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From Engines to Beer: Neiffer Changes Lanes

This is the fifth part in the “Is Havre Dying or Evolving?” series. The Herald spoke to business owners and economic developers and local leaders and citizens, gears and levers that help make Havre and the Hi-Line turn day in and day out. The interviews, which are the basis for the series, were about business and life as it relates to the vibrancy of Havre and the surrounding area.  Read the introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

Steve Neiffer wouldn’t have started Old Station Brewing Co. if he didn’t believe in Havre. 

Neiffer’s watering hole is one of three breweries to pop up in Havre —population 9,763–since 2014. The first craft brewery among the three was Triple Dog Brewing Co., which opened March 28, 2014. Since Old Station came on the scene in May, Vizsla Brewing opened in the Holiday Village Mall Oct. 27

Breweries are not only popular in Havre. They are part of growing national and state trends.  While overall U.S. beer volume sales were down 1 percent in 2017, craft brewer sales continued to grow at a 5 percent rate, reaching 12.7 percent of the U.S. beer market, according to the Brewers Association.  And Montana holds its own in the brewing business. The Last Best Place, which ranked second to Vermont in breweries per capita, is home to a $417-million craft brewing industry. There are 75 breweries making 188,449 barrels of beer a year in Montana, the Brewers Association says. 

Old Station, whose owner also runs the automotive repair shop Bergren Transmission, occupies the old Heltne’s station building on First Street. The irony that he, an automotive shop owner, now has a brewery in a building that used to be an auto shop is not lost on Neiffer.

The Old Station building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is in a prime commercial location, right in downtown off First Street.  Locals were glad to see the building being put to use. 

It took 15 months to convert the building into the minty fresh, clean, spacious and well-lit spot customers now enjoy, Neiffer has said.  Fresh paint was applied. Flooring was tacked on.  Fixtures were added. Wiring was run or repaired. And old-timey antiques from its earlier days as a service station were put in, among other repairs and upgrades. On May 18, the brewery’s grand opening kept owner and workers busy as a receptive crowd took over Havre’s then-newest drinking hole.

Pictured: Old Station Brewing had a receptive grand opening May 18. (Teresa Getten, The Havre Herald)

The owner seems pretty happy with how the brewery has been faring so far.

 “I think it’s working. … We got a bunch of regulars,” he said in a recent interview.  

The operation has evolved. Although he has about the same number of employees at Old Station as when he opened, he’s added in other ways. His brewery hosts comedy and music events, as well as fun charitable promotions, on a regular basis. A food truck, also part of a hot Havre trend, is often parked outside the building, serving up dishes to those looking to supplement their craft beer. And patrons can now buy shirts and hats to show support for their favorite brewery. 

Neiffer is a hands-on owner. He’s a certified auto technician who can get his hands dirty, if need be, at the auto shop. And at the brewery, he’s not afraid to gets in the mix. He spent the first half of Sunday making beer. He was accompanied by a friend who helped and his Jack Russell terrier, Jacoby, who was more there for moral support.

Neiffer explained that there are four phases in the beer-making process: milling, mashing, boiling, and cooling. In the back of the building, where the magic happens, are three large cylindrical kettles: The hot liquor tank, the boil kettle, and the mash tun. First he mills the grain. Then he mashes, mixing the grains with hot water. In phase three, he boils the mix and adds hops. The final phase includes cooling the mix, transferring it to the fermenter, and adding the yeast. 

One session produces three barrels of beer, or six kegs, Neiffer says. Sometimes he brews twice a week, sometimes once. And yes, Old Station has run out of beer, but never out of all the beer. Old Station has 10 beers on tap. 

Neiffer, like many residents, came to Havre without intending to stay. In 1981, he moved from his Glendive hometown to attend Montana State University-Northern and study automotive technology. And he did just that. 

But he didn’t leave after he finished school. He met a girl, a Havre girl, and married her. He also bought Bergren Transmission, a shop on Second Street in Havre.  And this year, Neiffer expanded his business horizons and started his brewery. 

