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Legend on tap: Highlander beer to make sudsy return Friday
Bob Lukes has worked for more than a decade to revive the tradition of Highlander beer in western Montana. On Friday night at Sean Kelly's, Highlander will once again flow from a tap in the Garden City.
MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

A lively - and decidedly liquid - piece of Missoula history will reappear this Friday.

Highlander beer will flow from bagpipe-themed, tasseled tap handles for the first time since the Missoula brewery closed its doors in 1964.

The party starts at noon at Sean Kelly's, and it's far more than a welcome-back party with bagpipers and $1.50-a-pint beer. It's a reunion of sorts, meant to gather those who remember the brewery, its place in Missoula and the familiar tartan-themed beer of yesterday.

Never mind that today's version is a microbrewed reinvention of the original or that it is currently brewed in Whitefish.

Highlander beer and the culture surrounding the big white brewery that once stood at the base of Waterworks Hill are legendary in this town.

And just about anybody who has been here long enough to remember the brewery has a story or two to tell.

"I am Lillis 'Manshadow' Waylett, an early Missoula native who once worked at Highlander and I thought you might like a story about some of my experiences there," Waylett wrote to Bob Lukes, owner of Missoula Brewing Co. "It was a long time ago and one of those 'golden' experiences in life that lasts forever. I hope you enjoy it. … My pleasure."

Lukes has heard stories about Missoula Brewing Co. and Highlander beer since he started thinking about bringing it back more than a decade ago.

And the anecdotes from a bygone era were too great an opportunity to pass up.

Lukes got in touch with Bill Steinbrenner, whose father was a vice president at the brewery and who himself worked at the brewery as a young man.

Steinbrenner in turn organized a group of 12 to 15 people who worked at the brewery to gather on Friday to talk about the old times.

The stories, which have been trickling in, are about a time that, while only separated by 44 years, might as well be 100 years for how different things were.

"I well remember that in my first couple of days there I brought typical lunches prepared by my mom; a thermos of coffee, ham, baloney or bacon-and-egg sandwiches with cookies, an apple or piece of pie," Waylett wrote to Bob Lukes. "Well, at lunchtime on the loading dock, the regular guys there kept a distance from such odd and unusual luncheon fare which I soon changed to something more socially recognizable. If they brought anything at all to eat, it would be a few pretzels, potato chips, cheese, smoked whitefish or maybe a length of hard sausage, anything to go along with a quart or two of beer."

Lukes, a trademark attorney, decided to bring Highlander back when his fondness for memorabilia and an increasing popularity in craft beer coincided.

The new Highlander, which is a Scottish-style ale rather than the Western light lager of the original, is currently brewed by Great Northern Brewing Co. in Whitefish.

"I'd like to see it widespread throughout western Montana," Lukes said. "And I'd like to have it out in bottles eventually."

Lukes would like to see Highlander brewed in Missoula again, but that development is another story for some time in the future.

The beer will be available in many restaurants and bars around Missoula.

The Butte debut of Highlander, which was very popular in that mining town, is set for July 3, the day the town traditionally has its Fourth of July fireworks show.

And Highlander will become available in the Flathead Valley beginning in August, Lukes said.

The summer of 2008 is just beginning, and who knows what it will be remembered for.

But one thing that won't be forgotten is the fact that it was the summer of the return of Highlander beer.

Reporter Timothy Alex Akimoff can be reached at 523-5246 or at tim.akimoff@missoulian.com.

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