Strange brew 

Big Sky hits stores with the other silver bullet

It’s a backyard summer barbecue, complete with brats, burgers and beer. The season’s traditional brews—Corona, Pacifico—are being stuffed with limes and downed to the tune of Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner.” Everything’s routine until a newcomer shows up with what look like small, silvery white torpedoes with bottle caps on their noses.

“Moose Drool?” offers the arrival, handing a friend the shimmering shell.

“What…What is this?” asks the baffled friend.

“It’s an aluminum bottle, dude.”

“Whoa,” the mystified party goers gasp.

Big Sky Brewing’s new aluminum bottles of Moose Drool and Scape Goat may appear gimmicky, but the new packaging is doing precisely what its mastermind wants—creating a buzz.

Brewer, salesman and manager Bjorn Nabozney wanders through Big Sky’s new brewery out by the airport. Winding his way between half-finished offices and giant fermenters, he moves to the back of the brewery and the stacked crates containing thousands of empty aluminum bottles.

“They’re shipped from Spain,” where they’re manufactured, he says. “We’re the only company in North and South America doing this.”

While the bottles have been sold around town since June 11—right now they’re only available in Missoula—most Missoulians haven’t seen them because they sell out so quickly. Worden’s manager and “beer guy” Mark Thomson attests to the difficulty of keeping them in stock.

“You see a gleam in the eyes of the customers when they first see the bottles. They love them,” says Thomson. “And I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I think they taste better [from the aluminum bottle].”

For Worden’s they are a perfect fit—the store is trying to stock more imports and craft beers in aluminum cans during the summer, when outdoor recreation and beer go hand in hand.

The only drawback is the price—$1.79 for a single beer. Nevertheless, Thomson has seen people load up cases of the bottles so they can “be the first on their block to show them to their friends.”

Because of the price—shipping costs from Spain aren’t cheap—aluminum is unlikely to replace glass completely. The new bottles cost about four times as much as glass to bring to market. While Big Sky absorbs some of that cost, a fair share is passed on to the consumer.

But whether its beer is in aluminum or glass bottles, the buzz-worthy company is struggling to keep up with demand.

“We just got four new fermenters, and I thought that would accommodate our growth this year,” says Nabozney. But the year-old facility and its upgraded equipment are straining under the pressure of more than 20,000 barrels worth of annual production. For those doing the math at home, one barrel is equivalent to 13.77 cases; that amounts to close to seven million bottles a year.

“If we could actually produce what we could sell, we would grow 100 percent this year,” Nabozney claims.

The problem is that there aren’t any used fermenters on the market, and since they apparently never wear out, there’s no incentive to buy them new. So Big Sky can’t just make more beer. Instead of 100 percent growth, Nabozney says the company will produce about 20 percent more beer this year than last.

Over the past few years, Big Sky has expanded from Minnesota to Oregon and up to Alaska. The company has become a heat seeker on the small brewer Top 50 chart, debuting in 2002 as the 47th largest craft brewery in America in terms of production. Nabozney hopes the new packaging will push the company higher up the ladder. While not on the same field as Budweiser or Coors, Big Sky plays in the brewing equivalent of the farm leagues, alongside craft brewers including Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, and Big Sky’s role model New Belgium.

New Belgium, based in Fort Collins, Colo., knows that Big Sky is just a few years off their heels, but isn’t concerned.

“We like the smaller breweries,” says New Belgium Marketing Director Greg Owsley. “We like small regional brands, because in a sense that’s all we are. And we need each other to build the overall craft beer story.”

That story is based on the idea that people who drink Moose Drool or Fat Tire won’t settle for a Bud when visiting friends on Cape Cod. Instead, they’ll be more likely to buy a microbrew, even if they’ve never heard of it, and even, or perhaps especially, if it comes in an aluminum bottle.

As strange as Big Sky’s new bottles look in the camping chair cup holder, they won’t be unique in the American market forever. Later this year, Heineken will unveil a limited edition aluminum bottle known as “H2.” Pitched toward the twentysomething beer drinker, the H2 will appear in nightclubs in New York, Miami and Boston. Frankly, no one at Big Sky is worried about the H2. Even with the popularity of imports increasing generally, Heineken’s market share is decreasing. Nabozney attributes the decline to the rise of craft beers—the industry term for microbrews. Big Sky is growing, he says, by moving into bigger markets and whittling market share away from imports like Heineken, Guinness and Bass.

“We’re aiming at different people than, say, Heineken,” says Nabozney. “We’re aiming at outdoorsy people, they’re aiming at the club scene. Being in Montana, we need to accommodate the outdoorsy folks.”

But Big Sky’s bottles aren’t designed just to catch the eyes of mountain men. As opposed to glass, they won’t clog up the landfill because they’re recyclable (even though the company forgot to put the recycling symbol on the Moose Drool bottles), and they won’t shatter when they go overboard.

“With the lack of [glass] recycling in Missoula, it’s an issue close to all our hearts,” says Nabozney. “We want to be an environmentally friendly company.”

In Missoula, a lot of outdoor drinking is done in, on or around the Blackfoot. Nabozney says that his brainchild will never be the beer of choice while floating or fishing, but he hopes people take advantage of the fact that they can now enjoy a couple of craft beers before loading up the party tube with schwag.

“What I hope people will do is grab a case of PBR and a couple of mine,” he says. “I don’t see this as ever being more than five percent of our sales.”

Not to say that Nabozney discourages customers from foregoing the PBR entirely and loading up a milk crate (or party tube) with six, 12 or 24 of his shiny new bottles. If, that is, they can find a store that’s not already sold out.

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