Story and photos by Lido Vizzutti
The lion attack occurred midday, an unusual time for a generally nocturnal predator.
From inside the house, young Rowan Neill was the first to see the animal sliding past the front door. Through the glass a muscular frame, the color of a dry Montana field, padded casually across the gravel driveway. By the 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.
With permission from the game warden, they set out on a four-hour search for the cat, but were unsuccessful in finding it. The game warden then set traps and left, giving authorization to shoot the cat if it revealed itself. The next morning, Chris Neill, 46, walked out of his home, headed down a small gravel path, found what he was looking for, took aim, and shot.
That night’s dinner consisted of mountain lion pot roast.
Looking for remote wilderness, Chris Neill and his wife Siri Larsen, 48, moved to Eureka, Mont., in the late 90’s from Colorado. They settled on an organic potato farm 2.5 miles off U.S. Highway 93 up Grave Creek Road, less than 20 miles from the Canadian Border.
“We didn’t know why. We were 24,” said Chris. “We wanted to live wild and rurally in the Rockies. We felt that was the path we wanted to take.”
Although still a rustic choice to many, the nearby town of Eureka provides amenities including a school system, a hardware store and a population hovering around 1,100.
“When we left Boulder looking for a place, we thought we wanted really remote,” Chris said. Originally searching out a place they might snowmobile 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, two small 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 to feed the two lambs, left to feed by hand after the death of their mother. It’s been a rainy few weeks and the grazing fields – spotted with sheep, pigs, some chickens and a horse – are a vibrant green while wisps of moisture obscure the surrounding mountain vista.
A week before, smoke had curled from the chimney, rising from the home’s wood-burning fireplace. Today it’s the smell of food – including a white mountain lion gravy and a mouth-watering, pulled-pork-type concoction made from left over mountain lion pot roast simmering on the stove – that wafts from the home behind them.
“We try and be conscious about what we eat for sure,” said Chris. “And I think it’s an easy place to do it up here.
“It’s something we just kind of started before I got really sick. 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 lacking hormones, something growing up being grass fed. It is putting personal energy into animals that sustain us.
Three large pigs come running across the wet field as Chris and Siri enter the wooden barn to hand feed the lams, hoping that food is being delivered. Chickens flutter and perch on the surrounding equipment as Siri finds a hidden deposit of fresh eggs on the ground.
The lambs – one with black and one with white, soft, curly wool sticky with lanolin – take the bottles very hesitantly at first, still feeling a bit traumatized from the loss of their mother.
“For me, it’s a lifestyle,” said Chris. “It’s not cheaper than buying from the grocery store. It’s something you choose to do because it means something to you.
“It’s eating loved food.”
A couple of weeks before, as Chris rehydrated a sow’s bladder in the sink and cleaned a salted cut of pork to make culatello – a cured meat that ages in the bladder for a year – it’s important to associate the end product with the animals grazing outside.
“It’s not fun. It is interesting. By the end of the year I definitely feel like I’ve killed enough animals.” “We’ve tried it on a larger, commercial scale, but I couldn’t pull it off. It was just too much killing.”
To support the settlement – building a house, maintaining livestock, a small organic garden, raising two sons, Rowan, 16, and Eli, 13 – Chris started North Country Woodworks, specializing in handcrafted artisan furniture and cabinetry
Chris rapidly established himself as one of the valley’s premier cabinet builders and was soon on the first-to-call list for high-end clientele building or renovating luxury homes.
Subtlety, building over time, the stress of the job – along with the environmental byproducts of woodworking – took its toll.
“(It was) lot of drama and a lot of emotion and I just couldn’t play anymore,” said Chris. “I really kind of realized it when Rowan was nine. I was sitting in the shop, working a ton and I thought, ‘In nine more years 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 of cancer. He lost two-thirds of his colon, his spleen and his appendix. His uncle previously had colon cancer and his great grandfather died of the disease.
“That was really the eye-opener. It was like, what are you doin’ man?”
“I kind of felt like my life had gotten cancerous. It made me look at myself and what I was doing. Because you’re running so fast you don’t know whether you’re coming or going, you’re missing a lot. Life is just cranking by and it’s just a blur.”
After surgery, it took Chris about 6 moths to get back into things health wise. It was another 3.5 years of finishing his construction contracts. By then, the writing was etched in each board he cut – he had ventured 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 where I couldn’t even go into a freshly painted house and install cabinets. My body was just done.
In the meantime, Chris had been experimenting with making his own sausage and home brewing beer.
“So decided I could do one of those as a living. And the beer thing kind of took off.”
On this morning, the commute to work is short. It’s 7:45 a.m. when Chris leaves his home and starts across the gravel driveway, cutting right across a grassy patch toward the square green structure that used to be his woodworking business.
