In Sidney, hometown boy makes good — beer, that is

SIDNEY — Travis Peterson’s career as a civil engineer lasted five years.

A native of Sidney, Peterson graduated from Sidney High School in 2001 and went on to earn a civil engineering degree from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. Then he headed to the West Coast, where he worked as a marine contractor. He enjoyed working on bridges, piers and other projects, and he was good at at it, but he had other interests as well.

One of them was good beer, and as he said, his five years on the West Coast coincided with “the rise of craft beer.”

Thanks to the influence of his parents, Gail and Rhonda Peterson — who did a biking-and-beer tour of Belgium a few years back — he had been a fan of craft beer since high school, when he got his first home-brewing kit. He said he continued brewing through college and his years on the coast, building up a large collection of brewing supplies.

He visited every brewery he could and often thought of opening one himself someday, but when he went back to Sidney in 2009, it was only because his father was having some health troubles and needed help managing the family business, Sidney Red-E-Mix.  Peterson and his then-girlfriend, Emily, both moved to Sidney and were married later that year.

On a family trip to Mexico, Peterson said, his parents made the pitch: Why didn’t he settle down in Sidney and open a brewery there? He was against the idea at first, thinking a brewery would never fly, but as he recalled it, his parents said to him, “If Wibaux can have a brewery, Sidney can have a brewery.”

And that was that. Peterson said he began getting in touch with some of the brewers he had met over the years, asking them questions about the business, the beer and everything in between.

“We started figuring things out,” he said.

The Bakken oil boom was going strong at the time, and Peterson thought it might be difficult to find a suitable space he could afford. But he found that people in Sidney loved the idea of a hometown boy doing something exciting, something good for the community, and he got good deals on a former Christian bookstore and then on the adjoining space, which had been an athletic store.

And when he decided to obtain a beer-and-wine license, to expand his offerings and be able to keep longer hours, he got a good deal on the license as well. The prices he paid, he said, “were not like oil-boom prices.”

He decided to go big from the start, to invest in high-capacity brewing equipment, to open a restaurant that would bring first-class food to Sidney and to obtain a beer-and-wine license.

Tim Schnars

Tim Schnars

He said Meadowlark has always promoted food-and-beer pairings, and has always offered “something more than the standard burgers and pizza.” The menu has featured dishes like poutine, fish tacos, shrimp and sausage Cajun Alfredo, and a smoked-salmon B.L.T.

He’s done steady business since opening Meadowlark Brewing and its restaurant, Meadowlark Public House. The public house opened its doors in the spring of 2014, and the first beers rolled off the production line that summer. Meadowlark is in the middle of downtown Sidney, at 117 S. Central Ave.

Along the way, they’ve received rave reviews from a Montana brewery explorer and a beer-industry magazine. Meadowlark was also featured in a Visit Montana video and even in an article in the New York Times.

There is such a thing as too much success, however. Peterson said that between his duties in the brewery and restaurant, he was working from early in the morning until 11 at night. He still loved what he was doing, but he wanted to spend more time with his family. He and Emily now have three children, a 5-year-old, a 2-year-old and an 8-month-old.

A solution presented itself in the form of Six Shooters, a company that owns several restaurants in North Dakota. Peterson helped Six Shooters establish a brewery in Watford City, N.D., after the company offered to take over the public house in Sidney in exchange for his help.

That’s why Angie and Aaron Pelton, who are part of the Six Shooters team, took over the public house two years ago, serving Meadowlark beers, wine, coffee and food from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Peterson’s parents were the main investors in Meadowlark and both remain actively involved in its operations. From the start, Peterson has been aided by a professional brewer, Tim Schnars, who moved to Sidney from Erie, Penn.

Despite all his experience as a home brewer, Peterson said, “I knew I wasn’t equipped. I knew I needed a brewer.”

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Meadlowlark Public House, a warm, welcome sight on the eastern edge of Montana.

Schnars has come up with all the beer recipes since joining the team, and he’s created a wide variety of beers, some of them variations on regular brews and some of them unusual, to say the least.

Their three most popular beers are Harvester, a cream ale; Old Gus, a Scotch rye; and Peach Wheat. One of their more offbeat beers is Fungus Shui, made with candy cap mushrooms, which Peterson said lend a taste similar to maple syrup. It may sound odd, he said, “but we don’t have a problem selling it.”

Peterson and Schnars collaborated on a seasonal beer this fall — Squashtoberfest, an Oktoberfest-style lager made with squash from the Peterson family farm.

“Craft beer just wasn’t up here” when they started, Peterson said with some pride. “We’ve done a lot to foster the idea of what a craft beer is.”

Meadowlark brews are also available across the state now. Meadowlark was the first customer of Montana Canning Co., a mobile cannery based in Livingston, which visits Sidney every four to six weeks to can three of Meadowlark’s beers. Other brews are bottled in-house in 22-ounce bottles.

“We’ve kind of filled a niche because there’s not many breweries in the state doing 22 ounces,” Peterson said. “It filled a niche and got us on a few more shelves.”

Meadowlark also has a “crowler” (short for can-growler) machine, which might be the only one in the state. It’s produces a 32-ounce can of beer, poured fresh into an aluminum container and then sealed with an aluminum top.

I visited the brewery with my brother, John Kemmick, which was a good thing, since I have (no joke) allergies to beer and wine, a tragic condition that came on several years ago. John has been a big fan of Meadowlark since discovering their Badlands extra pale ale, one of their canned brews, a couple of years ago.

John had a blast finally visiting the brewery, drinking good beer and talking to Peterson — and asking better questions than I did, given his status as something of a beer snob. And before we left, John got a crowler of Et Cetera, Meadowlark’s India pale ale, to take back to Billings.

I am also happy to report that while his beer-and-wine license entitles him to offer gambling at the Meadowlark, Peterson decided to pass on it.

“No, I don’t have those machines in here,” he said. “I’ve got the best-paying machine there is — it’s an ATM machine.”

Bonus track: The brewery’s website explains how the business was named:

“Our founder, Travis, always had a special place in his heart for the Meadowlark. No other creature of the prairie announces the ending of the bitter cold and the renewal of spring like the commanding trill of a Meadowlark from its dominant perch atop a fence post.”

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