Interview with Travis Peterson from Meadowlark Brewing
Travis, can you tell us a bit more about yourself? Your background, education, and hobbies?
I was born and raised in Sidney, Montana and attended Gonzaga University for a B.S. in Civil Engineering. My professional career mainly involved marine related construction projects such as bridges, docks, dredging and navy work on the west coast from San Francisco up to Seattle. I returned to Sidney, newly married, to help in the family concrete business. I have four children from 2 to 15 years of age and a growing business so hobbies existed at some point and may resume sometime in the future.
Travis Peterson pours a beer …
You own a brewery called “Meadowlark Brewing”. What is your brewery about? What beers do you make? How is business going?
Meadowlark Brewing was established in 2014 in Sidney, MT and we are building a second, much larger facility in Billings, MT opening in 2020. We make around 24 beers throughout the year, with five being year-round while the others are seasonal or limited release. We keg, can and bottle our beer and distribute it throughout Montana with limited distribution in North Dakota and South Dakota. We have hit our ceiling for growth and space in our current brewery thus the need for a second location to accomodate more growth and access to a larger population.
Meadowlark Brewing’s current production facility …
Congrats on that expansion! Especially in a market that many say is becoming saturated. Where do you see the industry in general, and your brewery in special, in say 5 years from now?
Some metro areas have reached a saturation point for many business models. Breweries with a focus towards an on-premise model are still doing quite well. Hyper-local is a common descriptor as to why nationally distributed brands are not seeing the same growth as they were five years ago. More smaller breweries now have the ability to produce small packages (i.e. cans and bottles) due to technical advancement and down-scaling of equipment. This means the number of can and bottles in the retail market have exploded and the big companies cannot cater to every community for a personal touch the way the brewery around the corner can. Local loyalty plays a big role. Large breweries have continued to see competition on the store shelf resulting in a decline in case equivalents.
A newer trend is big breweries expanding to different cities with taprooms to coincide with their distribution efforts in the grocery aisle. We have been watching this taproom expansion model gain momentum the last couple of years and it is one we wish to adopt as soon as possible. Outside distribution can provide some revenue but direct selling gives much higher margins per ounce. Breweries that produce, stock and retail cut out two middle men to get to the customer saving 60-70 margin for their own pocket. The other benefit to selling directly to the customer is the ability to control how the sale is made, what information is given and, hopefully, the customer develops emotion towards the brand for sales in the future because the hospitality experienced.
Meadowlark Brewing’s taproom …
You are expanding your brewing facilities and now also start a craft distillery. What are your expectations? Do you see your brewery and distillery work together?
We seen the expansion in to distillation and a natural evolution to meet trends in the US. Breweries share a lot of the same equipment, methodology and knowledge of alcohol transaction with the government and public. I expect the distillation side to be a brand extension of the good will we have already developed with customers but also accessing new customers looking for craft spirits. Some US states are more restricted in regards to distilled spirits while others allow grocery stores to sell spirits openly. We are hoping to have bottle spirits to springboard us into new markets and maybe even entice distributers to bring our beer in as well.
You purchased an iStill 5000. What made you choose iStill, instead of for example a more traditional, copper still?
To be honest I was hesitant with iStill from the first moment I saw it at Craft Brewers Conference last spring. It looks so much different than how the traditionals look. Secondly, the other still manufacturers at CBC were all very forthright in expressing negative opinions of the iStill versus their copper stills. Traditional equipment or techniques have their place but our company has always embraced forward thinking and ways to be better than our peers. I believe I have read every iStill blog entry and watched every video posted.
At the same time I was reading as many ADI recommended books as I could find and the big difference between ADI and iStill was the amount of factual, helpful and scientific information. ADI and older manufacturers so heavily rely on tradition and mysticism that I grew increasingly suspicious of many claims from traditional manufactures. Many couldn’t explain why they built them the way they did; just that was how they have always been built. I also looked at distillation from a production standpoint, meaning repeatable results over and over with little variation.
It came down between a column still made by Headframe Spirits and iStill. iStill won out because, with repeatability, also came flexibility. Multiple types of spirits from one machine and the extractor to produce even more variety. A third big selling point was the iStill mini. Having never performed any distillation it was comforting to know I could try a liter at a time before moving up to 5000 liters.
Travis’ iStill 5000 is currently being manufactured in the Netherlands …
Based on your purchase and your participation at the iStill University Course in Denver, why do you feel iStill is an interesting proposition to craft brewers? And what should we improve upon or do differently?
iStill is an interesting proposition because it provides an alternative source of income and creativity for our industry. Spirits are sold in much the same way as beer so no big learning curve for sales. Increased competition in the beer market has slowed some growth while the spirit industry is still growing strong. Not only can we utilize the iStill to make spirits for direct profit but there is something to be said for indirect profit as well. We all make mistakes and sometimes a batch of beer does not meet expectations. We can dump it down the drain or now turn it into vodka. Old beer not selling? Answer: Vodka. Slow beer sales in the winter? Time to ramp up spirit production. Spirits store indefinitely so no worries concerning aging extra production to make up for slow beer times. And employees get to keep consistent hours over slow periods versus layoffs. At the core, brewers love what you do because of the creativity and the technical aspects of brewing. With iStill distillation is an easy crossover from brewing.
I would spend some time on marketing and if you are going to San Antonio for Craft Brewers Conference a video explaining how the iStill operates might be beneficial for those who have no knowledge of distillation or even better conduct a presentation at CBC. “Brewing for Distillation” or “First Beer and now Spirits”. A seminar will probably snag a lot of people interested in the subject and then they have an opportunity to ask questions after the presentation. I like CBC for the trade show but I go for the seminars.
Travis, is there anything else you want to mention? Something we didn’t touch upon already?
At the iStill University course I finally had many of the information holes filled in that I couldn’t quite grasp from the books and online sources. It was of tremendous help. If I was Odin of iStill I would hammer that gap of information over and over on my website and at trade shows. Explain iStill distillation with a simple diagram and its benefits. Brewers are not afraid of new tech but we still have a layer of skepticism. You do a great job explaining why iStill is better but not how the iStill functions. Very basically explain “how liquid goes in here and comes out here as a distilled spirit” in about ten steps. We did it in three days in Denver but I feel that is missing on the website. Reading about conical copper still in Scotland don’t really explain how distillation works in an iStill because the design is so different.