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Hoffmann stands near a garage door leading to the loading dock, half of which will become a patio. Behind him are the vats for hard cider.
Red Lodge Ales is on the verge of a major expansion into Billings, which includes opening a taproom, making fresh-pressed hard cider and hiring Jason Corbridge as the chef.
“I think it’s really an exciting project,” said Sam Hoffmann, president of Red Lodge Ales. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
The original brewery, which opened in 2009 (Wrong, apparently; see reader comment below) and eventually expanded into a tavern and restaurant with big production facilities just north of Red Lodge, is leasing the old United Glass building at 2203 Montana Ave. in Billings.
Hoffmann, who was on site Monday helping to build a couple of big coolers in the new building, said the Last Chance Cider Mill and Last Chance Pub, as they will be called, should be open for business sometime this fall. The pub will serve wine, beer from the home brewery in Red Lodge and hard cider made on the premises.
Hoffmann is leasing about two-thirds of the auto-glass space, about 10,000 square feet in all, just to the east of the old Depot Antique Mall and barely half a block east of another brewery-restaurant, Überbrew.
During the Montana Brewers Rendezvous at the Billings Depot over the weekend, Hoffmann said, he gave 15 or 20 other brewers from around the state a tour of his building. The new location is also two blocks east of Carter’s Brewing and a block south of Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.
His No. 1 requirement was plenty of space, Hoffmann said, but “it’s kind of an added bonus that it’s in the brewery district.”
Corbridge, who built a loyal following when he operated the tiny Café DeCamp on Sixth Avenue North, said he had been looking at the old Depot Antique building for another restaurant project when he got wind of Hoffmann’s plan. He got in touch with Hoffmann and soon signed on as the chef for the Last Chance Pub.
The restaurant will have an all-day menu and there will be a separate dinner menu as well. Hoffmann said he wants to serve Saturday and Sunday brunches during the pressing season, which starts in early October, so diners can watch the cider being pressed and then drink a fresh glass.
Corbridge said he is excited because “the kitchen is almost as big as the entire Café DeCamp.”
He plans to make a lot of German-style dishes, including rabbit schnitzel and Maultaschen, a meat ravioli dish that German monks supposedly learned to prepare from Italian monks in exile. He said there would also be a strong apple theme throughout the menu, with dishes like apple fries and apple latkes.
Apples are what prompted Hoffmann to expand.
Billings has always been his best market outside of Red Lodge, and for years he has rented a distribution warehouse in Billings. He ships kegs and bottled beer to taverns, restaurants and stores in Bozeman, Helena and Great Falls, as far east as Dickinson and Bismarck, N.D., and south to Cody, Powell, Sheridan and Gillette, Wyo., as well as Yellowstone National Park.
Four years ago, Hoffmann and his wife, Lindsey, bought 26 acres north of Red Lodge. They recently planted 173 apple trees there and hope to have 350 trees in a couple of years. He had been doing some cider making at home, but last year he acquired a cider mill from a plant in Ontario.
He and Lindsey quickly determined they couldn’t possibly squeeze the cider mill into the already crowded brewery in Red Lodge, so they started looking for a new building to expand into. They found the old auto glass building late last year.
The mill can handle a load of 800 pounds of apples, which are washed, ground and pressed, producing 200 gallons of cider an hour. He hopes to make 15,000 gallons of hard cider in the first year. (Red Lodge Ales produces about 9,000 barrels of beer—about 280,000 gallons—a year).
Until his own trees start producing, Hoffmann plans to get some apples from an orchard in Fromberg owned by John Ross, an attorney in Billings whose father and grandfather also grew apples in in the Carbon County town. He plans to buy other apples from orchards in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Hoffmann will continue to make all his beer in Red Lodge and the hard cider in Billings, though he might one day move some of the beer brewing to Billings. He has a restaurant beer and wine license, allowing him to serve wine and to stay open till closing time, 2 a.m., though he doesn’t plan to stay open that late.
The restaurant will be about twice as big—with room for 100 to 110 people—as the one in Sam’s Taproom, his brewpub in Red Lodge. There will be a floor-to-ceiling wall between the production area and the restaurant, with some very large windows salvaged from the building set into the wall. Another window will give an expansive view into the kitchen.
The sloping ceilings rise to a height of about 18 feet, and some of the windows facing Montana Avenue are nearly that tall themselves. Big windows on the back side of the building look out over a concrete loading dock that runs the length of the building. Hoffmann plans to use half of it as a dock and the other half as a patio.
“There’s nothing like it” in Billings, Corbridge said of the space.
Hoffmann agrees, though he admitted that “when I first saw this, I said, ‘It’s way too big and needs too much work.’” He credits Allen Rapacz of Schutz Foss Architects with making the project much easier than Hoffmann had imagined. And Hoffmann said his landlord, who didn’t want to be named, also undertook a lot of the improvements.
The main entrance will be on Montana Avenue, and a wheelchair lift is being installed there. Hoffmann’s not sure what he’ll do with a couple of small offices near the front door, but he might rent them out for meetings or conferences.
He’s most excited about making his own hard cider on a commercial scale. There are a few other places making cider in the state, he said, but no other commercial producers are pressing fresh apples.
“It’s definitely an unexplored niche in Montana,” he said.