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Brewers & Distillers Hope Montana 'Mystique' Opens Markets In Japan

Garry Hicks from Lewis & Clark, giving samples at the trade show in Japan
Max Pigman
Garry Hicks from Lewis & Clark, giving samples at the trade show in Japan

Japan may be getting a taste of Big Sky Country in the near future. At least, that’s the goal for some Montana breweries and distilleries ready to export their products.

Seven Montana producers of spirits and beer were in Japan last week where they were exploring opportunities to get their products into Japanese restaurants and on store shelves.

The Montana Department of Commerce organized the trip and a Montana-branded pavilion at Wine and Gourmet Japan, a trade show in Tokyo.

Daniel Iverson is with the Department of Commerce:

"So this is new ground in a couple of ways. This was the first time that we’ve done a trade show focused on food and beverage, and it will also represent the first time that Montana alcohol producers are bringing their products to audiences in Japan."

Iverson says the Department of Commerce identified Japan as a possible new market for Montana spirits and beer because of a long-standing relationship, in both trade and diplomacy. In 2016, Japan was Montana’s sixth largest trade partner, in large part due to Montana’s trade office in its sister-state, Kumamoto. But Iverson says there’s also an attraction to the idea of Montana and the products that represent it.  

"There’s a growing interest in American craft beer and spirits in Japan, and especially coming from the American West," Iverson says.

Max Pigman, president of Lewis and Clark Brewing Company in Helena, just returned from the trip to Japan.

"Montana does have that high-level of mystique, and it's almost a magical place, I think, for a lot of the Japanese folks because they associate Yellowstone National Park and Glacier Park with us and cowboys and the old west."

At the moment, Lewis and Clark Brewing only sells its beer in Montana, but Pigman says they have been growing steadily each year and are about to complete a brand new expansion. Pigman says this trip was a great opportunity to meet distributors, learn about trade regulations, and of course, provide samples.

"Tokyo was just an amazing experience," Pigman says. "I mean, it's such a massive city, and to me it's almost like stepping into the future a little bit. Everything runs very efficiently, and it's very organized. And the people are the same way. I would certainly love to do business over there and have a reason to go over there on a regular basis."

The company will continue negotiations with several potential business partners and finalize the logistics, but Pigman is fairly confident that they can get their first container load of beer to Japan later this year.

"We do such a high volume in Montana in the summer with all of the tourists, and then we sell a lot of beer in Yellowstone and Glacier Park. So if we can send some container loads of beer over to Japan, potentially in the fall and winter months, that would be an awesome way for us to produce at a higher level."

Representatives from Gulch Distillers in Helena; Headframe Spirits in Butte; Bozeman Spirits, Montana Malting and Wildrye Distilling in Bozeman; and Whistling Andy Distilling in Bigfork attended the tradeshow as well.

Rachel is a UM grad working in the MTPR news department.
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