Getting Lost in the Montana Beer Scene

[Note: A version of this story first appeared in the October/November Issue of the Rocky Mountain Brewing News. Look for the Rocky Mountain Brewing News in breweries, bottle shops and select bars throughout the Rocky Mountain region. If you have story ideas or news items for future issues, send them to me at alan@growlerfills.beer ]

The Montana Tourism Department has a program called “Get Lost,” designed to help tourists and locals alike find out-of-the-way places to explore across Montana’s vast reaches. Wherever you choose to Get Lost in Montana, odds are you’re going to run directly into hand crafted beer.

That’s because 2014 is destined to go down as Montana’s Year of the Brewery.

Eight breweries have opened so far in 2014, bringing the total number of operating breweries to 48. Two more are under construction in Missoula.  Three are close to opening in Butte. Another is underway in Bozeman.  Whether you stumble across one in a town of 500 people, or make it your beer-centric vacation destination, keeping up Montana’s breweries may become the next great sport.

Bayern Brewing

Modern craft beer got its start in Montana in 1987 when Bayern Brewing Co. opened what is still the only German brewery in the Rocky Mountains. Bayern specializes in authentic Bavarian beer brewed using traditional German brewing techniques on German brewing equipment with oversight from two German Master Brewers. You can bet they still brew in strict accordance with the 1516 German Law of Purity, too. [Note: See correction to who was the first “modern” brewery in the comments below.]

It would be a few more years before others joined, but the mid-1990s saw recognizable names like Kettlehouse, Great Northern, and Big Sky Brewing Co. begin operations in 1995. A few more trickled in through the late-1990s, but they were all faced with the same constricting problem. None could sell beer at the brewery for on-premise consumption.

Kettlehouse Taps

Tap Lineup at Kettlehouse Brewing. Co.’s Northside Location

That problem is the root of Montana’s current, oddly configured consumption rules for breweries: a maximum of 48 ounces per person, per day, and only between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Montana, you see, is a quota system state. There are only so many licenses available to allow on-premise sales and breweries were on the outside looking in. A compromise during the 1999 Montana Legislative Session led to the current rules.

Opening up Montana’s breweries for on-premise sales was critical to getting new flavors into consumer’s hands at a time when many bars and restaurants remained reluctant to embrace the microbrew “fad.”

Yet, the oddly restrictive rules also contributed to an unintentional consequence. Montana’s brewery tap rooms became family-friendly centers that differ vastly from traditional bars which ebb and flow until the wee hours of the morning.
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Travel along Highway 12 near the central Montana community of Two Dot, or take Highway 7 south out of the eastern Montana town of Wibaux and it doesn’t take much to convince you the Pony Express may very well still deliver the mail in Montana.

Yet Wibaux, population 500 (give-or-take), has a brewery. Owners Jim Devine, Russ Houck, and Sandon Stinnett, purchased an unused historic building, cleaned it up and turned it into Beaver Creek Brewery in 2008.   It’s a model followed by many of Montana’s breweries.

The busy tap room at Draught Works Brewery

The busy tap room at Draught Works Brewery

Draught Works Brewery in Missoula’s Westside neighborhood converted an old warehouse that had served as a recycling center into a brewery with a modern-industrial feel and one of the best outdoor decks in the city.   Blacksmith Brewing Co. in Stevensville took its name from the old blacksmith shop which had previously inhabited the building in Montana’s oldest town. Kalispell Brewing Co. renovated an old car dealership on the city’s busy main street.

Head nearly 700 miles west from Wibaux to Montana’s northwest corner and the town of Libby (population 2,600) and you’ll find Cabinet Mountain Brewing which owners Kristin Smith and Sarah Dinning opened in July. Grant Golding is the head brewer. Golding, who came to Libby from Oregon’s massive beer scene, has already noticed Montana’s communal pub-like atmosphere.

“People here seem to have more time to relax and be friendly with their neighbor rather than rush to go in, get their beer, get their food and watch the game,” says Golding. “When a stranger sits down at a tasting room bar here, locals are quick to be friendly in a curious manner, asking about where you came from, and what you’re doing and so on.”

“Whether you are a town local or not people tend to be incredibly friendly and talkative. I haven’t been to one brewery here yet where someone hasn’t turned to me in a friendly manner and started a conversation.”

Philipsburg Brewing Co. head brewery Mike Elliott agrees. “To the surprise and wonderment of our residents, our brewery has become somewhat of a community center,” Elliott notes. “We understood the ‘pub’ culture and hoped it would be that way, but most of the people in town – all 844 souls – had to find out for themselves. “

Philipsburg, a picturesque small town along southwest Montana’s Pintler Scenic Route, is a former mining town and now serves as a popular stopping point for travelers enjoying Montana’s outdoor recreation.

“The locals have begun to appreciate craft beer, and are great ambassadors for our brewery,” says Elliot. “They take pride in the brewery and some are quick to help people from out of town choose which style of beer to sample. We host weekly pint nights for charities and people appreciate that. Other businesses now recognize the value of giving back to the community.”

