Local Beer on Tap

Local beers at the Brewers' Festival. Photo by Brent Zundel

Local beers at the Brewers Festival. Photo by Brent Zundel

By Brent Zundel
For the MSU Exponent
September 15, 2011

Note: This piece was originally published as the feature in the Sept. 15, 2011, print edition of the Exponent.

Twenty-two different breweries brought a few beers each to the third annual Montana Brewers Festival last Friday, allowing Bozemanites to sample over 75 different brews. Held at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds, the event allowed attendees to sample as many beers as they wanted during the five and a half hours of general admission.

The most interesting aspect of the festival was its focus on high-quality craft brews made right here in Montana. Except for Missoula’s Big Sky Brewing, all of the larger, expected breweries were present.

Well-established breweries like Yellowstone Valley from Billings, Bozeman Brewing and Kettlehouse from Missoula served up their beers, but smaller breweries turned out strong for the event as well. While many Montanans regularly enjoy brews from the larger companies, this festival presented an excellent opportunity to sample hard-to-find beers.

Breweries from small towns like Wibaux and Red Lodge brought kegs of their beer to the festival. Due to limited distribution, these beers are often difficult to find even inside Montana. Beer from Glacier Brewing in Polson, for example, is available only in towns at about a three-hour radius from Polson.

Photo by Brent Zundel

Photo by Brent Zundel

The variety of breweries attests to the importance of beer in the Montana economy. Billings, the state’s largest city, hosts four microbreweries, but even tiny Wibaux, with a population of 589 people, opened up a new brewery in 2008.

Bozeman Brewing Company has called Bozeman home since 2001, while Madison River has been operating in nearby Belgrade since 2005. The 406 Brewing Company started up in Bozeman in January 2011. All three local breweries brought their beers to the festival.

Ranking third overall in the nation for number of breweries per capita, Montana takes its beer seriously. And so do its citizens: At 30.5 gallons of beer per year, the average Montanan’s consumption is second in the nation. Clearly, Montanans are drinking a lot of beer – and a lot of Montana beer, at that.

A Beer Connoisseur

As the Exponent’s opinion editor, I knew I’d have to drink a lot to cope with the workload. To that end, I volunteered my own palate to research this piece and managed to sample at least one beer from 21 of the 22 breweries present at this festival. And I’ve had more than a few beers from the brewery I missed, anyway. (It was Bayern Brewing from Missoula.)

For each beer I tried, I took detailed notes on my impressions, all while precariously balancing a six-ounce tasting glass on my notebook.

Beer Appreciation

Charlie Papazian’s classic how-to book “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing” offers five categories that can help anyone rate beers successfully. When evaluating the flavor profile of a beer, take note of the appearance, the aroma, the taste and your overall impression.

1. Bitter/Sweet Balance: Fuller-bodied and sweeter beers are generally balanced with more bitterness. Similarly, a delicate light-bodied beer should not be as highly hopped.

2. Mouth-feel: This category describes literally how the beer feels in your mouth. A particular style of beer ought to have a certain fullness of body, while another perhaps ought to have a light body.

3. Aftertaste: The aftertaste of good beer should be clean and not too bitter, astringent, fuzzy or any other undesirable characteristic.

4. Carbonation: The feel of the bubbles in the beer influences your perception of the beer. Is it too carbonated, or is it flat? Larger bubbles will feel different than smaller bubbles, which add a creamy feeling.

5. Overall Impression: This is the most personal and subjective of the categories, but it might be the most important to you. Can you enjoy the beer for what it is, even if the style is not your favorite?

I’ll Have Another, Please

The following are some of the best and most interesting beers I tasted. My criteria for earning a mention in these pages weren’t ironclad. Essentially, the beer had to be either exceptionally well-brewed, or it had to be unique enough to catch my attention. If a brewery had a certain style of beer present that is easily foun d in stores, I tended to gravitate toward unique seasonal or other hard-to-find brews.

Blacksmith Brewing, Stevensville
** Black Iron Black IPA: I don’t generally like IPAs, but I enjoyed this beer. Its dark, roasted character shines through the strong hops of an IPA, lending a fascinating flavor. It has a fresh, not stale, hop aroma, and this is well balanced by the dark color and roasted undertones.

Bozeman Brewing Company, Bozeman
Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout: This stout has a full body with a slight roasted aroma and an adequate amount of hops to add bitterness. However, the raspberries nearly overwhelm the drinker with their potent flavor and excessive bitterness. The combination of raspberry and a stout is very unique.

