Great Beer from a Great State

By Brent Zundel
For the MSU Exponent
June 8, 2012

Beer is one of the most culturally important aspects of growing up, perhaps at no time more so than in college. While finding someone to buy a 30-rack seems to be the most pressing need for some freshmen, beer’s importance in Montana transcends those concerns in a number of important ways.

Unlike wine, beer suffers from often unfair stereotypes. While some beer drinkers earn their frat boy reputations, many others simply enjoy partaking in one of mankind’s most ancient rituals. Oftentimes, the ingredients — water, barley, yeast and hops — are cultivated very differently just one valley over, which makes beer from every small brewery unique.

Montana is one of the best places in the world for beer lovers, with a variety as big as our sky. Per capita, Montana has the second most breweries in the nation — ahead of Oregon and just barely behind Vermont. Moreover, Montanans consume the third most beer per person in the country.

“Montana is one of the best places in the world for beer lovers, with a variety as big as our sky.”

States like Oregon and Washington produce significantly more beer on a volumetric basis, but the beautiful thing about Montana is the wide geographic distribution of breweries. While Denver and Seattle may be filled with breweries, few states have the spread Montana can claim. Both Wibaux and Belt — with a meager 500 or so people each — have their own breweries, as do such far-flung locations as Wolf Point, Big Sky and Lakeside.

While the bigger breweries, like Missoula’s Big Sky Brewing and the Bozeman Brewing Company, almost universally produce exceptional beers, some of the most interesting beers are produced by smaller operations. One of the most rewarding aspects of beer is the local variability.

Butte’s Quarry Brewing produces Open Cab Copper, a delicious amber ale with a wonderfully unique flavor and rich caramel underpinnings. Stevensville’s Blacksmith Brewing brought a coconut oatmeal stout to this April’s Beer Fest that combines a deep, rich stout body with the light, refreshing flavor of coconut.

From left to right: Bridger Brewing's . Photo by Brent Zundel

Four Montana beers. Photo by Brent Zundel

Many of these beers are hardly distributed at all, except for a few restaurants and bars in their hometown, necessitating the use of a growler. A growler is essentially a half-gallon glass container — shaped like a fat, oversized bottle — with a screw- or clamp-on lid. Growlers can be refilled indefinitely and are the preferred method for transporting beer that cannot be found in bottles or cans to your home for consumption. If you’re worried about your carbon footprint, they’re much more eco-friendly than bottles, too.

If you’re not drooling for a cold pint yet, hit the road to see what the rest of the state has to offer. Good beer is such an important part of our state’s culture that the official state tourism website, visitmt.com, lists three statewide tours, two intrastate tours and four city tours to show you where to fill your growler while you stop in for a pint (or three).

Unfortunately, due to outdated state laws, brewpubs can only serve three pints to each customer per day and can’t serve past 8 p.m. During the 2010 State Legislature, a bill was proposed to extend serving hours to a reasonable 10 p.m., but pressure from the Montana Tavern Association frustrated a lot of beer drinkers and brewery owners — while placing a nonsensical obstacle in the way of a very successful sector of the Montana economy — when the bill was defeated.

Finally, perhaps one of the most satisfying beers you’ll ever drink is one that you brew yourself. While throwing living organisms (the yeast) into a bucket of barley water might sound like a good way to get sick, it’s actually a pretty easy process. (And no known pathogens can survive in beer, anyway.)

Decent start-up equipment can cost up to $100, but after purchasing the equipment, many homebrewers brew their own beer for much cheaper than the cost of a six-pack — often around 50¢ a beer. Remember that the next time you drop $4 for a pint at your favorite bar.

Before progressing to more difficult all-grain beers, many beginners use some sort of a kit with dried malt extract to simplify the process. Regardless of what you use, your own beer will taste great — because you made it! Interested amateurs should consult Charlie Papazian’s “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.” Belgrade Liquor and Bozeman’s Planet Natural both carry homebrewing supplies.

There are two big ideas to remember when drinking in Montana. One, be safe. We’re the worst state in the country for drinking and driving, so everyone needs to pick a designated driver, stay at a friend’s house or just plan to walk home.

Now that the obvious statement is out of the way, be sure to drink local. Craft brewery owners in Montana are neighbors and friends. They’re often found in their breweries or tasting rooms, and most breweries give either formal or informal tours.

Miller and Budweiser are ruled by CEOs who are legally required to maximize their companies’ profits, but local brewers often prefer to sit back with friends, drink a good beer and talk about how awesome our state really is. There’s no flavor in drinking a Bud Light, but Montana has a beer to suit everyone — from Harvest Moon’s Beltian White wheat ale to Big Sky’s Moose Drool brown ale. After a few pints of the local stuff, you’ll be sure to agree.

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