Montana is a bit of a conundrum for some people. I was once asked, “Montana, is…that’s not in Canada is it?” To some, Montana seems vastly empty. There are few shopping malls and crowds are in short supply. It’s expensive to get fly there, and driving takes forever. Gallatin Field, between Bozeman and Belgrade, is scenic but the ‘international’ moniker probably refers to two-engine flights to Canada. So, for those who crave a bustling entertainment center, Montana is empty.
But for the adventurous, Montana is full. It’s crisscrossed with endless trails, rivers, and colossal ranges of mountains. The sky is full blue. Oh, for the sky! It is an azure panorama patched with white, clearly stretching out above tentatively settled plains. Montana is full of possibility, full of open space to roam. And there should be no debate, that Montana is about half full of craft breweries and filling fast.
Why you should go: Neptune belongs on the end of a pier in Key West, or maybe Homer, Alaska. It’s an eclectic museum of nautical curios, complete with a metal trident statue memorializing a fallen soldier, a Marlin on the Wall, a sushi bar, and a huge fish tank through which I can see the brewing equipment. This far from the sea, it makes itinerant coastal dwellers feel at home. Montana’s tavern association is not as happy about the craft beer revolution as I am, so there’s a law against pouring patrons more than 48 oz. of beer per pub, per day.
To ensure we didn’t fall afoul, the friendly bartender was happy to offer small tastes of everything on tap, ensuring I could find and describe the best.
What to Try: Many of Neptune’s line would feel more at home on a beach. They leaned towards light flavors and refreshing finishes. As a robust beer drinker, my favorite was the Oktoberfest. It’s a seasonal offering that smells like a cool fireplace, with roast caramel malt flavors. The middle has grape or peach notes; it is complex and the overlapping flavors defy detailed description.
Dirty Bird Ale (one of their flagships) is rough and evokes salt air. It’s light and palatable, great for a warm day…which is about 75° in this town.
Honey Rye is a new phenomenon to me, and worth a mention. Neptune’s version is sweet with a peppery bite that balances the whole creation. It smells like a fresh field and goes down in silky smooth style. If you’re driving coast to coast, stop in to Neptune’s for hospitality and a touch of seaside joy in the middle of the frigid north.
Why you should go: Livingston feels like a mining or railroad town at the turn of last century. There’s no wind today, which is strange, because the place is famous for its wind. As a teen, I spent many a football practice enduring what a “Katabatic,” severe cold downslope winds common to the “Gateway to Yellowstone.” The tasting room is a respite from the cold; it’s cozy and warm, with rustic wood floors reminiscent of a sawmill. I am enthralled with the brick wall and the blackboard tap handles. On my visit, a local entertained us by sampling his own rhythmic guitar riffs, throw out some beat boxing, then looping the whole thing through a computer so he could sing and play over it. The effect was mesmerizing.
What to try:
Scotch Ale is something of a Montana specialty and here we find an exceptionally palatable, sweet brew that washes over the tongue without a hint of the 7.9% ABV. There’s black cherry notes over a mellow bitter finish.
Dry-hopped Hoppin’ the Rail IPA is a fruit-forward affair following the best of West-Coast IPA traditions. There’s something of melons at first with a mellowing bitter lingering at the end.
Katabatic’s Anniversary Imperial Red is only sold in pint cans, and makes a perfect companion for adventure. Roasted malt with subtle hop bitterness warms the belly when the taproom is far away.
Why you should go: Located in a business park at the MSU campus, Bridger embodies much of what we love about Bozeman: bright sunshine and young, fit people in puffy jackets. It’s an open warehouse feel with plenty of seating to suit any party. The place probably rocks on a Friday, but my hurried Sunday visit is quiet, with Marvin Gaye in the background. He sets the mood as I kill time before picking my buddy up at the airport. On the roof is a patio bar that overlooks MSU’s field house with new snow on the peaks beyond. One side of me burns in the sun, while the other freezes in the breeze. It is fall in Bozeman, with a few leaves stubbornly resisting turning gold and red.
What to try:
Lee Metcalf Pale is floral and gives off all the best flavors of hops. It goes down like a cool morning among the pines. Vigilante IPA is actually mild in comparison (weird, right?), with mellow washes of sweet hop that finish cleanly.
Keeping with an apparent Montana tradition, they make an excellent Scotch Ale. It has layers of complexity and tastes like it came out of a whisky barrel, having been aged with whisky soaked oak. The effect is a malt-candied mellow peat flavor.
Antilogy Black IPA is a rich, full black color with the sticky smell of hop buds. The dark malt lends a Burnt flavor which finishes bitter, robust and satisfying.
Why you should go: The tasting room is a broad, well-lit and rustic space with local art of a bunch of classic beater trucks that have been put to pasture. Brewing equipment is visible behind Plexiglass, like a display case for the operation. We were accidentally joined by Matt, the head brewer, as he sat with his laptop at the bar to research further perfection of his craft. According to him, the water on this side of town is better than south of Main St. Here, Lyman creek provides clear clean fodder for the exceptional brew.
