In the summer, when temperatures rise, days lengthen and the river invites Missoulians to float, swim and picnic on its shores, Missoula’s breweries are hard at work, creating the perfect summer beer.
The craft beer industry prides itself on its creative flavor combinations, high-quality ingredients, ingenuity and simultaneous respect for tradition. With eight breweries in Missoula and about 70 in the state, new beer varieties are constantly being introduced.
Though unique, the following breweries all agreed: a good summer beer is crisp, refreshing, often fruity, and has a moderate alcohol level so it can be enjoyed all day long.
Bayern Brewing, Inc.
Founded in Missoula by a Bavarian brewmaster in 1987, Bayern (meaning “Bavaria”) offers an authentic taste of traditional German beer, and serves the “best schnitzel in Montana.” Bayern is also the oldest brewery in Montana, known for its lager style beers.
Thorsten Geuer, one of Bayern’s current brewmasters, moved to Missoula 15 years ago from Cologne, Germany, to join the craft beer industry as it began to take form. Despite Germany’s long history brewing beer, craft beers haven’t taken hold there the way they have here, he said.
“You asked me why did I come? Because I knew there was something developing, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Geuer said.
Bayern is known along the West Coast for its expertise in traditional German beers like their pilsner and their helles, but at their taproom, the options are a lot more diverse. Still, Bayern’s first ever beer, an amber called a “märzen” in German, is Geuer’s favorite.
On a hot summer day, Geuer said their “Dump Truck,” a pale ale summer bock, is the best place to start. The citra-infused version of “Dump Truck” showcases how dry-hopping changes a beer’s flavor, adding a bit of hoppy bitterness. In traditional German fashion, Bayern’s pilsner comes in a fluted glass, and boasts a “very refined hoppy taste,” without too much bold flavor.
For those who dislike hops, a wheat beer, like their Helles, is a good alternative.
“They’re way easier,” Geuer said. “The malt is in the foreground, and the bitterness is in the background. I always call it that the soup has salt, but the soup is not salty.”
Bayern’s newest innovation is their “Inconceivable Series,” which aims to bring the concept of a tap tasting room to stores. The packaging, a colorful, dreamscape-esque carrier, doesn’t identify the type of beer it holds. Instead, consumers can use their phones to scan the packaging, and every 3 months the type of beer will change. They’re currently on their second variety.
For a very bold, hoppy flavor, Geuer recommends the current “Inconceivable” brew.
Bayern uses glass bottles for all of its beer, and because Montana doesn’t have glass recycling, they reuse any bottles and carriers that customers return to them. Geuer said they’ve had a lot of success with this approach, because people want to do the right thing. Depending on the time of year, between 30 and 60 percent of the glass they use is recycled, Geuer said. They also buy used glass bottles from other breweries in the state who don’t recycle them.
Bayern offers an authentic German beer experience, coupled with rich traditions and German food specials from the Edelweiss Bistro on Fridays. From the taproom, visitors can watch through big windows as the beer is brewed, bottled, and packaged for sale. Giving people the chance to see how manufacturing works is important to Geuer. Even he enjoys watching the bottles move through the cycle.
“Seeing it now, it’s actually a fun thing,” Geuer said. “Look how evenly spaced the bottles are. I mean, it is very artful to see how it comes out.”
KettleHouse Brewing Co. (Northside location)
KettleHouse started as a place where people could gather to brew their own beers, called a “brew on premise.” At its founding in 1995, it was still illegal in Montana to serve pints to customers.
Since then, cofounders Suzy Rizza and Tim O'Leary have expanded their operation to two locations in Missoula, a brand-new brewery in Bonner, and an amphitheater, which will host its first live show on July 13.
After first feeling limited by strict production limits, and then by a lack of space, Rizza said the sky is their new limit.
“Now that the pressure is off and we have more space, we’re getting back to our creative roots, and it’s super fun for the brewers and super exciting for our customers,” Rizza said.
KettleHouse is best known for its Cold Smoke Scotch Ale, a deceptively dark brew. The balanced, brown-sugary, chocolatey beer is lighter than it looks, and goes incredibly well with barbecue, Rizza said. Even stubborn Bud Light lovers have converted to craft beers because of Cold Smoke’s accessibility.
Tim Mason, head brewer at the Northside location, said KettleHouse has more variety in its beer menu than ever before. Summer varieties of mainstay brews add some flair without sacrificing the flavors their customers have come to love.
A coconut Cold Smoke will be released this summer, as well as a piña colada IPA. In the late 90s, Kettlehouse brewed a private-label beer for some guys at The Rhino, who requested a beer called “Old Bongwater.” Replacing hops with hemp seed, KettleHouse brewers created the Old Bongwater Porter, which initiated a barrage of calls from marijuana legalization advocates.
It turns out, the beer can’t get you high, but it does have a unique nutty taste, and now comes in three varieties. Rizza’s favorite summer beer is the Fresh Bongwater.
“That’s often times what we have on tap at home, just because it’s refreshing and light,” Rizza said. “I can drink one, and still cook dinner.”
Also on tap this summer is a Mango Habañero Fresh Bongwater, for the pepper-beer lovers. KettleHouse packages all of their beers in cans, in response to Montana’s lack of glass recycling, but also for customers’ convenience.
“It’s lighter, we think the quality stays better, it’s not lightstruck,” Rizza said. “You can’t take glass on rivers, golf-courses or pools, so cans are just sort of a natural package for us.”
Missoula Brewing Co. (Highlander)
Missoula Brewing Co., better-known as Highlander, after their most famous beer, is one of Missoula’s younger breweries. Located near North Reserve St., the current taproom is in its second year of operation, though its brand has a long history.
The first Missoula Brewing company was founded in 1890. It survived through Prohibition, and then closed after its property was taken by eminent domain when the highway was built. The new owners fell in love with the brand and its history, and bought the rights to the name.
“They kind of revitalized it, with a modern take,” said Hannah Talbott, Highlander’s general manager.
The taproom is covered in old Highlander signage, and the back opens into a patio beside Grant Creek. Their Red Ale won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival last year, and remains one of their signature brews. But for summer, they like to play with fruit and citrus flavors.
Using the recipe for their classic wheat beer, brewers create a summer seasonal by adding strawberry extract to create the Strawberry Wolfpoint Wheat. It’s approachable, not too sweet, but fruity enough for summer, Talbott said.
They also have a Belgian Blonde Ale, which has pear and orange notes, and a little bit of pepper. Their Grapefruit IPA is made with fresh grapefruit puree, and is a huge summer favorite. Later in the summer, they’ll offer a jasmine-infused saison.
Highlander’s taproom is family friendly, with a kids play area and rotating pizza slices. Every Sunday morning, they offer “Buzzed Yoga” classes, and on Saturdays they teach fly-fishing. With each course, $10 gets you a beer and a lesson.
Talbott said Highlander doesn’t define their style by a strict category, and they like to think of new varieties whenever possible.
“The craft beer industry is really creative and is constantly pushing the envelope, and we definitely like to play in that as well.”