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MSU manufacturing extension helps Great Falls brewery scale up efficiently

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Posted at 2:41 PM, Sep 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-21 16:42:54-04

BOZEMAN — As the Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Company grew from a small Great Falls establishment to one selling craft beer in 10 states, the company faced a challenge common among Montana manufacturers: how to scale up its operations without getting bogged down by debt and old habits.

That’s why the brewery’s namesake owner, who shares a moniker with the legendary mountain man, turned to the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center at Montana State University to help navigate decisions that can make or break a small business.

“We were really at a point where we needed to learn to be efficient,” said Johnson, who earned his bachelor’s in business marketing from MSU in 2004 and acquired the brewery in 2018. “Working with MMEC gave me a chance to sit down and look at the big picture.”

Meeting with Doug Roberts, MMEC’s business adviser for the Great Falls area and northeast Montana, Johnson learned of several opportunities to reduce waste while increasing output, meaning greater profits as the brewery expanded to meet growing demand for its beer, which Johnson said is made with locally sourced barley malt, honey and other ingredients.

Roberts did a thorough audit of the brewery, drawing from his extensive manufacturing experience and the principles of lean manufacturing to recommend improvements. He also connected Johnson with the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte, which assessed the facility’s energy usage. MMEC tapped a grant through MSU Extension's Pollution Prevention Program funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cover most of the cost of the consultations.

“This is really the essence of MMEC, helping Montana companies grow and be more successful,” said Roberts, who worked in a variety of manufacturing industries for 30 years before joining MMEC.

For Johnson, the consultation “has led to a tremendous increase in efficiency,” he said. “And in manufacturing, if you’re not efficient you can go out of business really quick.”

One of Roberts’ recommendations led to a change in how the brewery’s filters are changed, resulting in better filtration of the beer and increasing the yield by multiple barrels per batch. Investment in a new packaging line is paying for itself because the increased volume more than pays the interest on the loan he took out to acquire it, Johnson said. With improvements in things like LED lights, the brewery’s energy use has dropped, reducing utility bills even as production volume has climbed more than 50%. And with Roberts’ encouragement, Johnson negotiated better bulk pricing for the specialty malts that flavor beers like Golden Bobcat Pale Ale, which the brewery released in 2018 to help celebrate MSU’s 125th anniversary.

According to Roberts, any Montana enterprise that’s in the business of making something stands to benefit from working with MMEC, which is housed in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering. “When they call me, sometimes these businesses are on the verge of failing, or sometimes they’re on the cusp of growing from two employees to 20,” he said. “My approach is to develop a relationship so they know they have a partner. They may not even have a specific problem, but they have someone to talk to and can find out what resources are available.”

According to Johnson, “Doug was really good to work with, really thoughtful.”

As one of six MMEC business advisers covering different areas of the state, Roberts said he enjoys helping a wide range of manufacturers, whether in Great Falls, Scobey, Glasgow or anywhere in between.

“We work with people who have put everything they have into their businesses,” Roberts said. “It’s extremely rewarding to use our experience to help people succeed.”