You don’t need to read too many of George Ochenski’s columns here in the Independent to sense the unmistakable flavor behind his words. But luckily, Ochenski doesn’t write about food. Meanwhile, as a bold and penetrating political analyst, he never fails to stay locked on target—while having as much fun as possible. That’s the name of the game, as far as I’m concerned, and this young buck has been waiting a long time for the educational opportunity to trail the old codger in action as he gets a story.
One hot day in June, I got the call. Ochenski was in town, doing a story for the Rocky Mountain Brewing News. His mission: to visit all the breweries in Montana and write about their beer—and the Montanans who brew it. Having just rolled into Missoula after some, how shall we say, research at Bitterroot Brewery, Ochenski was sniffing out the scoop at Big Sky Brewery, on Hickory St. here in Missoula. I showed up, notebook in hand, to cover Ochenski covering the story.
When I got there, our consummate professional was spinning circles in an office chair. Although it looked like pure fun, Ochenski was in fact fact checking Big Sky Manager Brad Robinson’s statement that their popular Moose Drool brew has only four percent alcohol—the same as Bud. Ochenski was simulating the bed spins that don’t happen to you after only a few pints. “It’s a session beer,” agreed Robinson. “You can tip them back all night: one before dinner, one with, and one after, and you won’t walk away drunk.”
Ochenski nodded, lifting a frothy glass of Imperial Stout to his lips. Someone handed me a pint of Drool.
Happy to talk about Moose Drool all night, Robinson described the brainstorm session that lead to the name. “We wanted a big brown animal for our big brown beer, a huge, charismatic megafauna that stands there and says, ‘I am the great outdoors.’ So we’re like, ‘Brown Bear? No. Elk? No. Pleistocene Beast That’s Still Here? No. Moose…that’s it! Moose!’ So we’re thinking, ‘Moose Hump, Moose Lips, Moose Breath’…then we realized, ‘hey, a moose eats off the bottom of the lake, takes his head out of the water, chews, and water slides off his face.’ [Big Sky President] Neal [Leathers] suggested ‘Moose Drool,’ and it stuck.”
Moose Drool quickly became wildly popular, carrying Big Sky with it. In 2001, the last year before they started bottling, Big Sky was the third-largest draft-only brewery in the U.S. Bottles of Moose Drool are now sold in Oregon, Alaska, Washington, Minnesota, Idaho, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. In their newly expanded bottling plant, they recently filled over 110,000 bottles of beer in a single day—that’s 10 cases per minute.
This popularity has attracted attention, not all of it good. Ochenski took another thoughtful sip, smacked his lips, and probed: “Anything new on the Moosehead lawsuit?”
Moosehead Beer, of Canada, has sued Big Sky, charging that Moose Drool infringes on what Moosehead claims is its exclusive right to use moose to market beer (see “Moose duel,” by Jed Gottlieb, December 12, 2003). At Ochenski’s question, Robinson’s eyes got big. “Have you seen the shrine?” he asked.
“OK,” he said sharply, “we need to get more beer, and then go upstairs, right now.”
After refilling with the brew of our choice (I went with a draft-only Barley Wine that should be called Barely Legal for its alcohol content), we headed upstairs to find a wall filled with examples of the word “moose” being used in beer brands and products—including Moose Brewing Co., Moose Pale Ale, and even Drooling Moose. Perhaps aware of the ridiculousness of its claim, Moosehead has filed 27 consecutive extensions, postponing the trial 60 days each time. They are trying to bleed Big Sky dry, rather than tackle them head on—while spending a lot more on legal fees in the process, and not having nearly as much fun as the folks at Big Sky. “Every time they file for another extension,” says Robinson, “I go on eBay and find more evidence. There is so much of it…and their trademark is Moosehead, for crap’s sake, that’s one word.”
Demonstrating the same creativity that helped Big Sky grow into the 47th largest brewery in the U.S., Brad described Big Sky’s collaboration with Montana-based Hunter Bay Coffee Roasters, to produce organic, shade grown, bird-friendly Moose Drool coffee.
“We wanted the morning equivalent of the evening beer: reasonably heavy, very dark, smooth, and not particularly bitter. We figured most beer drinkers are coffee drinkers, right? So we got them cupped in the morning and evening.”
“Aw, hell,” said Ochenski, “I first got cupped in 6th grade.”
Oh boy. And we still had to hit Bayern and Kettlehouse before the long night was through. But Chef Boy Ari hung in there, because he had so much to learn.
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