At long last, Carter’s Brewing prepares for expansion

There were times when Mike Uhrich wondered whether Tuesday would ever come.

“There’s been a lot of people waiting a long time for this, me included,” he said.

“This” is the expansion of Carter’s Brewing, 2526 Montana Ave., known for its fine beers and its overcrowded tap room, into the adjoining space, recently vacated by the Railyard Ale House. After waiting years, Uhrich finally took occupancy of the Railyard on Monday, and on Tuesday he presided over an open house, pouring free pints, visiting with dozens of regulars and sharing his plans for the big expansion.

When the first phase is done—sometime next month, he hopes—he will have his new tap room open in the Railyard space. The stage will be gone, as will the existing island bar, and a new bar, 30 feet long and made of reconditioned boxcar wood, will run along what is now the north wall of the Railyard.

Uhrich said the new tap room will seat more than 200 people, up from the 65 who could squeeze into the Carter’s tap room. Behind the bar is one cold room in which Uhrich wasted no time storing some kegs and boxes of hops. Next to it, in what used to be the Railyard casino, is another cold room that he will restore to its intended use.

Those cold rooms were part of the original warehouse on the site, used to store meat, produce and other perishables.

Phase 2, which Uhrich hopes to get started on over the winter, will involve expanding the brewery production area to take over all of the existing tap room. He also wants to start canning beer—which he called “the most popular product in the craft beer industry”—and bring in a couple of giant oak barrels to stockpile his sour beers.

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He also plans to expand the trackside patio to run the whole length of the building, 100 feet.

For regulars Bob Williams and Linda Wald, who moved to Billings from Florida a few years before Uhrich opened Carter’s in 2007, the expansion is long overdue.

“He’s wanted this for as long as I can remember,” Wald said.

“The guy’s a freakin’ savant,” Williams added. “He’s a beer savant. He really is.”

A lot of Carter’s regulars would agree. Uhrich has brewed all the beer himself over the past 10 years, always changing the lineup (while keeping the signature brews) and offering a greater variety of taps than any brewery in town. He’s got 17 different concoctions on tap at the moment and plans to expand to 24 when the new tap room opens.

“Carter’s got me started on this whole microbrew thing,” Williams said. “I was a Budweiser guy. Now I consider myself a full-blown snob. I blame Mike.”

Wald said the same thing happened to her. When she moved here from Florida, she said, she didn’t even drink beer. Now she drinks craft beers almost exclusively, and Carter’s is still her favorite.

Pints

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Inside the Railyard’s old casino, soon to be restored to a cold room for beer storage, Carter’s Brewing regulars line up for free pints.

Uhrich and his now-ex-wife formed a corporation—named after their first child, Carter—late in 2006, signed a lease on their portion of the building on Feb. 1, 2007, and poured their first beer on July 17 of that year.

Uhrich didn’t imagine expanding at first.

“My plan was to make the business work, keep it small, make a living,” he said. Three or four years into his first business venture, Uhrich started thinking of expanding, and he thought the Railyard, which had had its ups and downs and was struggling then, would be gone soon.

“I’ve been telling people for six years, ‘Hey, we’re going to get that space,'” he said.

But there were changes of management, then changes of ownership, and more ups and downs. The Railyard ended up going not only to the end of its lease, but a little beyond it. The lease was supposed to expire on June 1, Uhrich said, but he and building owner Mike Schaer agreed to extend it to July 31, and then one more week while the last of the furnishings were sold off.

Schaer, who owns several other businesses on Montana Avenue, including the Carter’s Brewing space, had promised Uhrich the right of first refusal on the Railyard six years ago.

Uhrich has big plans for Carter’s. He now has just six part-time employees, but he envisions 15 to 20, some of them full-time, working in the brewery or tap room in a few years. But he won’t push it, given the uncertain nature of the craft-beer market in Montana and around the country.

There has been explosion of interest in craft beers, he said, but he also fears the industry might be hitting a saturation point.

“I’m seeing lots and lots of products from out of state flood our shelves and flood the tap lines,” he said.

So he’ll stick with slow and steady, as he has done for the past 10 years, trying to meet the needs of his loyal customers before trying to get too big. He had his customers in mind Tuesday, when he was thinking of doing a little ceremonial demolition before really getting down to business on Thursday.

Asked how much demolition he was planning to get done during the open house, Uhrich laughed.

“I’m not going to be swinging a sledgehammer too much around people drinking beer,” he said.

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