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LAUREL – Dave and Levi Bequette fully realized this town’s thirst for craft beer after their newest project, High Plains Brewery, was delayed.

The father-son duo had hoped to open last summer, but federal permitting took longer than expected. Customers, who missed Levi’s signature honey porter at the former Fat Jack’s Tap Room, were eager, the Bequettes.

On Dec. 16, High Plains Brewery finally opened at 601 E. Main St. The most common response from customers?

“We’ve been waiting so long,” Levi said.

High Plains fills a 17-month-old hole in Laurel’s craft brewing business following the closure in 2014 of Fat Jack’s downtown. Levi Bequette, 33, was the head brewer there, and he’s kept most of the same menu at High Plains.

After spending two years in the Bakken oil fields hauling water to drill sites, the Bequettes returned to Laurel and heard from many people who missed their craft beer.

They hired 28-year-old Cole Whitmoyer, a home brewer who brought his amber ale to the taproom (identified on the menu chalkboard as “Cole’s other baby”).

Whitmoyer, whose wife is expecting, said he’s excited to learn more about craft brewing in a retail setting.

“You see so many different types of people in here, young and old,” Whitmoyer said.

The taproom seats up to 94 people in a Western atmosphere. The Bequettes’ ranch sign hangs on the eastern wall, and posters of old Clint Eastwood movies add to the décor. Above the door, another sign proudly declares “Dirt Rich, Cash Poor.”

The Bequettes spent about $360,000 to renovate the 3,000-square-foot space. They moved the bathrooms to the back, and the brewing is done in the back in vats that hold 220 gallons.

For the honey porter and honey wheat beer, the Bequettes buy honey from Larson Apiaries in Billings. Most of the hops is sourced from Washington and Oregon.

High Plains has a capacity to brew about 1,500 barrels of beer annually. State law limits breweries to up to 10,000 barrels annually. 

About five years ago, Dave Bequette, 58, had bought the building for about $100,000 for warehouse space for his ranch and water-hauling business. In years past, it was best known as the home of Modern Auto, a longtime Laurel repair shop.

“I can remember my dad and my grandpa in here… and me watching the cars going by,” said Dave, a Laurel High School graduate.

High Plains is open 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. The business has updates on its Facebook page.

The growing popularity of craft beer in Montana is no secret locally, and word is spreading. Last week, New York-based SmartAsset.com, a consumer-finance website, ranked Billings the fourth-best city nationwide for beer drinkers. Missoula finished eighth.

Per capita, Montana has the fourth most craft breweries in the country, with about 5.9 per 100,000 adults, according to the Boulder, Colo., Brewer Association, a craft-beer trade group. Area breweries, including Uberbrew and Yellowstone Valley Brewing in Billings and Red Lodge Ales, sell bottled beer throughout the region.

Large beer producers are taking notice. In October, Reuters reported the U.S. Department of Justice began investigating claims that the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, is trying to cut craft brewers’ market share by buying distributors.

The beer conglomerate, which owns Budweiser, Corona and other global brands, is also seeking federal approval to buy its top competitor, SABMiller, for $100 billion.

At High Plains, these events have little impact for now. Bequette said he’s focused on service in the taproom, then supplying local bars and restaurants with kegs.

“We want to stay small. We don’t want to get rid of all of our inventory,” Levi said.

Bequette also works full-time at the CHS refinery, his father runs the family ranch and Whitmoyer is studying for his doctorate in nursing. With those time commitments, the three say they’re aren’t ready to push for more distribution.

“If you grow too much, you’re married to it even more than you are now,” Levi said.

Bequette feels a kinship with other craft brewers in Billings. They bought most of their brewing equipment from Tim Mohr, owner of Angry Hank’s, after he closed his original location in October 2014 on First Avenue North.

Craft brewing is its own community, Bequette said.

“You’re in the same business together, yet you’re in it together. If you need help, there’s a hand to help you out,” he said.

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