Refreshing BitterRoot Brewing’s Brand
Honoring the past while thinking about the future
We’ve been fortunate to partner with several legacy (20+ year old) breweries over our last 12 years of work, but few have the provenance and staying power of BitterRoot Brewing. Founded in 1998 by Tim Bozik and family in the snug mountain town of Hamilton, Montana, this combination brewpub and packaging facility remains a community hub and Montana craft beer staple to this day. We caught up with Jason Goeltz, General Manager and outdoor sports enthusiast extraordinaire, to talk refreshing a legacy brand, the emergent challenges of COVID-19, and his time on a volunteer search and rescue team in the mountains.
Jason! First, introduce yourself a bit. Where are you from? What is your background? How did you end up as GM at BitterRoot?
My formative years were spent right here in Montucky. Along the way I lived in Germany (yep, learned to drink beer at the ripe age of 4) Colorado, and Minnesota. I graduated in ’93 from Beaverhead County High School in Dillon, Montana, and moved to Minneapolis to study Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. I quickly realized that I was far more attracted to the sights, sounds, and culture that Minneapolis had to offer than the intricacies of aircraft design. Yeah, shocker, I know right? Long story short, had a great 8 year run in Minneapolis that found life long friendships, my wife (that I still don’t know how I convinced to marry me), and a career in systems and technology.
After a year of helping run my stepfather’s lumber business, it was time to put my big boy pants on and begin the next chapter of my professional career. After all, mountain toys aren’t cheap… I received a call from Tim Bozik, founder of BitterRoot Brewing. The Bozik family were some of our favorite regular guests while running Jackson Hot Springs, so it didn’t take much arm-twisting to meet up for a beer and talk shop. Fast forward 12 years after being given the job opportunity and I’m still sporting a smile every day at work that resembles the smile on our son’s face after shooting his first bull elk this season!
And the rest is history. You had to make a lot of weighty decisions along the way. Speaking of tough choices: I know the decision to make changes to the BitterRoot branding was not made lightly. What issues were you guys facing, both from a branding and packaging standpoint? What were you worried about headed into a brand refresh?
Relevancy. Being appropriate to the current time, period or circumstances. Being one of the oldest operating breweries in the state is a double-edged sword in an industry climate where new, rare and local are purchasing factors. While we pride ourselves with time tested recipes, SOPs, quality assurances, etc., that result in consistent, tasty, quality beverages… we were lacking a facelift, cohesion amongst our package designs, and new offerings. We had seen stagnant growth in some of our package sales, and meetings with our wholesale partners often resulted in the suggestion of package/brand redesign and new products. It was becoming increasingly apparent that a brand refresh could be the catalyst to spark velocity in our legacy brands as well as new product offerings we had been working on. As far as our concerns crossing the threshold into this project, I would say cost and ability to track an ROI was at the top of the list.
A lot of people have joined the brewing game over the last ten years. Speaking generally, what’s the difference between a two year old brewery and a 22 year old brewery?
From a consumer standpoint, in today’s climate, many consumers follow the aforementioned new/rare/local purchasing habits. I’ll admit, I’m often one of them. A new brewery can fit all three of these qualifications whereas a seasoned brewery can struggle with meeting the consumer’s requirement for “newness” (insert brand refresh and new products!). And with an increasingly growing number of new products on the shelves, seasoned breweries can find themselves missing out on plenty of purchases if unable to captivate the consumer’s pursuit for something “new”.
From a business standpoint, a 22-year-old brewery has 20 more years of successes, failures, blood, sweat, and tears than a 2 year old brewery. These extra years typically result in a more consistent product (trust me, at two years young we were certainly figuring things out!), stronger wholesale relationships, and a better understanding of the political climate of the state’s alcohol industry, to name a few. These are all achievements we are proud to have made… however, these aren’t a factor for a consumer that is looking for something new, rare, or local.
I want to talk a little bit about Montana, because I’ve been there a couple times now, and it’s left an impression on me (basically, I want to go back, preferably recreationally). What does craft beer mean for people in Montana, and do you think motivations and tastes are different in MT than in other markets?
I think one of the best ways to explain the Montana way, generally speaking, is purpose. We live, work, and play purposefully… and yes, drink with the same purpose. When we drink a craft beer in Montana, we are selfishly wanting a beer that mirrors the quality of life we have chosen to live. We don’t like wasting our time and money on a mediocre beer just as we don’t like wasting our time in stop and go traffic (save for the occasional cattle drive on the highway when our local ranchers are moving!).
