Montana brewing history

A look at Montana's brewing history

By Malcolm Brooks/for Montana Living
Photos courtesy of  Montana Historical Society

The settling of the west appears to have worked something like this:  Discover gold or silver or some other precious commodity, bring in enough manpower to constitute a workforce, establish a brewery. 

For once the beer was on tap, full-blown civilization—churches, libraries, the Mason’s Lodge—was more or less right around the corner.

Beer and civilization have long shared a common history—the origins of the craft of brewing are found in the transition from nomadism to subsistence agriculture, with its necessary dependence on place.

Malting—the process of roasting barley to produce fermentable sugars, a hallmark of beer making—was developed in Mesopotamia at least three thousand years before Christ.  Early Rome had its wine, but nearly everyone else had better luck growing grain than grapes; so when Roman soldiers occupied their northern outposts, they did as the Celts and drank beer.
  Over the centuries, regional styles of brewing evolved in conjunction with available resources and ingredients, to the point where a community came to be known at least in part by its beer:  light or dark, ale or stout, pilsner or porter.

Montana’s first brewery began production in Virginia City in 1863, not long after the first major influx of white settlers followed its fortune into the territory’s newly discovered goldfields.  By 1871 there were eleven breweries in six Montana towns, each producing fresh beer for its immediate populace.  Missoula had Highlander, Helena had Kessler, Butte had the Centennial Brewing Company.  The breweries sponsored local athletic teams and civic events; as in the past, the flavor of each house’s product helped to define the cultural flavor of its surrounding region.

“Prior to Prohibition there were 1,400 breweries in the country,” says Brian Smith, head brewer and part owner of Blackfoot River Brewing Company in Helena.  Nineteen of these were in Montana.

Smith calls Prohibition and World War II the “double-whammy” that killed off a centuries-old tradition of local brewhouses.  The few beer makers who managed to survive these turbulent decades were those with a sense for mass production and distribution; business acumen, not craft, reigned supreme.
“When Budweiser went out and got refrigeration trucks, they put the family business out of business,” says Tim O’Leary, owner of Kettlehouse Brewery in Missoula.

By the 1950s, a mere 27 breweries supplied the entire nation with what several generations came to regard definitively as “beer.”

The historical reality is a little different.  “If you took Bud today and carried it back 300 years,” says Smith, “nobody would have a clue what it was.”
The last twenty years have seen a nearly tectonic shift in the American palate for beer; while giants like Coors and Anheuser-Busch continue to dominate, a paradoxical yearning for diversity and quality have created a niche for the traditional regional brewer.Today Montana is lucky enough to enjoy a thriving renaissance of locally crafted beers, with twenty-one small breweries in places like Red Lodge and Missoula, Bozeman and Bigfork, even tiny Marion contributing richly diverse, traditionally crafted brew to the communities they serve.

“I think it’s great to know who makes your beer, to know how they make it,” says Smith.  “It’s part of our local culture.” Like many American fans of traditional beers, Smith realized there was more to the brewing galaxy than Bud and Old Milwaukee when he spent three years in Germany with the U.S. Air Force.  “It had a big impact on my beginning to like quality beer,” he recalls.
He returned to Montana in the mid-1980s and found that the only way to get the quality and variety he’d become accustomed to in Europe was to make beer at home.  He and his friend Brad Simshaw made beer every week, practically without missing a week, for years.

Other people were in the same boat.  “The U.S. government legalized home beer making in 1978,” says Smith.  “Once people who had traveled compared what we had to drink—sort of American light lager—to what the rest of the world was drinking, they figured out that things are better when they’re hand made…people who were passionate about beer started making beer.”
By 1995, home brewing had taken root firmly enough in Montana for Smith and Simshaw to open a brewing supply store in Helena.  They remained enthusiastic home brewers themselves, learning by trial the various technical and cultural tricks that over history produced the ostensibly limitless permutations of ales and lagers, porters and stouts.

“We literally evolved as we kept getting bigger equipment,” Smith says.  In 1998, Smith and Simshaw partnered with another enthusiastic home brewer, Greg Wermers, to found Blackfoot River Brewing Company.  Today their brewing concern occupies 1,300 square feet—“about half as much as we could use,” says Smith—of floor space, annually producing about 1,200 barrels, or 37,200 gallons, of a variety of ales and beers.