His plan is to phase out his role at Bergren and hand the wheel to his son. Meanwhile,  he’d like to switch lanes and become more involved with the brewery.

Old Station Brewing Co. in Havre (Teresa Getten, The Havre Herald)

Managing an auto shop is different from managing a brewery, Neiffer has learned. The customers are different, and so are the employees. The transactions are smaller at the brewery. The auto shop can be more stressful, he says. The brewery, on the other hand, is more experimental.

“Making beer is a science project.”

Neiffer, now a local business owner twice over, is cautiously optimistic about the local economic climate.

He starts out with the cautious.

This year’s departure of Herberger’s, Kmart and Sears Hometown Stores was “kind of scary.” The goal, he says, is for Havre to be a place people want to live. 

“Getting rid of a bunch of stores isn’t going to do that.”

(Read more about the big box stores’ Havre closings)

Like everyone else The Herald has spoken to about the topic, Neiffer doesn’t believe it’s Havre’s fault the big box stores left.

Those are national trends, Neiffer says. Those are company issues that have nothing to do with Havre. Nonetheless, their departure raises concerns. Some worry that Havre will become a “shell” of a town, like so many other towns along the Hi-Line already have, where former hardware stores and restaurants and convenience stores are just empty buildings, Neiffer says.

Amazon hasn’t done Havre any favors either –“I think Amazon has been a huge factor.” That’s another reason for the shopping shift. Online shopping has taken from local spending, he says.

But there’s hope. He’s optimistic.

Havre still has it. Amazon –online shopping in general—lacks something he thinks could turn out to be the X-factor, the wild card that’ll flip the deck over in favor of local shopping. Havre has personable customer service and specialty shops that Amazon doesn’t, boutiques like The Key and Norman’s Ranch & Sportswear, he says.

Perhaps the void left by Herberger’s and Kmart is an opportunity.

“Maybe this is a way for some of the smaller merchants to expand.”

The departure of the three stores is an opportunity for downtown shops to reap the benefits, he says, segueing into what he believes is an upcoming trend. While malls are going out of style everywhere, downtowns are making a comeback, he says.

Customer service is a subject he’s passionate about. Neiffer believes it to be so important that he thinks Montana State University-Northern should teach classes on the art of customer service. After all, he says, it’s what all face-to-face businesses have in common. It’s what gives local businesses an edge over online shopping.

“I think customer service is what we could do. It could be our saving grace.”

And speaking of Northern, the university is another bright spot, another reason he’s optimistic. The diesel programs, along with other technical trade programs, can help lead the town forward.

Neiffer brews beer once or twice a week. Pictured: Neiffer, with help from friend Kris Meyers, makes beer on Sunday. Neiffer’s business partner, Jason Murri (not pictured), also brews. (Teresa Getten, The Havre Herald)

Making Havre a better place to live happens one person at a time, Neiffer says. He mentions the young and semi-young who are breathing life into Havre with new ideas and their correlating implementations, citing the Havre Trails Group as well as the creation of the upcoming dog park as examples. He’s especially excited about the dog park. He looks forward to taking his pooches to a place where they can play with other dogs.

Havre’s arts are nothing to sneeze at, either, he adds.

“We’re bringing Ed Asner here,” he said, referring to the “God Help Us” play that was put on by Montana Actors’ Theatre play in October. Asner, an American actor mainly known for his role as Lou Grant during the ’70s and early ’80s show on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” acted impressed with Havre. 

“I love it. It’s a cute town. There certainly is a lot of civic spirit,” he told Havre Daily News.

So. Is Havre dying or evolving? Is Asner on to something? What does Neiffer think?

“I want to say it’s evolving.

I want to say it’s changing,” Neiffer says.

People are still building here, he continues. State Farm is finishing its new building, and Burger King still plans to build their restaurant, an indicator that an outside company has confidence in Havre.

Neiffer is a believer. He hopes the people in Havre can work together to make Havre a better place to be.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe. I’m optimistic.”

Watch for Wednesday’s story in the “Is Havre Dying or Evolving?” series: “Big Farms, Smaller Schools—Where Does Havre Go From Here?” (406) 262-7778
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