenty-first Oktoberfest festival at the brewery.
Right from the beginning, Red Lodge Ales and Sam Hoffmann have been joyfully plying Montanans with lagers, bratwurst, and polka music. Next time you are passing through Red Lodge, stop into Sam’s taproom and enjoy a pint or a flight, and sample one of Montana’s finest exports: craft beer.
— Dr. Paul J. Pope