They are a father and his two grown sons fishing the Blackfoot River in Montana, a place untouched by man except for the presence of beer and trout fishing tackle – Eden with fly shops and breweries. So when one of those sons writes a book based on his family’s experience decades later, he cannot help feeling nostalgic for that year, 1937, and that beer they left cooling at the cold stone toe of mountains.
“What a beautiful world it was once,” Norman Maclean sighs in his great novel from 1976. “You could leave beer to cool in the river and it would be so cold when you got back it wouldn’t foam much. It would be a beer made in the next town if the town were ten thousand or over. So it was either Kessler Beer made in Helena or Highlander Beer made in Missoula that we left to cool in the Blackfoot River. What a wonderful world it was once when all the beer was not made in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.”
Once? Norman Maclean can be forgiven for that note of despair about a golden age that is gone forever. He died in 1990, 14 years after A River Runs Through It was published and before a local brewery movement had worked Montana into a ferment.
Good old days – playing now at a location near you
But what a difference a few decades makes. In the Montana of 2016, 40 years after Maclean’s novel appeared, there’s no need for nostalgia – the good old days of local breweries are right now, not 1937. And forget about 10,000 as some sort of marker for the population that can sustain a brewery. What a wonderful world it is in 2016 when even in Wibaux, Montana, population 400, people can drink beer brewed locally at Beaver Creek Brewery.
In Philipsburg, population 800, there are two breweries – both owned by the Philipsburg Brewing Co., the brewery whose Rope Swing Saison won Best of Show, Best of Montana and Best Saison at the 24th Annual Garden City BrewFest in Missoula in May. It’s a show that had 70 beers competing.
And at the 2016 New York International Beer Competition, Big Hole Brewing Co. of Bozeman – going head to head with 400 beers and ciders from 12 countries – won two bronze medals for its “hand-built” ales and was also named Montana Brewery of the Year.
Good beers are found all over Montana these days; and some use local ingredients that go beyond malt and wheat and barley.
Nationwide data from 2015 from the national Brewers Association said that Montana had 6.5 breweries for every 100,000 people ages 21 or older, more per capita than any other states except Vermont, Oregon and Colorado, which ranked 1, 2 and 3, respectively. For comparison’s sake, those data show that Vermont had 9.4 breweries per 100,000 people, Oregon had 7.7 and Colorado had 7.3.
But Matt Leow of the Montana Brewers Association notes that those figures come from a point in time at which Montana had 49 craft breweries. There are now 64 that are in operation, Leow said, and counting six more that are in the works, Montana could have 70 craft breweries by year’s end.
That might call for some shuffling of figures in assessing Montana’s breweries-to-population rank among the states.
“We’ve been more like second or third,” Leow said. “It’s a moving target.”
How it happened
What happened was that Montana, too, felt the pinch of the nation’s gnawing appetite for local foods, a “gastronomical movement” that included beer as well as all kinds of foods. That’s how founder and brewer Travis Peterson of Meadowlark Brewing of Sidney sees it.
“People like that connection to where the products are made,” says Peterson. “They like to go to the breweries to see all the stainless and also to talk to me or Tim Schnars, our head brewer, about how the beer is made. There was a period of time when everything was mass-produced. People have moved away from that. They want flavor, they want experience.”
Peterson says breweries understand the local appeal and include it in their marketing, often giving their breweries names rooted in the local landscape or – in Meadowlark Brewing’s case – using a name that relates in some other way to the landscape. The western meadowlark is the state bird of Montana.
“I wanted people to have that connection with our place,” Peterson said.
Jeff Dafoe, founder of Big Hole Brewing, agreed that something new is going on.
“People have turned away from the idea that everything has to be made in a big factory,” he said. “There’s been a friendship, a bond that’s developed between the consumers and the brewers. I think Montanans have come to love what’s local, what’s brewed in their backyard and made by their friends.”
Dafoe, too, sees local breweries as an outgrowth of the local foods movement. Whether they’re roasting coffee beans locally or baking artisan breads or brewing Montana beers, those artisans are pioneering a new sector of the economy that values craftsmanship, he suggested.
Dafoe, for one, thinks local breweries have charted a course for other enterprises.
“I think the breweries have created a model for craft distilleries to follow and that is to make distinct and local products and to make them for their local communities.”
And, adds Peterson, they’re making original brews. Meadowlark Brewing has made 18 different beers so far during its four-year history, he notes, including ingredients that range from candy cap mushrooms to squash.
“We grow the squash out at my mom and dad’s house,” Peterson said.
But the craft beer movement is about more than the beer. It’s about the brewery or the brew pub as a meeting place – sometimes a destination.
“People’s tastes are changing, but it’s also becoming a community hangout,” said Leow.
In little Wibaux, for example, Beaver Creek Brewing simply adds one more reason to drive over from, say, Glendive, 28 miles west along Interstate 94.
“It’s always been a destination town,” said owner Jim Devine. “We’ve always attracted people to the steakhouses in town – there are two – and we just enhance that. We’re either the first or the last brewery in the state, depending on which way you’re headed.”
But, he adds, only 30 percent of Beaver Creek’s beer is consumed on site. The company ships about 70 percent of its beer to distributors in an area from Bozeman to Bismarck.
Cathy Smith, one of the owners of Philipsburg Brewing Co., said people also enjoy the ambience and “personality” of the breweries – each one serves up its own heady brew of history, charm and quirkiness.
One of her company’s two breweries in Philipsburg, for example, has its foundations firmly planted in local history. “Charles Kroger started a brewery here that ran until Prohibition. Only the large breweries survived Prohibition,” Smith said.
Charles Kroger was born in Holstein, Germany, on Nov 5, 1832, and later came to America. The federal Census of 1870 found Charles Kroger in Beartown, Montana Territory, with $2,000 in assets; he was working as a brewer. In August 1875 he launched his Kroger Brewery in Philipsburg and sold beer under the name Silver Spray. Kroger served at different times as Philipsburg mayor, as an alderman, as a school trustee, and as master of the local Masonic Lodge.
Philipsburg Brewing Co. started once again brewing and bottling beer at the original site of Kroger’s brewery in August 2015 – 140 years later. Water from Camp Creek is still used today for the brewing process; the brewery also uses water from a spring on the site.
Charles Kroger and his wife planted a tree every time they had a child, three of the trees are still on site, as is the hop tower, where the brewery would dry the hops for the beer making. In addition, the brewer’s house still stands on the side of the new brewery.
What’s new is old
At Missouri Breaks Brewing in Wolf Point, Montana, a community of about 2,800 people, manager Marianne Zilkoski Rees said the local brewery movement doesn’t tap into a new trend so much as it taps an old, old preference for quality.
“I think the world had always been interested in good food and drink,” she told Montana Magazine in an email. “Craft beers, certainly from the perspective of craft brewers, offer a more distinct and flavorful alternative to the same old same old.
“I also think that people are innately community people, be that local, state or national. Support your community, and what better way for someone who likes good food and drink than to drink at a local brew pub?”
“Local” is a two-way street, she added.
“We do use local ingredients such as local honey and pumpkins. We are not yet able to use local or Montana-grown barley but hope to soon.”
The company buys locally when it has to make repairs, for example.
And local, she added, has reach.
“Our customers come from all over the country. We are the local county seat but also on an Indian reservation where people come to from all over, dealing with everything from political issues to education to health care.”
All politics, they say, is local. In a wonderful, perfect world, all beer is local, too.