I wouldn’t say that Montana beer in general tastes better or different than offerings by our brewing families in other states; there’s some damn fine juice being made all over the country. However, with Montana brewers living/working/playing with such purpose I would say that Montana breweries all produce great beer that has their passion and purpose coming through in their flavors and aromas. This isn’t always the case with breweries/brewers that might just be in it for the money and/or jumping into the industry because of the trend. Here in Montana that’s a business model we don’t really see, so you can expect a solid beer at any brewery in Montana.
I remember when we visited you guys, you touched briefly on your work as a volunteer search and rescue out in the mountains. I don’t think people realize how remote and wild Montana is to this day, even a mere stone’s throw away from the brewery. How have these experiences shaped you? Any cool/crazy stories you can share from your time working as a volunteer?
Correct, I’ve been involved with search and rescue for about 20 years now and am currently a member of the Ravalli County Mountain Rescue team. Unfortunately, I can’t share much detail in a public forum such as this… however, I can certainly touch on them from a 10,000 elevation and how they’ve influenced me. For one, the rescues, recoveries and countless hours of training have made me more capable, adventurous, and most importantly, safer while recreating. It’s also afforded me the confidence to venture further into the elk woods, backcountry and on the single track chasing those purposeful desires I spoke to earlier. You touched on a great point, Montana is wild and the weather can turn from the threat being a sunburn to that of hypothermia in a very brief window: even just a stone’s throw away or a couple river bends on the Bitterroot River from the brewery. In fact, we’ve had countless missions on the mountainsides of Hamilton that had a view of the red roof of the brewery. Oh, for a cool story: We’ve been involved with some scenes in the hit series ‘Yellowstone,’ pretty sure that’s safe to share! In closing: Know the weather, know the terrain, be prepared for them, and know how to start a damn fire!
What was the most challenging aspect of the brand refresh?
For me, this being a brand refresh vs a full rebrand or the development of a new brand, I found it most challenging to find the balance of creating something new and at the same time retaining enough semblance of our original logo that met the majority of our group’s desires. We all greatly valued one another’s feedback throughout this process… but at times, as you would expect, various aspects of the original logo spoke to us differently as individuals. In hindsight, this was a good thing. Not once did anyone in the process present anything less than a good idea. Differing ideas presented us with an option of distilling countless good ideas into several great ideas: resulting in an impactful refreshed logo we are incredibly proud of.
A lot of work went into this refresh, both on our side as designers and internally on the brewery side of things. There was a lot of consensus building and discussion as we gathered feedback for the finer details of the brand refresh. What advice can you give to people who are working through the daunting task of changing their core branding?
Trust the process. I’m not going to lie, not every part of this process was enjoyable. Heck, I’ll say it, there were some shit sandwich days to be true. Yet, it’s all a part of the process, I feel the most challenging days stewarded some of the most rewarding developments. Be democratic. More opinions are better than too few. Too many opinions are worse than too few. Confused yet? Good, now jump in and get to work!
For the duration of its history, BitterRoot Brewing has been family owned and operated. How has this shaped the brewery as it exists today? What are the advantages of working with the founder and family on guiding the vision of the brewery?
The Bozik family created a work atmosphere that values and treats employees as family and takes the time to engage with employees beyond the scope of work detail (Hey Rob, get yer elk this weekend? Hey Toby, did you hook into any hogs [big trout] on the East Fork?) At the end of the day our employees’ overall happiness is more important to us than their on the job performance. Naturally, we challenge everyone to do their best and sometimes things don’t work out. Yet more often than not, we are not hiring…and I feel that is a direct result of the quality of the work atmosphere that was intended by the family and supported and carried out by the management teams.
I don’t recall where I heard the phrase “Work to Live, Don’t Live to Work” the first time decades ago, but it has stuck with me and it’s a barometer I’ve used in nearly every job/career decision I’ve made since. BitterRoot Brewing’s work environment is about the best example of this I’ve seen in my 30 years of employment and management. Working with the founder and family on guiding the vision of the brewery’s brand refresh provided valuable insight (some of which I hadn’t gleaned until this process) into the hows and whys that shaped the first ten years of BitterRoot Brewing before I became a part of the team. Without a doubt, these insights helped me visualize and offer suggestions in the refresh process that were new (see what I did there again) and reflected my personality and experience, yet were still rooted in our core identity and values.
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Beer Branding Trends 2.0
It’s been a pretty wild year for hospitality with the pandemic; we’ve had good friends with long-established concepts close their doors, and others see growth in packaged and off-premise sales. How have you guys adjusted? What do you think the next year looks like? Is it possible to even see beyond the near future?