Entering the back door, turning left would put him standing among table saws, stacked planks of wood, sanders, lathes and other assorted woodworking tools, quiet with a coat of sawdust. Chris turns right, through his office stacked with papers, binders and a computer in the corner and into the H.A. Brewing Co.’s production facility and taproom.
The five-barrel brewing system, pieced and welded together by ingenuity and skill, is quiet, clean and cool. Deep in the stainless steel tanks and oak barrels, living yeast consumes sugars, converting them into alcohol and giving off specific and exciting esters in the dark.
“I really think staying true to those choices felt like I was doing it for the right reasons,” said Chris of moving to a brewer’s lifestyle. “The patience of it, the meticulous of, the figuring out how to get liquid form here to there, how to keep it clean, those are all kind of things that my brain figures out well.”
H.A. Brewing Co. came out swinging. Only a month after opening in 2014, the Montana Brewers Association awarded Chris’ Grave Creek India Pale Ale the best in the state.
“And really I had no idea that it would be as successful as it is,” said Chris. “That wasn’t the intention at all. I really wanted a job that 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 her spinning wheel, serve a couple beers maybe… if anyone actually showed up.”
Show up they have. Sometimes the tap room can feel like a sardine 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 French accent for their choice of brew.
On other days, with the doors and windows wide open, the clientele can spill out onto the grassy patio, inhaling the pastoral views and sipping a true farmhouse ale while contemplating why they haven’t also chosen to leave the hustle of their own lives and open a brewery of their own somewhere in the countryside, off the beaten path.
And, although, those flagship beers on tap – his stouts, his IPAs, his porters, etc. – are delicious, it is the beers where he gets to experiment a bit that flourish as something exciting.
A large cypress fermentation tank stands in the corner of the 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 over with fermenting brew as the lively yeast does its magic.
Open top fermentation leaves the brewing liquid exposed to the environment, rather than sealing everything up with an airlock in a nice carboy, bucket or stainless steel fermenter. Perfection in consistency isn’t the goal with these beers.
“I like the fact that that kind of stuff doesn’t have to be the same very time,” said Chris. “We have our flagship beers that do stay the same 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, is lucky 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’re both long game things,” said Chris. “There’s no instant gratification. I like that about them.
“When you make something, you have to wait three weeks to know that the first stage is any good. And then you have to wait another year to see if your little experiment paned out.”
These old-world processes of brewing beer and curing meats were something passed down through generations, learned from the hands of the experienced generation before.
“I just got into this whole meat curing two, two-and-a-half years ago,” said Chris. “It takes a long time to learn. It was something that we 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 muggy brew room, will need to boil for another hour, leaving Chris some brief time to make the commute home for lunch.
Lunch today is a flat tortilla generously stuffed with mountain lion “pulled pork” style.
“I found out about a year ago that I’m allergic to a bunch of food now,” said Chris. “I used to eat four eggs a day and found I’m pretty highly allergic to eggs. I used to chow garlic down and found out I’m fairly allergic to garlic.”
Chris’ body is adeptly good at making incredible amounts of scar tissue, resulting in additional, post cancer, surgeries and many resections of the small intestine (a resection is when the small intestine becomes blocked – in Chris’ case either squeezed or stretched closed – so that section is removed surgically).
“Any of those resections, they say, can help inflame those allergies,” said Siri. “Those areas that are already irritated.”
Unfortunately, an allergy to wheat has been added to the list.
“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 never experienced it before and then it was just like… yeah. It was very disappointing.”
Stacked in the backroom of the brewery, a few boxes of Chris’ oak barrel aged Mireille – pronounced “Me-Ray” with the tricky, guttural rolling “r” – remain for sale, the last of his first farmhouse ale made without wheat.
“(The Mireille) is my first incarnation of how I do that,” said Chris. “Wheat to me has always been kind of a baseline flavor for that kind of beer.”
For this delicately unique farmhouse ale, Chris substitutes the wheat with rye and oats.
“And I think it’s a good start,” he said.
There are a few new things on the horizon at the homestead. An addition to the house will expand their living space, as well as provide a temperature controlled storage room for charcouterie.
Chris has taken one furniture job he can accomplish on his own timeline and looks forward to adding more of that back into his life. Building a new woodworking shop will provide more space at the brewery for more whiskey barrels.
It is the end of the day. The tanks are clean, the hoses and pumps are put away, the floor is squeegeed and the lights are off. Chris exits through 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 kind of comes naturally,” said Chris. “It’s taken us 20 years to kind of start the process and get to where we are today.”
“As you choose a path,” he said. “It’s probably a lot like music. 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 turn out like? Definitely not. We just started down the road.”