What to try: The IPA is robust and hoppy. The brew feels perfectly balanced fresh and citrusy. Departing from my usual lineup, I’ll recommend the Belgian Blonde. It is clear and open, with apple-sweet character. A lively brew it’s yeasty in a pleasant, refreshing way. On Fleek Robust Porter is also not to be missed. Utterly smooth, it has a latte smell with balanced toasted flavors. The dark liquid is so creamy in the mouth as to be perfect for a cool day with storms on the horizon.
Why you should go: Bozone has been a favorite for years. Their beer is universally available in cans throughout the state, though I’ve yet to find it closer to the coast. The taphouse is not much more than a short bar tucked into a cozy room. The bartender seems to have just cruised down a hill before knocking his boots off and taking up his station. Our tasting flight arrives as short glasses settled in to niches carved in a miniature wooden snowboard.
What to try: In ordering my sampler, I avoided my favorites, the Hopzone IPA and the Plum St. Porter. These are excellent incarnations of their respective styles, and cans of both should accompany any beer drinker on his Montana tour.
At the bar, I tried the more exotic and limited styles. The Cask/Firkin Harvest Fest Märzen is incredibly smooth and tastes like the syrup made from a cask of bourbon. Soft in the mouth, it lures you in to a sense of comfort while seeping in to your bloodstream. Terror IPA is so good I can hardly contain myself as I suck down its rich pine flavors and floral hop tones. The effect is spicy and leaves me wanting more.
Why you should go: Überbrew is like a cross between a trendy Modern Berlin pub and a classic Montana establishment. The furniture is wrought iron with plank tables while brick walls and exposed beams expand the atmosphere. A mounted bull elk and canoe hanging from the walls make it feel like a hunting lodge. Before diving in to the beer, I got a little food-base in my stomach. Andouille Sausage piled high with sweet carmelized onions and grilled sauerkraut hit the spot. Fries with intoxicating seasoning led to wolfing down the whole affair with gusto. Paul, one of the managers, lead me in to the brewing room for a tour and a few special tastes.
What to try:
Amora IPA, at 7.7 % ABV, has a minimal bite and starts almost creamy. It’s floral and fruity which tricks the palate for a second before delivering monstrous hop bitterness and finishing clean.
At the Great American Beer Festival, breweries compete to create the hoppiest drinkable beer. Known as the Alpha King Challenge, Überbrew is the first MT Brewery to win. Double-Tap Tactical Imperial IPA has so much hops in the recipe that the brewmaster had to borrow some from friends in the industry. Therefore, another batch may not be available for some time. It was a thick, dark liquid smelling of evergreen. The hops assailed my tongue like a hug from a large, beloved aunt but it finished silky smooth and pleasant. This brew is called a ‘Tactical’ IPA in response to those who bend the rules by calling dark-roast malt and heavy hop combinations ‘Black’ IPAs. Since “Pale” refers to color, those in Oregon have dubbed these ‘Cascadian Dark Ales’. I hope the name catches on, because Black IPA is an oxymoron.
Most breweries are able to produce either American West/Pacific Northwest styles or traditional German/European styles, but not both. Überbrew has bridged the gap and effectively produces both. Recently, they’ve branched out to experimental barrel-aging using castoff casks from the distillery across the street and flavor additions. For a good example, try Alt 0220. It is a cloudy cherry-wood colored German style that has a fresh nose and goes down light and sweet. It’s candy smooth with coppery tones and a light aftertaste. It’s easy drinking – their literature calls it “sociable” and I completely agree.
Why you should go: The town of Big Sky is south of Bozeman, not far from the historic Bozeman Trail. Its namesake brewery, however, is a bit off course. Tucked in the frigid embrace of the hub of five valleys is Missoula, home of the University of Montana Grizzlies. Most readers will agree that the best reason to visit any brewery, and specifically why you should trek to Missoula and visit Big Sky Brewing Company, is free beer. Patrons can imbibe up to four 6oz tasters, on the house, at the company tasting room. Big Sky will turn out 50,000+ barrels of high quality beer this year, distributed in 24 states. West of the Mississippi there is a good chance you can find it nearby. Visiting in person is always best, of course, and at the tasting room you can try the brewery’s rare small batch treats. With a little luck, you may also bump into one of the founders, Bjorn, Brad or Neal, wandering around shaking hands.
What to try:
Moose Drool is the most popular beer produced at Big Sky Brewing Company. Westerners will relate to my friend Jake’s proprietary Hoss Beer Rating System (HBRS) in which beers are compared to horses. Using the HBRS to describe this four-malt brown ale would read something like this: “A dark brown work horse that you can saddle up and ride home after a day of hardcore outdoor activity. Gentle and easy going at first, as the miles slip by this stud may become highly spirited; a runaway may ensue if caution is cast aside. So please ride carefully; keep your toes turned out and your hat pulled low.”
Trout Slayer is a comfortable wheat ale for those with a milder palate, while Big Sky Rye or the Heavy Horse Scotch are well suited for the mustang tamers among us.
No one expects Montana to have such a strong beer culture, but something in the wide open spaces and the clear mountain water makes it so. Therefore, I suggest you go for the adventure, stay for the beer, and then go home and berate your local distributor until they start carrying some of these rugged mountain grown pleasures.