Adjusted is past tense, we have done that… and are still adjusting (ugghh). This list of adaptations is ever-growing: suspending face to face sales/market work, donating excess beer for sanitizer production, suspension of on-premise sales in our tasting room (and all three states we are distributed in), no hugging rules (I’m a hugger… this one might just be the death of me), contactless high fives, sheesh… will it ever stop? Good question. That having been said, like many others, we saw a marked increase in package sales that is still trending and has played very well with the recent brand refresh and package updates. It was a relief to see healthy wholesale and tasting room volumes this summer as markets began phased opening: however, the likelihood of rolling back some of the phased openings in lieu of the increased Covid-19 cases seems strong. That having been said, it’s very difficult to predict what this winter and beyond will look like. I suppose the silver lining is that we learned some valuable lessons during the shutdown in March and April of last year and we won’t be recreating the wheel in many regards if we roll back to off-premise sales only. However, the sustainability of off-premise only sales for us, along with the entire retail industry, is a frightening unknown.
What’s your favorite thing on tap right now, and why is it Dirt Church?
Throughout the pandemic, we had an incredible Imperial Porter self-isolating in freshly dumped Jamaican Rum Barrels which we recently racked off into a handful of 1/6 bbl kegs and 90 cases of 750mL bottles. This is my current jam without a doubt. Ha, you thought I’d say Dirt Church….well, once the Imperial Rum Porter is gone it will be my favorite again. As for the name, Dirt Church? In today’s increasingly crowded marketplace one can argue that equally as difficult as making a beer that will stand out amongst so many good beers, is naming (and branding) one. Coupled with the fact that trademarking the names of beers overlaps with the trademarking of names for wine and spirit brands, it’s a significant challenge to develop brand names that aren’t already trademarked. Let’s face it, names sell beer.
Dirt Church is a term that’s been thrown around regionally for a few years as a reference to getting out and playing in the dirt/woods/trails (yes, purposefully, you’re getting it!). It’s fun to say and makes you feel like you’re in the cool kids club… Fortunately, when we were beginning the design/recipe phase of our Hazy IPA release I had the proverbial “Ah Hah” moment and promptly initiated a trademark search. To my surprise, it hadn’t been trademarked and we immediately had our trademark attorney begin the process. If you don’t have a trademark attorney yet, stop reading this blog and go find one. Can’t begin to tally the number of times I’ve had another brewery tell me they thought of that name too, but were just a bit late to the dinner table.
Dirt Church is a magnificent beer. I wish we could get ahold of it out here. Shifting gears to retail: As the first wave of packaging hits the market, how have people responded? What kind of feedback have you guys received as this stuff is released into the wild?
To date, we’ve released four new package designs: three cans and our first (New!!!) 750mL barrel-aged offering. We are hoping by EOY our existing inventories of the original packaging will be depleted and all of our brands will be sporting their new, refreshed look. The feedback on both the logo and the refreshed package design has been incredible and has positioned us to quickly release new, local, and rare offerings (see what we did there?!). However, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Your team at CODO was instrumental in helping us ease our fears/concerns and develop a comprehensive brand refresh strategy that involved and allowed input from team members at BitterRoot Brewing, our wholesale partners, and retail customers. It’s something we are all proud of and thankful for.
What are you, personally, most proud of regarding your time as GM at BitterRoot Brewery (so far)?
I’ve always been bad at choosing a favorite anything (much to the dismay of my wife and kids!). But, I’ll do my best to play this one out. Hmm, I’d have to say ONE of my proudest accomplishments (Told ya, I knew I’d get out of choosing a favorite) at BitterRoot Brewing would be the timing, design, and release of Dirt Church. When released, it was the first Hazy IPA released in Montana and has consistently been one of the top-selling Montana packages ever since. And as much as I loathed the term “Flagship”, we now have one… and I’m alright with that!
With the brand refresh and new packaging under your belt, what’s next? What are you guys excited about on the horizon for BitterRoot?
What’s next? “Yer Killing Me, Smalls”! Next up are waist-deep powder turns down Lost Trail Powder Mountain, harvesting a nice bull elk, and maybe getting the dirt bike out in the woods before old man winter settles in for the season. All jokes aside, we are certainly thinking about what’s next as we’d be foolish to think that we can sit back and relax with the status quo simply because we’ve recently wrapped up an incredibly successful brand refresh. Maybe the question should be “When do you think you’ll have another Brand Refresh”? That, my friend, makes my head hurt…but it’s a valid question that I’m not looking forward to answering in the near future. For the near future, we have some new seasonal releases and a small batch canning series, “Rooted Series”, we hope to launch in the spring/early summer of 2021.
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Sell more beer.
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