A Delicious And Deliberate Life

The lion attack occurred midday, an unusual time for agenerally nocturnal predator.

From inside the house, Rowan Neill was the first to see theanimal sliding past the front door. Through the glass, a muscular frame thecolor of a dry Montana field padding casually across the gravel driveway. Bythe time he raised the alarm and his family could respond, the cat was gone,leaving behind a dead sheep not fifty yards from their home.

A four-hour search for the cat, with permission from thegame warden, was unsuccessful. The game warden set traps and left, givingauthorization to shoot the cat if it revealed itself. The next morning, ChrisNeill, 45, walked out of his home, headed down a small gravel path, took aimand shot.

That night’s dinner consisted of mountain lion pot roast.

Looking for remote wilderness, Chris Neill and his wife SiriLarsen, 46, moved to Eureka, Mont., in the late 90’s from Colorado. They foundand settled on an organic potato farm 2.5 miles off U.S. Highway 93 up GraveCreek Road, nearly 20 miles from the Canadian Border.

“We didn’t know why. We were 24,” said Chris. “We wanted tolive wild and rurally in the Rockies. We felt that was the path we wanted totake.”

Although still a rustic choice to many, the nearby town ofEureka provides amenities including a school system, a hardware store and apopulation hovering around 1,100.

“When we left Boulder looking for a place, we thought wewanted really remote,” Chris said. Originally searching out a place they mightsnowmobile in and out of, he adds, “And I’m so glad we’re not really remote.This is fairly easy.”

Crossing the gravel driveway curving between their home, twosmall barn structures and their backyard brewing business – H.A. Brewing Company– it’s not hard to imagine the phantom lion stalking from the trees.

Chris and Siri carry two plastic bottles of milk replacer tofeed the two lambs left to feed by hand after the death of their mother. It’sbeen a rainy few weeks and the grazing fields – spotted with sheep, pigs, somechickens and a horse – are a vibrant green while wisps of moisture obscure thesurrounding mountain vista.

A week before, smoke had curled from the chimney, climbing thehome’s wood-burning fireplace. Today it’s the smell of food – including a whitemountain lion gravy and a mouth-watering, pulled-pork-type concoction madefrom left over mountain lion pot roast simmering on the stove – that wafts fromthe home behind them.

“We try and be conscious about what we eat for sure,” saidChris. “And I think it’s an easy place to do it up here.

“It’s something we just kind of started before I got reallysick. I kind of dove into either raising or hunting 99.9 percent of our meat,”he said. “I like having that connection with my protein.”

It is not simply choosing organic, eating something lackinghormones, something growing up being grass fed. It is putting personal energyinto animals that sustain us.

Three large pigs come running across the wet field as Chrisand Siri enter the wooden barn to hand feed the lams, hoping that food is beingdelivered. Chickens flutter and perch on the surrounding equipment as Sirifinds a hidden deposit of fresh eggs on the ground.

The lambs – one with black and one with white, soft, curlywool sticky with lanolin – take the bottles very hesitantly at first, stillfeeling a bit traumatized from the loss of their mother. 

“For me, it’s a lifestyle,” said Chris. “It’s not cheaperthan buying from the grocery store. It’s something you choose to do because itmeans something to you.

“It’s eating loved food.”

A couple of weeks before, as Chris rehydrated a sow’sbladder in the sink and cleaned a salted cut of pork to make culatello – acured meat that ages in the bladder for a year – Chris affirmed the importanceof associating the end product with the animals grazing outside.

“It’s not fun. It is interesting. By the end of the year Idefinitely feel like I’ve killed enough animals,” he said. “We’ve tried it on alarger, commercial scale, but I couldn’t pull it off. It was just too muchkilling.”

To support the settlement – building a house, maintaininglivestock, a small organic garden, raising two sons, Rowan, 16, and Eli, 13 –Chris started North Country Woodworks, specializing in handcrafted artisanfurniture and cabinetry.