Neptune’s Brewery, Livingston
** Chocolate Cream Porter: I have to admit that this is one of my personal favorites. This beer has a rich, full body with excellent porter flavor. The brewers then add just enough chocolate to complement the roasted porter flavor. The adventurous will enjoy pairing this beer with vanilla ice cream to make a delicious beer float.

Glacier Brewing Company, Polson
Flathead Cherry Ale: This fun beer smells like Northwest Montana. Its sweet aroma is instantly recognizable as Flathead cherries. The light body provides for easy drinking, but by the end of a six-ounce glass, the cherry is almost too sweet.

Quarry Brewing, Butte
** Open Cab Copper: I tried this beer on the suggestion of Mike Tarrant, the former Exponent columnist of “Mikeservations” fame (or do I mean “notoriety”?). He told me that every time he drives through Butte, he buys at least one growler. This sweet amber ale defies easy description. It has a bevy of complex flavors, with rich caramel underpinnings that make it one of the most unique ambers I’ve ever sampled.

Yellowstone Valley, Billings
** Huckleweizen: The festival hosted three different huckleberry beers, but this one is definitely your huckleberry. This huckleberry hefeweizen maintains a consistent flavor throughout the beer, with the huckleberry flavor pairing perfectly with the unfiltered hefeweizen. Most importantly, this brew still tastes like a beer; its label is dead on: “just enough huckleberry to make you yearn for the wilderness.”

Photo by Brent Zundel

Photo by Brent Zundel

Montana Through Beer Goggles

As you can tell from the nifty little medals, I gave four brews a meaningless award that signifies one thing: I wanted more of that beer! It’s debatable whether or not there is such a thing as a “bad” craft beer (note the crucial word “craft”; Natty Light is still disgusting), and every single beer enumerated here is worth sampling.

The intent behind this analysis of Montana beers is two-fold. First, it should spark an interest in the reader to try out some really fantastic Montana beers. The variety of beer here is as big as our sky.

Second, this piece attempts to make local beer “cool.” Despite their massive advertising budgets, no one at Miller or Budweiser cares about anything except your pocketbook. Almost without exception, the owners of craft breweries are your neighbors who like to sit back with friends, drink a good beer and talk about how awesome our state really is.

Where is the adventure (or flavor) in drinking Bud Light? Montana’s beers are as varied as its cities and towns. Especially for many of the smaller breweries, the distribution of some of these brews is quite limited. By drinking local, you will partake in one of the most ancient rituals of mankind and sample an aspect of local culture that will be brewed differently just one valley over. Should you find yourself somewhere with a brewery, be sure to grab a pint or a growler to-go of the local stuff.

The Joy of Brewing

Beer is deceptively simple, despite its often complex flavors. At its most basic, beer is made from only four ingredients: water, fermentable sugars (traditionally malted barley), hops and yeast. Other adjunct ingredients, such as honey, fruits, herbs and spices, and even coffee and chocolate, can be added as well.

To help you decide which styles you might enjoy, what follows is a very basic list of some of the most popular styles of beer that are readily available in Montana.

Beers can be divided, roughly, into bottom-fermenting lagers that are brewed at cold temperatures and often stored for extended periods of time and top-fermenting ales that are brewed at warmer temperatures.

Lagers: “Storage” in German. Light body with a light yellow to amber color

Wheat Beer: Large portion of wheat in addition to malted barley

Hefeweizen: Unfiltered wheat beer

Witbier: Unique style associated with Belgium

Pale Lager: Very pale to golden in color with a light body. By volume, the most widely consumed beer in the world (Ex: Budweiser), but its flavor often leaves much to be desired

Ales: Brewed at warmer temperatures. Often a sweet, full-bodied taste with fruity undertones

Pale Ale: Uses predominantly pale malt

Amber Ale: Uses crystal malt to produce a medium-bodied ale. Deep golden to light brown in color

Scotch Ale: Strong pale ale with a sweeter flavor, medium to full body, and caramel or toffee undertones

Brown Ale: Dark brown color and fuller body, with sweet, malty undertones. Hopping rate and bitterness are usually low

Stout: Brewed with roasted barley. Full body and overtones like coffee and chocolate

Porter: Brewed with dark malts, lending a very full body and burnt, coffee or chocolate flavors

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