Sunrays arced over the Bitterroot Mountains as I pulled into the lodge parking lot. I stopped my truck and trailer next to Freddy Bensch’s rental, its roof somehow caved into a dent mimicking his 5-foot-8-inch frame. As I prepped my boat for the day of fishing, Bensch rolled out of the lodge, coffee in hand, steam rising with each sip.
Six more trucks and trailers pulled in behind me; Freddy looked over the crew of guides, swiveled his head with a smile, and gave each of us a big embrace. He doesn’t shake hands—when you’re friends with Freddy, you’re family, and Freddy’s friends with everyone. Studying the car roof dent with us, he yelled out to one of the guys: “PK! What’s our insurance on this rental? Shit got a little wild last night, man.”
Freddy appears younger than he is. He’s in shape and rocks a 5 o’clock shadow, with eyes that reflect genuine interest in whomever he meets. He dons a hooded sweatshirt and a laid-back demeanor in line with Missoula locals. Dirtbag uniform aside, he is, in his words, the “Big Kahuna” of Atlanta-based SweetWater Brewery, the 14th largest craft beer producer in the nation.
Bensch discovered his passion for beer as a student at the University of Colorado. The same week he turned 21, he took an entry level job at Boulder Brewing Company, washing kegs for minimum wage and free beer.
“As I came to spend more time at the brewery, I fell in love with the business and knew this was what I wanted to do,” Bensch said.
After graduating with a degree in environmental science, Bensch moved to San Francisco to study at the American Brewers Guild. A few years later, brewing diploma in hand, he embarked on a road trip through the Southeast to find a market for a new brewery with a Colorado influence. Bench’s trip took him and his crew through the Carolinas and Tennessee. Then his car broke down in Atlanta, three days before the 1996 Summer Olympics. After three “epic nights,” Bensch found a home for SweetWater in the Peach State. The business has grown consistently since.
Bensch is a businessman, but if brewing hadn’t worked out, he planned to become a fishing guide. Recently, Bensch and his SweetWater team began brewing Guide Beer. It’s a smooth lager, and the tall cans slide easily from icy coolers on warm summer days. But flavor and marketing aren’t what sets this beer apart. Guide Beer is brewed to help outdoor guides who find themselves in need. Glamorous as guiding may seem, most guides live one hardship away from bankruptcy. Bensch understands the hand-to-mouth nature of guiding and put together a beer that helps out “those who show us the way.” Sweetwater donates 11% of Guide Beer proceeds to outdoors guides who need a helping hand.
The seminal idea of the Guide Beer Fund emerged from one such hardship. Our mutual friend, perhaps the best of all of us, Patch Godown, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in 2017. The news shook through Montana’s Bitterroot Valley and into the far reaches of the country as Patch’s long-time clients received the bad tidings. Illness has a way of making those of us on its peripheries feel lost in our efforts to help. But for Patch, folks rallied—organized benefits, banded together to lift his morale—a fitting testament to his character. Patch fought like a champion until the end, coming to rest on Dec. 18, 2018.
Patch inspired Freddy—this guide who’d rowed the rivers of Western Montana for the better part of a decade—to brew Guide Beer.
“Patch was the man. He was living the life we all dreamed of,” Bensch said. “I spent a lot of time with him and always came off the river a better fisherman with a better perspective on life.”
Guides are independent contractors. Meaning, if a guide gets hurt, falls ill, wrecks a truck, sinks a boat, or hits any other calamity they, and their families, are left up a creek without an oar. Guides are responsible for their own insurance, retirement, and healthcare. In reality, very few have any health insurance at all, much less good health insurance. Disability and unemployment coverage don’t exist. It’s a high risk, low reward career loved and embraced by feral folks who ride the outskirts of cultural norms. Bensch understands that, and Patch’s passing reaffirmed it for him.
“The lifestyles and sacrifices guides tend to make in order to allow them to pursue their passion for being on the water lend to a very fragile existence,” he said. “Sooner or later, some of these folks are going to get hung up. Whether it’s an illness, as in Patch’s case, hurricane, or an injury of sorts that puts them out of work. Most of these guides are ill-prepared when shit hits the fan. The Guide Beer Fund is set up to help them so they get back on the water and continue to teach future generations the fundamentals of taking care of our precious environment.”
As our group floated down the lower Bitterroot, Bensch threw a bottle of Don Julio into each boat.
“Remember boys, have fun!” he shouted. “We’re in a beautiful place having a great time—and the biggest thing is to look around and enjoy yourselves. Oh, and drink plenty of beer. I don’t want anyone gettin’ cold.”
Bensch floated through a cutting October wind in Patch’s old raft, an immaculate Sotar, which Patch sold to another guide before he passed. I was unaware that Patch sold the boat, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up when I saw it floating next to me. But it was only fitting that Freddy rode in Patch’s old rig. He’s a successful businessman, a guy totally removed from the world of fishing guides and their struggles, yet he uses his influence to bring positive change to the lives of others.
The first $15,000 donation from the Guide Beer Fund went to Cleve Evans, a veteran guide based out of Mexico Beach, Florida. Cleve and his family lost their home to Hurricane Michael and have been living in a temporary trailer for the last year. Those of us who knew and loved Patch saw this as an extension of his legacy.
Our day ended at the lodge with drinks beside the river. I sat next to veteran Bitterroot guide Chris Webber. We raised cans to our fallen friend. Chris looked at me and asked, “What do you think about these brews?”
I couldn’t help but smile. Probably the best damn drink I’ve ever had.