Chris rapidly established himself as one of the valley’spremier cabinet builders and was soon on the first-to-call list for high-endclientele building or renovating luxury homes.

Subtlety, building over time, the stress of the job – alongwith the environmental byproducts of woodworking – took its toll.

“(It was) lot of drama and a lot of emotion and I justcouldn’t play anymore,” said Chris. “I really kind of realized it when Rowanwas nine. I was sitting in the shop, working a ton and I thought, ‘In nine moreyears he’s going to be gone,’ in that same amount of time.

“That’s when I got sick too.”

In 2009, Chris was diagnosed with a hereditary type ofcancer. He lost two-thirds of his colon, his spleen and his appendix. His unclepreviously had colon cancer and his great grandfather died of the disease.

“That was really the eye-opener. It was like, what are youdoin’ man?

“I kind of felt like my life had gotten cancerous. It mademe look at myself and what I was doing. Because you’re running so fast youdon’t know whether you’re coming or going, you’re missing a lot. Life is justcranking by and it’s just a blur.”

After surgery, it took Chris about 6 moths to get back intothings health wise. It was another 3.5 years of finishing his constructioncontracts. By then, the writing was etched in each board he cut – he hadventured down a road that he felt was killing him, and he needed a change.

“It was a stress level choice, and an environmental choice.Being in the dust, dealing with the stains and finishes, I got to a point whereI couldn’t even go into a freshly painted house and install cabinets. My bodywas just done.”

In the meantime, Chris had been experimenting with makinghis own sausage and home brewing beer.

“So decided I could do one of those as a living. And thebeer thing kind of took off.”

On this morning, the commute to work is short. It’s 7:45a.m. when Chris leaves his home and starts across the gravel driveway, cuttingright across a grassy patch toward the square green structure that used to behis woodworking business.

Entering the back door, turning left would put him standingamong table saws, stacked planks of wood, sanders, lathes and other assorted woodworkingtools, quiet with a coat of sawdust. Chris turns right, walks through hisoffice stacked with papers, binders and a computer in the corner and into theH.A. Brewing Co.’s production facility and taproom.

The five-barrel brewing system, pieced and welded togetherby ingenuity and skill, is quiet, clean and cool. Deep in the stainless steeltanks and oak barrels, living yeast consumes sugars, converting them intoalcohol and giving off specific and exciting esters in the dark.

“I really think staying true to those choices felt like Iwas doing it for the right reasons,” said Chris of moving to a brewer’slifestyle. “The patience of it, the meticulous of it, the figuring out how toget liquid form here to there, how to keep it clean, those are all kind ofthings that my brain figures out well.”

H.A. Brewing Co. came out swinging. Only a month afteropening in 2014, the Montana Brewers Association awarded Chris’ Grave CreekIndia Pale Ale the best in the state.

“And really I had no idea that it would be as successful asit is,” said Chris. “That wasn’t the intention at all. I really wanted a jobthat I could enjoy, make a little bit of money, still be doing some furniture.

“Siri might sit out there one or two nights a week with herspinning wheel, serve a couple beers maybe… if anyone actually showed up.”

Show up they have. Sometimes the tap room can feel like asardine can, packed to the seams with Canadians making the trip to Whitefish,stopping to refresh with a pint while the locals play cribbage at the bar,chatting with the bartender Jacques, as he teases them through his thick Frenchaccent for their choice of brew.

On other days, with the doors and windows wide open, theclientele can spill out onto the grassy patio, inhaling the pastoral views andsipping a true farmhouse ale while contemplating why they haven’t also chosento leave the hustle of their own lives and open a brewery of their ownsomewhere in the countryside, off the beaten path.

And, although, those flagship beers on tap – his stouts, hisIPAs, his porters, etc. – are delicious, it is the beers where he gets toexperiment a bit that flourish as something exciting.

A large cypress fermentation tank stands in the corner ofthe brew space, divided from the taproom by a low wall near the front door.Today it is empty, but soon, as the weather warms a bit, it will froth overwith fermenting brew as the lively yeast does its magic.

