When the weather warms, the Smiths open the amphitheater outside
Montana Silver Springs, which comes alive with gardens, music and beer.
Bands play each weekend and the amphitheater is open Memorial Day
through Labor Day. Photo courtesy of Nolan Smith

Philipsburg Brewing Co.’s Quest to Cut Plastic

BY SOPHIE TSAIRIS

The 19th century mining town of Philipsburg, Montana, about halfway between Butte and Missoula, is a place of exploration and ingenuity. Its pioneer spirit, reminiscent of the Old West and silver discovery in nearby Granite, still abounds, and entrepreneurs are adapting their businesses to create new and sustainable jobs that support the community.

Nestled on a hill above P-burg, as locals call this town of just over 900 people, sits the Montana Silver Springs bottling facility. From the approaching dirt road the building looks like an unassuming warehouse, but beyond the garage doors a taproom and bottling line for both beer and water displays an atmosphere in vibrant contrast.

Inside, NSYNC blasts on the radio, the type of music that one of the brewers claims “helps the yeast grow.” The place is animated with the smell of hops, the bustle of water bottling and the occasional rancher picking up spent grain to feed his cattle. Two stacks of aluminum bottles on pallets reach toward the high ceilings, one branded for Logjam Presents, the other for Yellowstone National Park.

Just seven years ago, Nolan and Cathy Smith didn’t imagine themselves selling their product in the world’s first national park. The Smiths have been brewing and bottling beer in aluminum resealable bottles since they opened Philipsburg Brewing Co. in 2012. Now, at their Montana Silver Springs facility, they’re bottling a more precious commodity: sustainably packaged and locally sourced water. And they’re distributing in Yellowstone, where plastic bottles of water are consumed in alarming quantities.

“We knew everybody wanted to do away with plastic, but we didn’t know if there would be a market for this here,” Cathy said. “When the National Park Service tried to eliminate plastic water bottles in the parks, we knew we were on to something.”

In 2011, NPS established a policy encouraging national parks to end the sale of single-use plastic water bottles. Of 417 national park sites, 23 participated, preventing up to 2 million plastic bottles from being used and discarded every year, and avoiding up to 141 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. The Trump administration rescinded the “ban” in August of 2017, but many parks continue to seek out sustainable product alternatives.

Yellowstone National Park Lodges, part of Xanterra Travel Collection and the main concessionaire in Yellowstone, is shifting to reusable and recyclable aluminum bottles. In doing so, it says it will eliminate approximately 250,000 plastic bottles from the park each year.

Cathy and Nolan are bottling and distributing the spring water in the same recyclable aluminum bottles they use for beer. So far, they have contracts with Xanterra, Montana-based promoter Logjam Presents, and the Co-op in Bozeman, with plenty more prospective clients on the horizon.

In 2016, Yellowstone National Park Lodges signed a contract with NPS, which included a commitment to stop selling single-use water bottles. They tried replacing plastic water bottles with Boxed Water is Better but ran into trouble recycling the cartons and soon switched to Canned Water 4 Kids, a company based in Wisconsin. When Nolan Smith approached Xanterra last year with the idea of providing local, Yellowstone-branded, resealable aluminum-bottled water, it was a no-brainer.

Each minute at Montana Silver Springs, 11 different underground springs produce 300 gallons of high-alkaline (7.8pH), mineral-rich water, a resource that would otherwise run into creeks. The bottles, produced by Ball Corporation in Colorado, contain no plastic and can be efficiently and effectively recycled, qualities that caught the attention of Dylan Hoffman, Yellowstone National Park Lodges’ director of sustainability, who was actively searching to replace plastic water bottles in the park.

Cathy and Nolan Smith accept the People’s Choice Award for Best Brewery at Butte-toberfest in 2014. Photo courtesy of Nolan Smith
Nolan and Cathy Smith hope to produce 175,000 aluminum bottles of water in their Montana Silver Springs facility this year. Photo by Sophie Tsairis

“At its core this is just water in an aluminum can, but the story behind it is much more powerful,” Hoffman said. “The messaging, packaging, local production, and support for Yellowstone Forever make this a high-value product.”

The Montana Silver Springs bottles bear logos of Yellowstone National Park and Yellowstone Forever, the park’s official nonprofit partner, which works to preserve the park and create educational opportunities for visitors and the community.

Philipsburg Brewing already distributes beer in the park, so adding water to the shipment was simple and mitigates the impact of transportation. Xanterra received its first shipment of bottled water in late March of 2019.

Two years earlier, in 2017, Logjam Presents announced its “Going Green” initiative and started comprehensive recycling and composting programs across all of its venues. Chase Bjornson, the green initiative coordinator at Logjam Presents, says that the company is replacing upward of 100,000 plastic water bottles a year with Montana Silver Spring’s recyclable aluminum bottles. The impacts are staggering.

According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industry, making new aluminum bottles from old bottles takes 95 percent less energy than using virgin materials, and recycling 10 tons of aluminum helps avoid 71.1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Aluminum is the only closed-loop recycling process. It is infinitely recyclable,” says Bjornson. “When you recycle plastic, it’s downcycled into things like carpet fibers or liners for landfills. A recycled can will become a new can over and over and over again.”

No market currently exists for recycled plastic, and most is thrown away or incinerated, leading to an explosion in what are called microplastics, or fragments of plastic that are 5 millimeters or smaller. A study conducted by scientists at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Fredonia found microplastics in many common water brands including Nestle, Pure Life, Evian and Dasani. Ninety-three percent of them contained microplastics.

Conversely, aluminum is a more sustainable material that can be recycled throughout the U.S. “When a Montana Silver Springs bottle is thrown in a recycling bin in Yellowstone National Park,it only takes approximately 40 days for that same material to be back on the shelf as another can or bottle,” Nolan said.

Cathy attributes the success of both the brewery and now the spring-water production company in part to luck, but also the unequivocal support from the Philipsburg community.

“The pioneer spirit is about supporting your community whole-heartedly, whether it is businesses, charitable causes, local events or fraternal organizations,” said Cathy, adding that this camaraderie creates a tremendous sense of pride. “In Philipsburg, we all work together to make the community strong and help each other whenever we can.”

Sophie Tsairis is a freelance journalist specializing in outdoor adventure, conservation and the environment. Committed to giving a voice to all things wild, she writes to inform readers through stories of the natural world.