At Yellowstone Valley Brewing, marking 20 years, many firsts


John Warner

This photo of the Garage Pub at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. accompanied a piece we ran two years ago about the Billings jazz scene.

Ed Kemmick note: George Moncure, whom I have counted as a friend almost from the moment of our first conversation, related below, sent in a press release earlier this week to announce that he was throwing a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his business, the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.

The release included a rundown of the brewery’s many firsts, and some of its most memorable events, and I found it so well done that I asked George if we could just run the thing as a guest column. He was willing, and after polishing it a bit sent it back in.

I have to add a few thoughts of my own because the YVBC has been a big part of my life for the past 20 years. I have seen so much good music in the YVBC Garage Pub over the years—going way back to watching Jim Frigo play piano and trumpet at the same time and continuing through the amazing album-release party for Parker Brown just a couple of weeks ago.

When I wrote a story about the YVBC for Montana Quarterly magazine in 2010, I talked about how big a role the Garage played in bringing live music back to Billings, and about the incredible sense of community we all used to feel there when George would put on shows during the Christmas season featuring college-age musicians home for the holidays.

I’ve played music there myself, with my brother John on many occasions and his daughter Katy on a memorable few, and it was the Garage that hosted our Last Best News fundraiser last March, when nearly 400 people jammed into that welcoming space. Two of my daughters have worked there.

I’ve played ping-pong, darts, shuffleboard, backgammon and cornhole at the Garage and I’ve been there at 100 degrees above and 20 degrees below zero. God knows I’ve drunk a few beers there, and even after I developed allergies to beer (I wish I was kidding), George to the rescue: A few years ago he added a distillery to the operation.

It’s not uncommon on a Saturday night when there’s live music at the Garage to find yourself in a crowd that includes toddlers, people in their 80s and 90s and half a dozen friendly dogs, including one who often sits on a bar stool, with better balance than some of the humans. There’s no place quite like it.

But I suppose that’s enough from me. Let’s hear from George:

Twenty years ago this month, Jay Shearer and I entered 2123B First Ave. N. to ready the empty warehouse to receive a truckload of stainless steel.

We knew we were going to make beer but we really had no idea how fun and challenging it would be.  Success is tough to define, but I think a fair measure is how good it feels to know so many nice people, and to feel so included in our community.

And we feel good, so we’re having a customer appreciation weekend in celebration of our 20th anniversary on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 14-15. Friday will feature an open-mic exhibition assembled by David Cleaves.  Saturday will feature a free show by The Savages, a new band made up of experienced rockers: Marco Castro, Clay Green, A.J. Miller and Scott Morales.

George Moncure, left, and Jay Shearer with their shiny new brewery equipment, back in 1996.

Photo courtesy of George Moncure

George Moncure, left, and Jay Shearer with their shiny new brewery equipment, back in 1996.

Knowing history is as valuable as pondering the future, so here are some tidbits about the Garage at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.:

Billings’ First Taproom: Himmelberger Brewing was Billings’ first microbrewery, but YVB was the first tap room. Montana Brewing Co. is actually a restaurant that is adjacent to the brewery, Billings Brewing Co, which never had a tap room.

Not Legal to Sell Beer: It was not legal to sell beer in a brewery tap room when we started, so our serving accommodations were diminutive at best.  But word got out that there was “Free Beer Friday” and soon lines formed. It wasn’t until Dennis Himmelberger and others successfully revised the law in 1999 that we able to charge for a pint of beer. When I see all the new brewery start-ups and their retail revenues, I always think of how much we gave away for several years.

First Brewery Live Music Venue: It was Free Beer Friday when I stepped over to the guy whose face I recognized from his City Lights column, Ed Kemmick.  We chatted for a moment and then he said he was in a little garage band called The Longtime Lonesome Dogs. He wondered if they could play at the Garage sometime.

I never imagined any negative ramifications about music in the tap room, and live music at YVB started right then with a, “Sure Ed, that sounds fine with me.”  Soon after, D’Tective and the Tyler Burnett bands were playing … and we know the rest of the tune. (Hackles were raised over live music by some tavern owners but that passed, and many taverns have live music today.)

Community Involvement: The brewery opened the door for me to meet so many people and helped me get involved with a community that I had known only since moving to Billings in 1994. It was a no-brainer to engage many nonprofits and apply our brewery venue to work with community to raise money.

Then Marcy Baumgartner developed and launched our PintAid project to help nonprofits raise funds and awareness on a lower-key weekly basis. We have learned much about fundraising, especially for organizations who give so much back to community. A personal favorite has been repairing and maintaining tennis courts, particularly the long-overdue repairs to the North Park tennis and basketball courts.

The Granddaddy of Awards: I am not usually interested in formal competition, whether it’s sports or beer judging, so I was surprised that we even entered much less won a Gold Medal in the Stout category at the Great American Beer Festival in 1998. That more or less sealed the competition deal for us and we have not actively competed since then.

Particularly Memorable Happenings:

♦  Mark Bryan’s standup bass neck broke at a show and Gy Moody outlined the deceased bass body with masking tape on the floor under our current stage.  The outline is still there.

♦  TREO’s launch of Thursday Jazz Jam and seeing excellent high school student jazz musicians.

♦  Extraordinary Friday Art Shows by Michelle Dyk and Wes Urbaniak with Jill Foote-Hutton, Emily Davidson and others.

♦  The garage door was wide open for fresh air on a cold Christmas night during a packed Tyler Burnett show with a timid Matt Rogers opener.

♦  The winter months when our bathrooms were being remodeled so we had indoor vented porta potties.

♦  Jared Stewart’s lovely granddaughters singing traditional native songs a capella at our Dakota Access pipeline event.

♦  Dan Page hosting an incredible singer-songwriter evening with Jalan Crossland and Doug Balmain.

♦  Scot Ninnemann’s collaborative Abbey Road show and Rock Lottery events.

♦ Hosting annual events such as the Magic City Music Awards, Music for the Wild, and others.

♦  The Earth Day event when Earth First Aid launched its curbside glass pickup.

♦ Launching the annual indoor pentathlon with the Billings Tennis Association to help fund court repairs—common sports and rules that anyone can play, all in a brewery.

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