Open top fermentation leaves the brewing liquid exposed tothe environment, rather than sealing everything up with an airlock in a nicecarboy, bucket or stainless steel fermenter. Perfection in consistency isn’tthe goal with these beers.

“I like the fact that that kind of stuff doesn’t have to bethe same every time,” said Chris. “We have our flagship beers that do stay thesame over time. Those open top beers, for me, have the room to experiment,change, tweak. Which keeps it fun.”

Sometimes, the beer, brewed in this old-world manner, islucky enough to be transferred to an oak whisky barrel where it will age –becoming infused with a separate history – for a year.

“One thing I like about beer and charcuterie is that they’reboth long game things,” said Chris. “There’s no instant gratification. I likethat about them.

“When you make something, you have to wait three weeks toknow that the first stage is any good. And then you have to wait another yearto see if your little experiment paned out.”

These old-world processes of brewing beer and curing meatswere something passed down through generations, learned from the hands of theexperienced generation before.

“I just got into this whole meat curing two, two-and-a-halfyears ago,” said Chris. “It takes a long time to learn. It was something thatwe used to grow up with. Something we used to be a part of.

“That’s the beauty about it all. It’s live. It tastes live.And I love flavors.”

The wort in the large tank, steaming furiously in the muggybrew room, will need to boil for another hour, leaving Chris some brief time tomake the commute home for lunch.

Lunch today is a flat tortilla generously stuffed withmountain lion ­– “pulled pork” style.

“I found out about a year ago that I’m allergic to a bunchof food now,” said Chris. “I used to eat four eggs a day and found I’m prettyhighly allergic to eggs. I used to chow garlic down and found out I’m fairlyallergic to garlic.”

Chris’ body is adeptly good at making incredible amounts ofscar tissue, resulting in additional, post cancer, surgeries and manyresections of the small intestine. A resection is when the small intestinebecomes blocked – in Chris’ case either squeezed or stretched closed – so thatsection is removed surgically.

“Any of those resections, they say, can help inflame thoseallergies,” said Siri. “Those areas that are already irritated.”

Unfortunately, an allergy to wheat has been added to thelist.

“I don’t necessarily feel it with French bread or tortillas,”said Chris. “But I feel it instantly with wheat beers. I mean just like,instant body fevers.

“And that came on by the end of last summer. I’ve neverexperienced it before and then it was just like… yeah. It was verydisappointing.”

Stacked in the backroom of the brewery, a few boxes ofChris’ oak barrel aged Mireille – pronounced “Me-Ray” with the tricky, gutturalrolling “r” – remain for sale. The last of his first farmhouse ale made withoutwheat.

“(The Mireille) is my first incarnation of how I do that,” saidChris. “Wheat to me has always been kind of a baseline flavor for that kind ofbeer.”

For this delicately unique farmhouse ale, Chris substitutesthe wheat with rye and oats.

“And I think it’s a good start,” he said.

There are a few things new on the horizon at the homestead.The addition to the house will expand their living space, as well as provide atemperature controlled storage room for charcouterie.

Chris has taken one furniture job he can accomplish on hisown timeline and looks forward to adding more of that back into his life. Buildinga new woodworking shop will provide more space at the brewery for more whiskeybarrels.

It is the end of the day. The tanks are clean, the hoses andpumps are put away, the floor is squeegeed and the lights are off. Chris exitsthrough the back door, walking the short trek down gravel driveway to home.

“It’s more kind of like being true to who I am. It just kindof comes naturally,” said Chris. “It’s taken us 20 years to kind of start theprocess and get to where we are today.”

“As you choose a path,” he said. “It’s probably a lot likemusic. As you learn more, more possibilities open up.”

Although the cancer certainly can put a fork in the road,“To me, I’m as thankful as I can be that it happened.

“Did we really have this vision of what (life) would turnout like? Definitely not. We just started down the road.”

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