Music, beer, and business can forge the best partnerships. Just ask the buyers who recently finalized the purchase of two major music venues in downtown Billings.
Mike Mathew and his wife Kay Foster are the new owners of Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co., and Ann Kosempa and her husband Sean Lynch just purchased The Pub Station building, which they’ve been leasing from Foster and Mathew since 2014 to house their event venue and taproom.
The timing seems almost uncanny to the four buyers, who were in the process of purchasing these buildings at the same time. “I don’t know how this worked out, but it worked out,” Lynch said.
Lynch and Kosempa closed on the Pub Station building on June 1, and Mathew and Foster, who were looking for a place to reinvest proceeds from the sale, finalized the purchase of Billings' oldest taproom at 2123 First Ave. N. on Tuesday.
The laid-back watering hole opened in 1996 in a rehabbed garage, where in the beginning you could get free beer. As the business grew, beer prices increased and the brewery's atmosphere began to form. Beer bottles and cans from around the country were lined up on the taproom shelving and tennis rackets were hung from the ceiling, reflecting the unique personality of the owner, George Moncure. The tables were made from pallets, the tap handles were crafted from fly-fishing rods, and the patio was roughly-fenced off from the parking lot.
Local musicians gathered at the taproom to grab a pint and an audience. A platform was created and the “Garage Pub” at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. became a place where you could catch salsa music and dancing lessons one night, bluegrass the next, cringe-worthy open mic jams the next, with regular jazz jams. Kids and dogs were often part of the experience.
In 2009, Moncure (who's also a chemist) added a distillery. The Spirit of Montana tasting bar opened the following year, serving house-made gin and vodka.
Despite all the sweat equity in the business, Moncure wanted to retire. After 22 years, he’d reached what he called an “innovation plateau.” The brewery was listed for sale in March by NAI Business Properties.
Tyler Samson, who co-listed the property with Al Koelzer, said it received a lot of interest and the sale moved quickly. “It’s such a well-established business, and it means a lot to the musicians and craft beer drinkers across the state,” Samson said.
Samson, who co-owns the Edgar bar, specializes in bar and restaurant sales. “It was important to George to carry on the legacy. I personally don’t think we could have found a better buyer for this place.”
In the purchase of the business, the new owners will receive the facility, brewing equipment and recipes. For now, they’re leasing the distilling equipment from the previous owner.
“I know that the people involved are going to improve it significantly,” Moncure said. “They will take it to a new level.”
Samson said the buyers care about the city. “They want to make sure that the musicians are taken care of and they don’t lose their spot that they play at,” he said.
Mathew considers this an asset-based sale, because on paper, the brewery didn’t appear as profitable as it could have been. It’s one of the largest brewing facilities in Billings, but was not outputting to its full capabilities, he said.
As well, the brewery ceased bottling and distributing beer in 2017, and liquor stores have been out of vodka and gin supplies for quite some time. Even at the brewery, it often wasn’t possible to purchase bottles of liquor that the establishment was serving, and in April the tasting room for spirits was closed due to code violations.
“It will be nice to get those markets redeveloped,” Mathew said.
The buyers plan to add a small batch brewing system to work up new recipes and evolve the beer offerings. They also recognize value in many of the brewery's well-established products.
“Black Widow Stout. Universally, we’ve been told to keep that,” Mathew said of the brewery’s darkly-roasted flagship. Other popular beers include Renegade Red Ale, Wild Fly Amber Ale, and Huckle-weizen, a fruit-infused favorite.
“People are pretty open about saying what they loved about Yellowstone Valley,” Mathew said. “They love the vibe and the music.”
For Lynch and Kosempa, it’s business as usual at the Pub Station, where they will continue to run a taproom, concert hall, event venue and live music booking company, 11:11 Entertainment. The couple in the past had tried to buy other buildings to house their business, but the deals were never sealed. “Ann and I have always said, if it was going to happen, it would happen,” Lynch said. “The stars aligned.”
“A lot of what we are doing would not have occurred without them,” Kosempa said of Foster and Mathew.
Lynch will become manager of Yellowstone Valley Brewing. Through 11:11 Entertainment, the couple will handle bookings for both venues.
The buyers are committed to retaining the Garage Pub's funky vibe. The most noticeable changes will be in improving the venue’s sound system and expanding the performance area while improving the line of sight for patrons.
There won’t be beer for a few months, as breweries are required in Montana to carry a license to manufacture, import and distribute beer. However, the brewer’s license does not transfer and goes with the entity that owned the business or expires following the sale. The application process for a new license can take months. Until then, production at Yellowstone Valley is on hold.
All parties are aiming to fully reopen the brewery and distillery as soon as possible. In the interim, they will open for select shows, including some that were booked by the previous owner. Though beer won't be available from the brewery until the license is in hand and they've had a chance to brew some batches of beer, they can cater shows on a limited basis with the license from the Pub Station.
The business will have a website up soon, www.yellowstonevalleybrewing.com, where live music listings will be available.