CUSTER | Brian and Janet Boyer were at the forefront of the fledgling craft-beer movement when they opened the Mt. Rushmore Brewing Company in Hill City in 1997.
Brian Boyer said that venture may have been ahead of its time. They eventually sold the Hill City brewery to another couple who operated it for a year or two, before they also shut it down.
The Boyers had moved on to other businesses, including running a weekly newspaper in Hill City.
They sold the newspaper, and with the craft-beer movement now in full growth mode in the Black Hills, decided to revive and re-trademark the Mt. Rushmore Brewing name and reopen in a renovated, spacious, almost-cavernous location, fittingly at 140 Mount Rushmore Road in Custer.
“This came up and we decided to do it a little bigger and better this time,” Brian Boyer said.
Bigger and better are indeed operative words for the new brewing company, which began pouring a new line of ales, lager- and pilsner-style beers crafted by brewers Hanje Ehrlich and Tom Robbins just before Memorial Day.
Both Ehrlich and Robbins said they began dabbling in home-brewed beer before they were legally able to consume it.
Ehrlich’s family background includes home brewers in every generation back to the early 1900s in Holland. She learned the craft from an older brother out of what she called “teenage curiousity” and later began working as a restaurant and bar manager and consultant in her home state of Florida.
She moved to South Dakota in 2011 to take a seasonal job with the Sylvan Lake Lodge, fell in love with the slower pace and wide-open spaces of the Black Hills, and never left.
The reopening of the Mt. Rushmore Brewery was a taylor-made opportunity for her, but first the Boyers and another partner, Johnathan Stahl, needed some convincing.
“When I heard they were going to open a brewery, I pretty much pestered them almost every week until they realized I was good fit for the job,” Erhlich said. “I convinced them I could help them in a number of ways, and eventually they came around.”
Robbins, originally from Rapid City, also began brewing as a hobby with home-brewing hobby kits while living in Alaska, where he taught English as a second-language class.
He moved around a lot over more than a decade, also teaching ESL classes in South Korea, China, Japan and eastern Canada.
He began brewing beer full-time 2-1/2 years ago and saw the opportunity to work close to home with Mt. Rushmore Brewing, where he specializes in more traditional English beers and German lagers.
“I like to think of it as boring old-man beer, stuff that’s hard to make and subtle,” he said, with a laugh.
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Working with Ehrlich, however, they are developing new variations based on foraging for local flavorings, including incorporating fresh lavender, lemon, and even sage, juniper berries, raspberries, pine and spruce at add a unique note to their beers.
Their flagship beers include American Fabius Blond Ale, Long Tom APA (American Pale Ale), Trust Buster Scottish Ale, and Rail Splitter Porter.
Seasonal offerings include a just released Dirty Politics Double Black Oatmeal Stout and a Lavender & Lemon Verbena Kolsch.
Soon they’ll be pouring a new Raspberry Sage Pale Ale, made from locally grown wild raspberries and sage Erhlich harvested during a recent bicycle trek on the Mickelson Trail.
Their 10-barrel, six-fermenter system foregoes the process of kegging before serving.
Beer is served directly from what is called a brite tank, where the carbonation process takes place.
“It’s as fresh as the beer can get,” Boyer said. “We’re not even putting it in a keg.”
Keeping the alcohol-by-volume (ABV) content of their beers in the 5-6 percent range improves what Boyer calls “session-ability,” meaning patrons can enjoy a variety of their selection while keeping the alcohol consumption in moderation.
“We want the average person to enjoy a couple of beers, and try out the different flavors,” Boyer said.
The building, formerly a restaurant and, briefly, a western-themed tourist attraction, offers enough space for a first-floor tasting room with a small kitchen and the brewery with a spacious outdoor deck.
Planned for the second floor next year is a full restaurant along with an event space for hosting wedding receptions, banquets and other gatherings.
After a busy first summer, Mt. Rushmore Brewing will gradually scale back their hours of operation to afternoons and evenings in September and weekends in October.
Once November comes, they’ll switch to brewing for wholesale distribution for local bars and restaurants, including their Buglin’ Bull Sports Bar & Restaurant in Custer. They also own a seasonal Mexican bistro called the Begging Burro in Custer.
While their initial outing with a craft brewery may have been ahead of its time, Boyer said the revived Custer brewery is tapping into a healthy local industry, with local brewpubs spread throughout the Black Hills, from Hot Springs, Custer, Hill City to Rapid City, Sturgis, Lead and Spearfish.
“We were 20 years too early,” he said. “But now there is at least one brewery in every town.”