New brewery opens nears Stevensville
By Michael Howell
It’s been a long time coming, but the taps are finally flowing at Wildwood Brewery. Not only is the beer organic, the entire brewery is organic, in a way. It is the organic outgrowth of a vision driven by a passion that has been slowly taking shape along Highway 93 just north of Stevensville for a number of years and for many years before that in the mind of Jim Lueders.
He started accumulating the key equipment to realize his dream of having a brewery of ‘his very own’, way back in 2002. It was a dream fueled by years of work in the consulting business setting up breweries across the nation for other people. That’s when he purchased the “heart of the brewery,” a pair of copper clad kettles that are beauties to behold. Lueders knows well how much work goes into keeping that brilliant shine. He has done a lot of the installation work at the factory himself, some of the welding, some of the carpentry, some of everything pretty much. Now, finally, he’s even helping his wife Pannha turn the taps.
Lueders was familiar with the copper clad kettles from having been involved in their installation at an Oregon brewery in 1992-93. They were made in Germany in 1989.
“I was the first to brew in those boilers,” said Lueders. At that time he was working as a start-up consultant for Saxer Brewing. He did about 80 brews. He said typically it was a nine-hour day but he remembers a few 18-hour days.
Prior to working for Saxer, Lueders was the first brewer at Bayern Brewing in Missoula and worked there from 1987 to 1990. Then he spent a year studying at Doumeus, a brewing academy in Munich, Germany before going to work for Saxer.
After working for Saxer he operated as an independent consultant in starting up breweries. It was at the height of the craze in which small breweries were opening up across the country. He doesn’t know why, but for some reason Saxer went out of business and he heard that the old copper clad kettles were up for sale.
“I made a low ball offer thinking I would never get them for that price, but I did,” said Lueders. “I didn’t even have a place to store them. But I found one.”
He also came away with a mash kettle that he had designed and had built in Portland in 1992.
He pictured those kettles being housed in a large timber frame structure and went shopping. What he found was a barn in Wisconsin that was built in 1901. You can see several of the old hand hewn white oak beams in the spacious brew house in which they have been re-used. The sturdy doors were built out of the old barn wood.
In fact, most everything in the Wildwood Brewery is re-used or refurbished. It’s part of Lueders’ business philosophy. He re-uses old materials and old machinery whenever possible. His grain hopper is a rehabilitated piece of machinery. It simply looks and works like its spanking new. The roofing on the immense brewery building is recycled material.
Lueders also believes in buying local, as well. The straw bales used in constructing the walls of the facility were locally produced.
Lueders buys his malted grain from a company just over the border in Canada.
“They get most of their grain from Montana farmers,” said Lueders. “Some comes from Washington, and they are all certified organic.”
The malted grain is stored in large silos outside the brewery. From there it is moved on a conveyance system that Lueders designed. It is then dropped into a refurbished hopper where it is weighed and milled into “grist.” From there it is conveyed to the mash kettle where enzymes in the grist are activated by water and mashing at a controlled temperature. This controls the types of sugars and proteins in the mash and will make for a sweeter or a drier beer.
“A big decision is made at the masher,” said Lueders.
There are also two ways of dealing with the mash: infusion and decoction.
“Not many brewers can do a decoction mash,” said Lueders. “We are unique in the area in this regard.” A decoction involves extracting some of the mash, cooking it and blending it back into the mash and reheating it.
From there it goes to the lauter tun, a large colander or strainer which separates the sweet liquid from the spent grain material. This liquid is sent to the brew kettles where it is boiled. This sterilizes the ingredients, drives off any chemical components and precipitates some high protein solids. It also isomerizes the hop oils and gets them into solution. It is then pumped to a whirlpool where the solids are separated off.
Lueders said that many brewers compromise and use kettles for double purposes. He is proud of his “four vessel” brewery. After separation, the liquid is quickly cooled through a heat exchanger before being sent to the “cellar,” where yeast is added and the fermentation process takes place.
“This is the soul of the brewery,” said Lueders. “This is where the beer is really made.” The brewer is in control of this process by controlling the blend of water, malt, hops and yeast. In this process different temperatures can produce a different taste.
Lueders said that customers have told him that the Bavarian Wheat Beer he is now making tastes like bananas and cloves. He said it is made with a classic yeast from southern Germany. He said every eight generations he returns to the lab for a new start.
“A yeast will change over time and it’s good to have consistency,” he said.
In fact that’s one of the ways that the “art” of home brewing differs from the “science” of commercial brewing, according to Lueders.
“Commercially you want predictability and consistency in your product,” he said. “Customers count on it.”
Lueders thinks a lot about his customers. He fashioned his first four brews to be appealing to the widest variety of beer connoisseurs. But he also had an eye to being different.
“There are lots of IPAs and Pale Ales out there already,” he said. What he came up with for a basic foursome was Ambitious Wheat, Discerning Pilsner, Mystical Stout and Bodacious Bock.
The Ambitious Wheat takes a long time to make. It is a double decoction. It is made of two malts and a hops with a special yeast.
While most people are familiar with Guiness, Lueders’ dark beer, the Mystical Stout, is tailored after Beamish, the kind of Irish Stout you would find at Murphy’s.
“It’s clear, crisp and dry,” said Lueders. “It looks very dark, but it is very easy to drink.”.
Pilsner beer, according to Lueders, got its name from the town of Pilsner where the brewery Pilsner Urquell is located. It swept the world and there are lots of versions, but they all go back to Pilsner. This is another decoction mash.
The Bodacious Bock is a traditional German style lager. Lueders makes his with three malts and one hops in the true spring bock tradition.
But all that you see and taste now at Wildwood Brewery is only the part that’s been currently realized. The dream goes on.
Lueders is already looking beyond the small tasting room in the production facility. He imagines a full restaurant and bar next door. He has already bought the old barn that will provide the mainframe for that structure. He found it in Pennsylvania. It was built in the 1880s. He bought it in 2003. It’s hard to say when he will put it up. It depends on a lot of things.
He also imagines a set of small businesses possibly spinning off from the brewery. He was careful in his design of the facility to consider the potential use of his “waste stream.”
“Really there is no such thing as waste stream. It’s just a stream that you haven’t found a use for yet,” said Lueders.
For instance, the spent grain that is the by-product of the brewing process. For most animals it is useless as feed. Its proteins remain trapped in indigestible bonds. However, mushrooms have the ability to break down that bond and can grow on spent grains.
“Mushrooms could be the end product or you could go on and grow worms producing high value soil for gardens,” said Lueders.
He said that he is hoping to attract someone interested in running some sort of spin off business connected to the use of his “waste streams.” He sees the potential, but his hands are full just making the beer.
“I would really like for someone with a passion for something like growing mushrooms or worms to step in and start up their own business,” he said.
His brewery operation will require hiring some employees, a server at the tasting room, a salesperson on the road, and somebody in the canning operation which is yet to be installed. Besides beer on tap the brewery sells kegs and growlers.
Located off Highway 93 just north of the Stevensville Junction, Wildwood Brewery is open every day of the week from 4 to 8 p.m.