The brewery, like most in Montana, prides itself on creating a welcoming atmosphere that is about more than just the beer. “People appreciate the atmosphere we provide,” Elliot says. “Kids and dogs are welcome, the bright interior of our historic bank building which had been vacant for twenty years is cozy, yet comfortable. We attract quite the cross section of Americana: skiers, bikers, politicians, fisherman, tourists, beer advocates and families.”

“During holidays many people return home and bring grandma and all the kids down to the brewery. Many people genuinely thank us for what we have established and done to help make Philipsburg a destination town.”

Beer fans looking to relocate might want to take note: “In honor of our residents, next year we plan to brew one barrel for every man women and child in our town,” Elliot says, explaining a production goal, not a free giveaway, unfortunately.

One of Montana’s newest breweries, Meadowlark Brewing Co., set up shop in Sidney, just a short drive from the border with North Dakota. The area’s oil boom had a hand in owner Travis Peterson’s decision to locate there, but brewmaster Tim Schnars was lured out from Pennsylvania for other reasons.

“Eastern Montana is what author Chris O’ Brien (Fermenting Revolution) would call a beerological dead zone, and I wanted to help bolster the craft beer availability here,” says Schnars. “The wholesalers were initially reticent to bring many of the more exotic brands in, but now they understand that we can sell anything we put on tap.”

“We brewed a cream ale to cater to the light beer crowd, and people literally drank it up,” says Schnars. “Our Oat Malt Stout was also a big favorite, though a nitrogenated beer was completely alien to some people and we had to take the time to explain the mouthfeel and how it’s different from a conventionally carbonated beer.”

“The taproom phenomenon in Montana is very interesting. People are lining up to drink at these breweries, regardless of the three pint limit,” Schnars notes. “The public house is alive and well in America, and that’s exactly what we’re doing in Sidney. Children are very welcome at the Meadowlark and can enjoy our handcrafted vanilla cream soda and sarsaparilla. We most certainly want this to be a home away from home for members of this community.”

So go ahead and Get Lost in Montana. You’ll not only find great craft beer, but stop by a Montana taproom and you’ll find new friends, too.

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4 thoughts on “Getting Lost in the Montana Beer Scene

  1. yes, bayern started up on the scene in 1987, but you continue to “forget” kessler brewery in helena.
    not only the first in the state back in 1984, but very very early in the craft beer renaissance nation wide.
    i am sorry they are no longer around – a sofa and pour your own for a tap room and $5 short fill cases.
    nothing better than a kessler #7 at the baseball game. miss the place and the vibe immensely.

  2. Yes, you’re certainly right about Kessler (Version No. 2) starting up in 1984. Not sure why I have a mental block toward including them as the first of the “modern era” of craft breweries in Montana. I suppose it’s because they never really progressed with the beer and, instead, made a slow decline to fizzling out. I had my share of Kessler when I lived in Helena in the 1990s, though I found the quality to be quickly outpaced by most everything else coming on the beer scene. I seem to recall they used stubby bottles.

    In any event, thanks for the correction. I’ve added a note in the above text.

  3. looking over a, probably not entirely complete, list of early craft brewers it appears the learning curve/business shakeout is fairly steep.

    1976 -New Albion

    1980- Boulder
    Cartright (Portland, OR)

    1981- River City (Sacramento, CA)
    Newman (Albany, NY)
    Sierra Nevada

    1982- Yakima Brg. & Malting
    Thousand Oaks (Berkley CA)
    Real Ale (Chelsea, MI)
    Redhook Ale Brewery (Seattle)

    1983-86 Hales Ales (Colesville, WA)
    Buffalo Bill’s (CA)
    Chesapeake Bay (VA)
    Columbia River (Portland, OR)
    Hart (WA)
    Hillsdale (Portland, OR)
    Kemper (WA)
    Kalamazoo (later Bell’s)
    Kuefnerbrau (WA)
    Manhattan (NYC)
    Mendocino (Hopland, CA)
    Millstream (IA)
    Kessler (MT)
    Pacific (Hawaii)
    Palo Alto (CA)
    Redwood (CA)
    Reinheitsgebot (Plano, TX)
    Santa Cruz (CA)
    Saxton (Chico, CA)
    Sprecher
    Stanislaus (Modesto, CA)
    Riley-Lyon, Inc. [later “Arkansas Brg. Co.”] (Little Rock, AR)
    Snake River (Idaho)
    Widmer (Portland, OR)

    i agree with you alan, that kessler had some consistency issues during their last few years. however many helena area home brewers were inspired by kessler.

    a tip of the hat to toppers market too, as it was exciting to go in there and get some of the early sierra, nevada, grants, red hook, hales, kemper, widmer. i still believe that kessler held their own against the output from any of these breweries.

  4. I credit Topper for introducing me to many I might not otherwise have tried – on both the beer and wine sides of the aisle. There’s little doubt that listening to him explain the flavors and backgrounds made me all the more curious and certainly set me on a path of exploration that continues today.

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