“We’re what we call traditional brewers,” Smith says.  “We go back and look at a beer style, and tailor the ingredients appropriate to the beer style.”  For extra-strong Scottish ale, for instance, Blackfoot brings in pale malt from Scotland; for its traditional German hefeweizen, the brewery buys German malted wheat, Czech hops, and yeast from Munich.

And Blackfoot River hefeweizen doesn’t taste like most of what passes for hefeweizen domestically, a fact Smith is quick to point out.  Traditional hefeweizen is tangier, with an aroma—thanks to the yeast—that faintly resembles bananas and cloves, which aren’t actually used in the brewing process.

“The brewer’s association pretty much calls (domestic hefeweizen) American wheat beer, or even Northwest wheat beer,” Smith says.  “Consumers are confused, and this is where we get off on the traditional brewer thing…you’ll never, ever see one of our beers misrepresented.”
According to Tim O’Leary, part of traditional brewing—hence part of what the increasingly sophisticated American palate craved during the era of home brewing—was simply freshness.

Though imported European beers had a more robust flavor than domestics, none of the imports made it to America at anything resembling their optimal drinking age, a fact responsible for what O’Leary calls the “skunky” quality of a Heineken or Beck’s.

With the advent of home brewing, he says, “You could make a Heineken-style by yourself and catch it fresh.”

The problem, though, was mixed results, and this led to the next chapter in the American microbrew saga:  the brew-on-premises facility, which included the first Kettlehouse incarnation in 1995.

“The idea started in Canada, where they have really high beer taxes,” says O’Leary.  “People could make the same thing at home for half-price.”
But the bane of the home-brewer is inconsistency between the inevitably small batches.  The brew-on-premises facility, with its industrial-quality equipment and in-house expertise, was a way for people to get help and gain knowledge without what O’Leary calls “the heartache of marginal results.”

O’Leary is a Montana native with roots in the brewing tradition—family legend has it that his German-born great-grandmother hand-crafted her own personal batches of beer in Anaconda during Prohibition.  He traces his own enthusiasm for traditionally styled beer to his parents, who were fans long before the trend caught on.  Though O’Leary initially opened Kettlehouse U-brew strictly as a brew-on-premises facility, within 3 months he was commercially producing house beers for local taverns, then retailing Kettlehouse concoctions to Missoula’s microbrew drinkers.

Or, in other words, to his own brew-on-premises clientele.  In 1997, O’Leary dropped U-brew from the Kettlehouse moniker and forged ahead strictly as a local craft brewery.

Today Kettlehouse is going strong, serving Missoula with a revolving selection of unique beers and ales.  One particular gem that Great-grandma would no doubt applaud actually provoked a pending suit involving the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency—Kettlehouse’s gleefully christened Ol’ Bongwater Ale, which utilizes hemp seed in the brewing process.

A more pressing issue to O’Leary is the amount of consumptive waste related not only to the huge domestics but even the larger, national-scale micros.  Very few local breweries have bottling facilities, he maintains—the backbone of their retail sales are growlers, a half-gallon container, usually made of glass, designed to be purchased once and used over and over, replenished often from a fresh batch of the local brewer’s ware.

“It’s an Old English term for container, or jug,” says Brian Smith, who also champions its waste-free benefits.  “It’s been used for 500 years, from the era when ale was dispensed from a cask or a jug.  It’s still a great way to get really fresh beer.”

O’Leary notes that every growler keeps five and a half twelve-ounce bottles out of the landfill. “A lot of people pay lip service to recycling and environmentalism,” he says, but don’t think twice about “buying twelve-packs from out-of-state micros.”  He adopts a Sam Elliott-style, long tall accent to add, “As I see it, it’s purt’ near a crime.

“I’d prefer seeing a Montana-brewed beer in a bar in Butte than a Washington beer,” he adds.  “Look at how popular Missoula’s Farmer’s Market is…when you buy a head of lettuce, you know where it came from.  That’s the same thing I’m trying to do with our beer.”

The bottom line is that Montana beer lovers don’t have to look farther than their own back yard to get a better beer than anything coming out of Milwaukee or St. Louis, and at least as good as the micros of Portland, Seattle, and Chico, California.  Going local is thankfully back in fashion.

Anything else seems, well, purt’ near a crime.      

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