Social closeness seasons the enjoyment of food and drink. Unfortunately, in this COVID-19 pandemic, flavor has waned in the food and drink industry. Restaurants have modified their menus for takeout, and breweries, coffee houses and distilleries now provide curbside and delivery options when they did not before. An industry that has always faced unpredictability is taking its ultimate test.
In Billings, Casey McGowan of Trailhead Spirits has refashioned his distilling operation to produce hand sanitizer. Mark Hastings of Uberbrew, who opened his new operation By All Means on the West End in November, and Clint Peck of Yellowstone Cellars and Winery have readjusted their businesses that previously encouraged and nurtured gathering to a new model that encourages social distancing.
Casey McGowan who has been making vodka, gin, and whiskey for nearly eight years for cheer and celebrations now supplies local hospitals and nursing homes with a concoction that sanitizes and saves lives. “We shifted gears, like most distilleries across the country, realizing that alcohol is really the main ingredient in hand sanitizers.” According to McGowan, when the World Health Organization provided a formula to make hand sanitizer, the FDA loosened restrictions on production, “When they did that, it opened up the gates for every one of us to to shift gears from producing consumable alcohol to making hand sanitizers.”
The largest challenge for McGowan came with securing the needed materials such as 22-ounce bottles to hold the product along with glycerin and hydrogen peroxide. Walmart stepped in to supply him with the needed containers while Darigold contributed gallon jugs.
McGowan’s move from his downtown facility in the Depot complex downtown a year and a half ago allowed for altering his normal production to accommodate current needs. “We were down there for six years and really by the end of the third year, we had maxed out all of the space,” he said. His move to the West End stimulated the birth of a “brewing” center with the migration of MoAv Coffee, and a new brewery, By All Means. The three are on the same campus with plans for an amphitheater on eleven acres of adjacent land.
Mark Hastings who started Uberbrew on Montana Avenue in 2012 is hoping By All Means will allow him to be more creative as a brewer along with having the capability to can his beers locally. “So we opened Uberbrew and we outgrew the facility on the first day,” Hastings shared and with opening By All Means, “we wanted to flex our creative process a little more.” While previously using a Colorado company to can Uberbrew beers, Hastings wanted to bring the capability back home to Montana. The larger facility has space to house foeders, large wooden vats used for fermentation and an attractive environment where elevated pub food is offered. To achieve this, Hastings joined forces with Chef Ben Harman of Field House, who cooks up Mexican food to accompany the brews.
“At Uberbrew we could do about 900 barrels a year. A barrel is 31 US gallons. Here at By All Means we can do about 4500 barrels, so that can take care of the current seller capacity.” Foeders hold about 620 gallons of liquid and Hastings said of making beer in these containers, “There are more variables and more opportunities for complexity.”
Aside from flexing their creativity, Hastings wanted By All Means to be a place where customers could give feedback on beers they were making. He wanted to organically grow his selection of brews, “When I say organically grow, I mean, we get to try something and serve it, and get direct feedback in the taproom from our customers. We miss having that interaction with the COVID-19 social distancing.
Clint Peck of Yellowstone Cellars and Winery is using this time to proceed with making his wine. With his daughter Sarah Skarsten and her husband Bandon, Peck is racking his 2018 wines. Peck is grooming them to take over the winery when he retires, he shared of their move to Billings, “with the plan that sometime in the future, they will learn this business and eventually take it over, and I’ll continue my profession of being a professional fisherman.”
Though Peck is open for wine sales adhering to the social distancing rules, he misses his customers, he said, “We’ve been open for 10 years now and we have established quite a family of customers.”
For Trailhead Spirits, Uberbrew and By All Means as well as Yellowstone Cellars and Winery, hopefully their family of customers will be able to come back to their tasting rooms for social closeness.