Big Sky Brewing Co., Montana’s largest brewery, has launched a line of flavored seltzer waters for its beer-loving consumers, a product no other Montana brewery offers.
Since the company began in 1995, brewing the beers Montanans know today as Moose Drool and Big Sky IPA has been Missoula-based Big Sky Brewing’s primary focus.
Now with over 20 years invested in the company, co-founders Bjorn Nabozney, Neal Leathers and Brad Robinson decided it was time to develop a line of non-alcoholic seltzer waters.
“I think it’s a matter of just looking and finding your different niches. We’re an established brew. We’re Montana’s largest brew, but I think that just makes it that much more important that we innovate and have fun with this,” Nabozney said.
Launched two weeks ago, the company at first kept its cherry and huckleberry flavored drinks under wraps. The seltzer is called “Virga,” which refers to rain appearing to hang under a cloud and evaporating before reaching the ground, something that occurs in a very few places across the world, one being the western United States.
The drink contains all-natural flavors, with no sweeteners and zero calories.
“We’ve been testing it for a little while and we’ve been making it for ourselves for a couple years,” Nabozney said.
Surrounded by beer on a daily basis, the staff wanted something else to sip on,” he said. “Finally, it dawned on them that distributing their seltzer would be a good way to accompany the beer they sell. It’s unique.”
“It doesn’t take anything away from our focus of beer. I call all the beers and all of these things our kids. They have their own personalities,” he said. “It’s its own thing. We want it to be stand-alone. We have kids and there are folks who don’t drink alcohol and alcohol isn’t always appropriate. It offers us the opportunity to work in different settings and do different things with it other than beer.”
Nabozney said that creating a non-alcoholic seltzer water was an important step for the brewery, not only to try new things but to also encourage people to stay hydrated both in the sun and while drinking. Other breweries, Nabozney said, make sodas or other caffeinated or sugary drinks.
“I wanted us to get away from sugar in the drink, and again, sort of looking at the health benefits of not having a sugar bomb and encouraging people around here to drink more water, basically,” he said.
The can was designed by Missoula artist and filmmaker Andy Smetanka, while the flavors in the drinks were developed in Missoula’s own Blue Marble Biomaterials, a biotechnology company that develops natural flavorings and fragrances out of plant-based materials.
The flavors are derived from natural sources, with Blue Marble using other flavors to help bring out the cherry and huckleberry essences of the seltzers, Nabozney said.
“The thing that is so cool about having neighbors that make flavors, the world is your oyster,” he said.
The company hopes to make other flavors, and plans to distribute the seltzer to Great Falls and Bozeman within the next couple of weeks.
Packaging and selling carbonated water is a complicated process, however, requiring the company to get a separate license.
“There are actually a lot of hoops to produce it at the state level,” Nabozney said. “We had to get a completely different license for manufacturing and there’s a lot of variables in making water.”
For now, the company is literally testing the waters, excited to share a new creation with others.
“I think that was part of the process of doing this slowly as well, to make sure we enjoy it and we’re going to continue to tweak our flavor profiles because we’re still relatively new to this,” he said.