By Moira Blazi
When Sara Sorensen and Kristen Smith first opened a local craft brewery in Libby, locals were skeptical. It was early summer 2014 and there were new small breweries popping up all over Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, adding to the plethora of finely crafted beer available to anyone traveling in the pacific northwest.
Smith and Sorenson were aware of industry trends, yet quite mindful of the game-changing nature such a business could have on downtown Libby. They knew the risk, and they went for it.
Opening in July of 2014, with seven employees and Portland brewer Grant Golden, Cabinet Mountain Brewery soon became a destination for travelers and locals alike. “we’ve been coming here since the first day it opened,” said local business owner Joe Miller. This place does not have a bar atmosphere, it’s a gathering place for professionals to unwind and talk. The clientele just grows and grows.”
Now, just four years later with 16 employees, “the Brewery,” as it is known in town, has made its mark on Libby.
Through their weekly Brews for Benefits and participation in local events, they have donated more than $25,000 to local charities.
“Every month the brewery generates roughly one ton of spent grain, which local folks pick up for compost and supplemental animal feed,” said Smith. “We have brewed over 3,750 kegs and are on tap in over 40 Montana cities and towns, with our Yaak Attack IPA, Ross Creek Red and Hoodoo Hefeweizen.”
Brewer Sean Unsworth has been with Cabinet Mountain Brewery for over two and a half years now. “We were on vacation, just passing through when we found this place,” Unsworth told the Montanian. “I was assistant brewer at Canyon Creek Brewery in Billings at the time, and we were in a transition, looking for another place to live.”
“It was divine intervention,” said Sorenson. “And now Sean’s beers have won some serious awards.”
Serious indeed, Ross Creek Red, one of Cabinet Mountain’s original brews is a four-time major award winner. Recently garnering third place in Sip Magazine’s Best of the West competition, right behind major craft brewer Deschutes, from Bend Oregon.
It won Best Amber from the Montana brewers association, a bronze medal at the Beers and Gears competition in Great Falls, and a gold medal at the North American Beer Awards in Idaho Falls, which Unworth said is really “the big boy event including all the major American breweries like Budweiser and Coors.” Hoodoo Hefeweizen has won a silver at Beers and Gears, and Yaak Attack IPA won a bronze in 2014 in Sip Magazine’s Best of the West competition.
Left to right: Brewery owners Sara Sorenson and Kristen Smith have a beer with brewmaster Sean Unsworth.
With these winners as solid backup, Unsworth is free to create seasonal specialty brews like the wildly popular Jalapeno Hefeweizen. Currently working on a German alt amber ale, using German yeast strains, and Munich malt. Unsworth describes it as a “malt forward brew, with the hops in the background,” and he’s planning to brew a batch of SMASH, a single hop and single malt.
Over the years, Smith, Sorenson and their wonderful crew have also created a delicious signature menu of soups, fresh salads, panini sandwiches, and yummy nosh plates using locally sourced ingredients like fresh greens and produce from Hoot Owl Farms, and meats from Belgrade, Mont.
“We try to source as locally as possible,” said Sorenson. ”Hops generally come from Oregon, and some from Idaho, and the grain we use comes from the Montana golden triangle Fairfield area near Great Falls.
‘The brewery’ also offers live music several times per week, bringing in talent from all over the country.
Lincoln County Librarian Alyssa Ramirez and County Commissioner, Mark Peck, like the casual yet classy atmosphere. “It’s always nice that there are familiar people I know, but also new folks,” Ramirez told The Montanian. ”It’s very family friendly, and I always feel comfortable coming here by myself. It never feels seedy.”
Ramirez started coming going to the brewery few months after they opened and her favorite seasonal brew is the tasty Lost Soul IPA. While Commissioner Peck’s favorite is the formidable Devil’s Club, an IPA with a kick.
“Every time we clear off the ‘where are you from’ section of the blackboard, we are amazed and surprised at how far people have traveled to get here,” said Sorenson. In fact, when The Montanian visited the brewery for its 4th birthday celebration last Tuesday, the Cross family from New Zealand was happily relaxing in the garden with their two young children. Traveling through to Whitefish, Pip Cross told The Montanian that they saw the brewery on Yelp and came because of the great reviews. Five year old Archie Cross added, “I love traveling and I like this place cause I can run around the patio.”
“From the beginning, we wanted to catalyze business in downtown,” said Smith. “Many businesses have done facelifts and the city installed diagonal parking, we try to project a standard of excellence, we offer something for every palate, and we welcome dogs,” she added with a grin.
Cabinet Mountain Brewery is open daily from noon to 9 p.m., with last pour at 8 p.m. Every Thursday is Brews for Benefits, and there is live music at least twice per week. Check out their website or find them on Facebook.