On Saturday, May 6, the annual Garden City BrewFest will celebrate its 25th anniversary, the final event in what promoters are billing as the largest Missoula Craft Beer Week ever.
The event draws thousands of revelers downtown to Caras Park in the spring every year to sample craft beers from local and regional breweries, and it’s the main fundraiser for the Missoula Downtown Association.
Actually, Missoula was on the forefront of the craft beer revolution that has swept the state and the country. The original BrewFest in Missoula was created in 1992 by B.R.I.W. Inc., which stands for Bayern Brewing Company, the Rhinoceros bar, the Iron Horse restaurant and Worden’s Market.
Bayern owner Jurgen Knoller, Iron Horse owner Tami Ursich, Rhino owners Kevin Head and Brad Martens and Worden’s owner Tim France teamed up to promote locally-brewed beer and downtown businesses. All four businesses still are thriving, and the event they created is now one of the signature parties in western Montana a quarter-century later.
“It was a collaborative effort,” France recalled. “We were all obviously in the business (of selling craft beer). We were looking for a way to enhance and promote craft beers. And brewfests were just sort of coming on back then. There wasn’t much except for a couple world-class events around the country. They were sort of national deals. We said ‘hey, we got some stuff going on here, let’s see what we can get going.’ So we all formed a little company and produced the first 10 years of BrewFest.”
France said the first few events were very well received by the community.
“As beer festivals tend to be,” he laughed. “We were very successful with them. It was a huge amount of work that nobody got one nickel for, but the whole idea was to promote these products and promote downtown businesses. I think we had between 50 and 70 beers the first year, and back in the day, that was pretty much unheard of.”
France said that in the 1990s, downtown Missoula wasn’t as popular and well-developed as it is now.
“We were still digging out from the degradation had occurred when Southgate Mall went in and downtown businesses were deserted,” he said. “It was still back in the rebuilding days. But we didn’t have any parking problems back then.”
In those days, Bayern Brewing was located in the railroad depot building by the Red XXXX’s sculpture on the north end of Higgins Avenue.
“This was all a very business-driven promotional event,” France said. “It must have worked because, as I like to say, we’re all still standing. All four components are doing pretty well and obviously it has evolved into a pretty healthy and vibrant program.”
According to Linda McCarthy, the executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership — a collaboration of the Missoula Downtown Association, the Business Improvement District and the Missoula Downtown Foundation — the Garden City BrewFest lit a spark for the entire state.
“In conjunction with the creation of KettleHouse Brewing and Big Sky Brewing, it was the beginning of the craft beer industry in Montana,” she said.
McCarthy also is pleased that all four of the original businesses have achieved lasting success.
“All of the businesses and their owners are still thriving,” she said.
After 10 years, France said the B.R.I.W. coalition handed off the BrewFest to the Missoula Downtown Association.
“We feel good about that when we handed it off to the MDA,” he said. “What that did is fostered it, and it became their No. 1 fundraising event of the year. So by perpetuating a little thing in that fashion, everybody benefits. It was a little thing that we did that grew into something successful.”
This year, the event features local musicians Rotgut Whines who will kick off the event from noon to 2 p.m. Letter B follows from 2:30 to 5 p.m. and the Dodgy Mountain Men will wrap up the event from 5:30 to 8 p.m.
Saturday, May 6, promises to be a busy Saturday in Missoula, as it is also the opening day of the downtown Saturday markets — the Clark Fork Farmers Market, the Missoula Farmers Market and the Missoula Peoples Market.
For more information on the Garden City BrewFest and other events visit missouladowntown.com.