Eight years ago, Mike Uhrich opened Carter’s Brewing in downtown Billings. The craft brewery was named for his son, Carter, then 6 months old.
This Thursday, he’ll be pouring a brand-new beer, this one named for his 3½-year-old son, Mason. He’s starting with one batch of 10 barrels, or 326 gallons. If it does well, he might make it a couple of times a year.
This will be a special beer in two respects. It will be the first amber ale Uhrich has brewed, and all profits from the sale of Mason’s Awareness Ale, as he’s calling it, will go to support awareness of autism. He said he will probably donate the money to Autism Speaks.
“We’re going to take everything we make and write a big check,” he said.
Mason was diagnosed a couple of months ago with autism spectrum disorder, as it is known technically. It came as a shock for Uhrich and his wife, Becky, but it was also something of a relief.
“It’s refreshing, at least, to know why things are happening the way they are,” Uhrich said.
So many things that Uhrich considered merely quirky turned out to be classic red flags for autism. Mason slept very well for his first two weeks at home, Uhrich said, then rarely slept for more than an hour and a half at a stretch for the next 18 months.
Uhrich said he and his wife both “suffered hard,” mostly from sleep deprivation. It was especially hard on Becky, he said, because her pregnancy with Mason had been a very difficult one.
Other behaviors they now know to be signs of autism included making contact with walls when walking, and walking in a straight line while using peripheral vision instead of looking straight ahead. There were also developmental problems like limited speech, avoidance of physical contact and a tendency to throw powerful tantrums.
Also, again as is typical, he excelled at some things. “I mean, how many 3-year-olds can count to 500 by fives?” Uhrich asked.
But Mason had been screened for autism as an infant, and his parents assumed that meant he did not have autism spectrum disorder.
But then came the official diagnosis, along with the shock and the relief and the sudden dealing with the unknown. Uhrich said Becky, a nurse, started reading everything she could about autism and how to deal with it. Uhrich said his first reaction was denial. After a while, he had the urge to do something positive, something definite. Like make a beer.
“Beer is a really good vehicle because you can deal with an issue in a lighthearted way,” he said. “My therapy for this is, I’m going to use my business to promote awareness.”
In his eight years as an independent brewer, Uhrich estimates he’s created at least 200 different brews—stouts, pilsners, India pale ales, sour beer, lagers and many, many more. But never an amber.
Northwest-style amber ales are popular, he said, so popular that they’ve become “a dime a dozen.” But he wants a beer that will sell well and appeal to people perhaps unfamiliar with craft beers. Even so, it won’t be an uncomplicated ale. Here’s how Uhrich described it on the Carter’s Facebook page: “This beer will be broadly in the American Amber Ale genre with a spicy herbal hop finish atop a blend of Pale, Munich, caramel and Chocolate malts.”
He’ll start pouring Mason’s Awareness Ale during regular brewery hours Thursday, 4 to 8 p.m. The brewery is located at 2526 Montana Ave. Uhrich is also knocking a dollar off the regular price, so pints will be $3 and growler fills will be $6.
Some people he’s mentioned this to don’t get it, he said, thinking he’s merely using his son to promote a new beer, but he says that’s not case.
“I’m using a beer to promote something a hell of a lot more important than a brewery,” he said.