Mar. 7—Fourth-generation Eureka resident Barry Roose says a good brewery is a lot like a trusty pair of brown shoes: unpretentious, familiar and reliable.
Those are qualities he believes are becoming increasingly difficult to find in the fast-evolving world of craft beer, where brewmasters are constantly pushing the limits on the flavor profile, alcohol content and bitterness of their creations, and are often doing so with state-of-art equipment housed in higher-end, stylish facilities.
So in the summer of 2019, shortly after a friend convinced Roose that Eureka was in need of a back-to-basics type brewery and that he was just the man to make it happen, Roose went to work cobbling his very own brown shoe. Several months later, he opened the doors to Koocanusa Brewing Company, a tap room housed in an off-white warehouse-style building situated approximately 5 miles south of Eureka, where Roose is brewing the type of beer he believes his community will love and appreciate.
"What I have tried to create with Koocanusa is a place where people come, kick back and just enjoy a good beer without all the extra. Going to a brewery and ordering a drink should be a comfortable experience," Roose said. "People shouldn't be intimidated when they walk through the door and they should be able to look at the tap list and find a style of beer that's familiar."
That concept is why Koocanusa Brewing patrons most likely won't find an elaborate fruit-forward sour or an extremely bitter, high-in-alcohol imperial IPA (Indian Pale Ale). Those are beers that Roose, whose entire family has deep roots in Lincoln County, says are not typically popular among locals.
Instead, what they will typically find on tap is a mix handcrafted Scottish ales, red ales, blondes, pilsners, porters and the occasional low-bitterness IPA — beers that nod to popular national and local classics such Budweiser, Cold Smoke, Fat Tire, Smithwicks, and others.
"People around here seem to stick to what they know. They like a lighter pilsner and they like ones with roasted caramel notes like you'd find in Scottish ales or maybe some ambers, but nothing really hoppy or out there in terms of flavor," Roose said. "A lot of people come in and ask what I have on tap that's similar to Budweiser, and I'll tell them 'I don't have that, but let me give you something kind of like it that I think your palate will enjoy."
HAVING THE ability to offer such a tap list has come with its own unique set of challenges.
Prior to launching Koocanusa Brewing, Roose had never dipped a toe into the brewing world, though he had always thought it would make a fun hobby. The 67-year-old, freshly retired with enough time on his hands, threw himself into studying the art of brewing.
"It's been a real learning curve, but it's a project I've really enjoyed from the start," said Roose, who has enjoyed discovering the wide variety of malts, barley and hops that are available on the market, ready to be experimented with. "I've spent hours reading and studying books and online blogs, searching for the right ingredients."
These days, Roose is comfortably reaping the rewards of that research, keeping his six taps flowing with whatever he was most recently inspired to create, though he always strives to keep them within the realm of "what Eureka likes."
Folks can then enjoy their beverage with a serving of fresh popcorn and the occasional hot dog in the tap room or in the beer garden, which offers views of Mount Marston and Kootenai National Forest. And if one so chooses, they can sip their beer from one of the many chilled mugs that are stored in a freezer behind the bar — a practice that is frowned upon by some who believe the frost dilutes the taste of the beer.
"Some people just want their beer ice cold. Who am I to tell them how they should or shouldn't drink it?" Roose said.
CURRENTLY, KOOCANUSA'S tap list consists of a Scotch ale, American ale, Irish Red Ale, blonde and two IPAs, all bearing names that are relevant to the Roose family, the Eureka area, or to the property on which Koocanusa Brewing sits.
For example, there is Enda's Irish Red, which was named after Roose's daughter-in-law's grandmother, a fiery Irish woman and Butte resident who recently passed after celebrating her 100th birthday. According to Roose, she enjoyed her fair share of red ales throughout her century of life. Then there is the Log Pond, an American ale named after a nearby reservoir that was used for decades as a means for storing logs in preparation for milling. From a comfy chair on the grassy lounge area to the west of the brewery, patrons can still pot the remnants of the pond, a feature of the 85-acre property that Roose says is representative of the area's logging history.
He explained the property's legacy dates back to the turn of the 20th century when it was used as a homestead, lumber camp, three different mill operations and even a black powder rifle shop. Those historical footprints are part of what drove Roose to open the brewery in the first place, so he could ensure pieces of Eureka's past live on either in the form of brews themselves or through the images and memorabilia used to decorate the facility's interior.
A black and white image in one corner shows what the log pond looked like in the early 1900s when it was used regularly for timber production. And on an opposite wall is an old Mud Creek Country Road sign, a piece that represents a multi-year effort by the Roose family, the Lincoln Conservation District and others to restore 4.5 acres of nearby wetlands known as Mud Creek, which had been degraded by years of logging operations.
"People get a sense of what all that has happened here when they come," Roose said. "Ask any Eureka resident and they'll tell you that logging operations and the railroad industry are big parts of the area's history. We wanted to honor that past."
He said he hopes to bring in more pieces that are representative of the greater Tobacco Valley, a place he plans on never leaving and describes as "pure Nirvana."
MOVING FORWARD, Roose said he plans on changing very little about the brewery itself.
He currently doesn't intend to add more taps and he certainly doesn't wish to "outbrew" other facilities in Northwest Montana.
"I don't want to compare what I do here to what others are doing over there," Roose said. "I want it to be just what it is right now."
He hopes to brew a flagship product in the coming years, though he has no idea what that might be at the moment, and he hopes to establish more consistent business hours — something that was disrupted first when COVID-19 hit Montana shortly after the brewery opened in 2020 and then later when a family health emergency prevented Roose from running the facility full-time.
Beyond those tasks, he does have one long-term goal to also try his hand at wine making, which, much like brewing, he is unfamiliar with but about which he plans to learn a great deal.
He anticipates 2021 will be the first year he is able to harvest grapes from a grouping of vines that were planted several years ago on a hill on the east side of the Koocanusa Brewing warehouse. There are eight different varieties on the property, all of which were propagated out of the University of Minnesota's viticulture program.
And according to Roose, the Tobacco Valley boasts an ideal climate for growing grapes, as it is slightly warmer than the Flathead Valley and is slightly higher in elevation. He hopes his first wine offering will be available by 2025, weather and fermentation permitting.
Koocanusa Brewing is currently open Friday through Sunday, 3 to 8 p.m. Check the facility's Facebook page for updates on new beers and operating hours.
Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or email@example.com
The inside of Koocanusa Brewing Company is decorated with dark wood materials and images from when Eureka was primarily a logging community. Owner Barry Roose says the photos are a nod to the area's rich history. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)
Dozens of dollar bills hang above the main bar at Koocanusa Brewing Company in Eureka. The bills were stapled to the wall by customers who have visited the brewery from near and far. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)
Koocanusa Brewing Company currently offers six different beers on tap including various red and Irish ales, as well as India Pale Ales. (Kianna Gardner/Daily Inter Lake)