It’s fun when you go out, when a bartender says to customers, ‘There’s the guy who brews this beer,’ and they say, ‘Hey, you brew great beer,’” says Paul McGowan of Hollister Mountain Brewing Ltd. Co. of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
Hollister Mountain is still small and struggling (“We’re almost paying our bills,” McGowan says) but it’s garnering acclaim, much of it by word of mouth. “People call us on the phone to tell us how good our beer is,” says his wife, Deb.
The McGowans are two of the owners of Hollister Mountain, and Greg and Deb Piller are the other two. Paul and Greg were homebrewers who met about two years ago. The Pillers for years had been tossing around the idea of opening a brewpub to be called Hollister Mountain after a nearby peak. The McGowans, meanwhile, had considered opening a pub. The four decided a microbrewery was a better idea. A Scottish theme evolved and with it the slogan, “Whatever blows your kilt up.”
Paul McGowan and Greg Piller work full-time at local logging mills on opposite shifts, so they take turns running the brewery. (Before you haul out the “lager” jokes, realize these guys aren’t actual loggers.) Greg and Deb Piller do the majority of the sales work. Paul McGowan handles the day-to-day brewing, while Deb McGowan does the graphic art and marketing, designing table tents, advertising, logos, and labels on her personal computer. “We have talents in different areas, and we’re all versatile,” Deb McGowan says.
The four owners found a suitable building, a one-story, former Dr. Pepper bottling plant, which was later a Polar Ice plant and then a sheet metal building. It required some work, but the 2,900-square-foot building, which they lease, provides ample room for the existing equipment and space to grow.
The open primary and closed secondary fermenters, cooler, direct-fire gas kettle, and some other equipment were purchased new. A mash tun, hot liquor tank, and primary fermenter are reconditioned dairy equipment, and one cooler still has an A & W logo on it. “We got it and a cigarette machine at an auction for 20-something,” Paul McGowan says. “We busted open the machine and found $15 or so in change” — making the cooler an especially good deal.
The brewery has a small office, a large, clean, white-walled room that holds all the brewing equipment, a large cooler that holds tanks and kegs, and an adjacent room with more kegs. The 15-barrel brewery is capable of producing 300 to 340 kegs a month but as of late August was brewing only once a week.
Hollister Mountain’s beer recipes are based on homebrewing recipes which, after a little trial and error (“I dumped maybe four batches,” McGowan says), resulted in some pretty nice beers. McGowan found that hop utilization proved the biggest challenge when enlarging the recipes. “Aroma’s the hard thing,” he says.
Hollister Mountain began brewing in September 1996 and distributing Oct. 1. The first beers brewed were a pale ale, porter, rye, and Scottish ale. All are made with a London strain of English ale yeast, which is repitched eight to 10 times before another is used. The brewers use local city water with a little gypsum added to bring down the pH. Most of the malt comes from Great Western. Some is imported, and the hops are both American and European.
Keepers Pale Ale — “made for one of the most important people in the brewery: the cellar keeper,” according to a poetically licensed Hollister Mountain brochure — is an amber ale made with English Fuggle and Styrian Goldings hops. The Fuggles come through in the aroma, and the hop bitterness is evident throughout, yet there is enough malt to be noticeable as well. It has 28 International Bittering Units and is 3.6 percent alcohol by volume.
One-Eyed Raven Porter — “ominous and dark, but chocolatey and delicious” — is a full-bodied, malty beer, with hops, chocolate, and licorice coming through as it warms. Made with roasted and chocolate malts, it has 28 IBUs and is 4.8 percent ABV.
Fieldstone Ale — “from the spirit of the people who turned the soil and piled the stones” — is a light-copper beer made with malted rye and Hallertauer and Mt. Hood hops. It has a lightly sweet nose and hints of caramel, and the rye is pleasantly noticeable. Fieldstone has 26 IBUs and weighs in at 3.4 percent ABV.
Claymore Scottish Ale — “as enjoyable as a North Atlantic breeze on a summer field of heather” — is the most popular of the first four beers Hollister Mountain brewed. It’s a deep copper brew along the lines of an 80 shilling ale. A variety of specialty malts combined with East Kent Goldings hops result in a full-bodied beer that’s more malty than hoppy. It has an ABV of 4.9 percent and is 26 IBUs.
Over time the brewery added three more beers, for a total of seven year-round. “I was dying to do a stout,” McGowan says. Bog Water Stout (which, McGowan says, some folks mistakenly call “Bong Water Stout”) is a jet-black elixir that has notes of chocolate, coffee, and licorice. It’s made with East Kent Goldings at 45 IBUs and is 4.5 percent ABV.
Next came the popular Shanghai Bitters, Shanghai being a way to score 100 points in the darts game Killer and to win in Russian Killer. “Pale ales are such a competitive market here. We called it ‘bitters’ and it took off,” McGowan says. It is based on a classic English-style bitter, slightly lighter in hops but higher in alcohol than the pale ale, at 25 IBUs and 4.3 percent ABV.
Third was Wet Willy Ale, an American wheat ale. “I was flat against doing a wheat beer, but the other three owners pushed for the wheat,” McGowan says. “Before someone said ‘fruit,’ I agreed to the wheat. Now, it’s our best seller.” Wet Willy is made with the same English ale yeast as the other beers, 30 percent wheat malt, and Hallertauer hops, with 18 IBUs and 3.9 percent ABV. “The wheat is really liked by women,” Deb McGowan says.
Planned for winter is an English-style strong ale, brewed in October and called Old Angus 1997.
The beers are unpasteurized and unfiltered, but most pour quite clear. They undergo primary fermentation for 48 hours to five days. “The yeast will finish a beer in 30 to 36 hours, but we crank the temperature down to slow it down,” McGowan says. Wet Willy ages for eight to 11 days, while the stout and Scottish ale condition for a few weeks. The beers are force carbonated slowly for 24 to 48 hours.
Hollister Mountain beers can be recognized on draft by their distinctive tap handles. Bog Water Stout, for example, has a drawing of a hand reaching out of an oozy swamp. Shanghai Bitters wears a dartboard handle with a dart feather sticking out the top. Additionally, Deb McGowan has made personalized wooden signs for some regular accounts.
The brewery can self-distribute in the Coeur D’Alene area, while other distributors, including Anheuser-Busch distributors, handle them elsewhere. “We can give better service when it’s just us, but it was a little hectic at first,” Deb McGowan says. They hope to hire a salesman soon.
As of late August, the beers were on draft at more than 30 accounts in many Idaho counties and in Spokane, Wash. “We do well in micro bars that do well even in Rainier towns,” Paul McGowan says. The brewery was also planning to contract with an “itinerant bottler” who travels around with a small Meheen system.
The owners financed the brewery with the help of a Small Business Administration loan. “No one’s going to be a millionaire off this,” Paul says, but Deb McGowan adds, “The last couple of months (business) turned around, and I don’t foresee sales dropping off at all. Winter is better for selling beer.”
The brewers had no formal technical training, and Paul says he wishes he had the luxury of time and money to take some brewing courses. “My goal is, when we’re up and running and we both quit our jobs and work here full time, to take a short course,” he says. “But I know a lot of technical brewers who can’t brew worth a crap. Brewing is 40 percent science and 60 percent art. You have to be able to taste your beer and know what’s wrong with it.”
“I think we have a good, quality product,” Deb McGowan says. “Certain styles come and go, but we have consistency in our product, and I think that’s what’s important.”
Hollister Mountain Brewing Ltd. Co. is located at 902 Lincoln Way, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho 83814. (208) 667-1918.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of the Beer Travelers Guide, which lists more than 1,700 brewpubs, bars, and restaurants in the United States that serve flavorful beer.