With our headquarters in Washington DC and the bulk of our correspondents found near America’s top producing craft beer regions on the coasts, it only makes sense for us to start a new series giving all the states their due, featuring breweries large and small, plus the histories behind them.
For the sake of clarity and with an eye toward avoiding any bias, we’re doing this thing alphabetically. I’m sure you’re as shocked as we are that we’ve passed the halfway point by reaching the 26th state on our list, The Treasure State, Montana. More commonly known as Big Sky Country, the state’s name of Montaña is Spanish for “mountain” or “mountainous region.”
Montana ranks 44th in total population (just over 1 million), is ranked 48th in population density and houses 49 craft breweries as of 2015 (an increase of 16 since 2011) who are represented by the Montana Brewers Association. The state ranks 26th in total breweries (including D.C.) and 4th in breweries per capita as of 2015, according to the Brewers Association.
Like many states in the west, the establishment of breweries in Montana accompanied the gold rush of the 1860’s and 70’s. Henry Gilbert, Christian Ritcher and William Smith founded Gilbert Brewery in 1863, the first established and historically recognized brewer in the state.
One of only 10 major brewers to operate in the state before prohibition, Gilbert (originally known as “Thorn-Smith Brewery,” then “Virginia Brewery” for it’s Virginia City location) was also only one of 6 brewers to make it through Prohibition.
The surprising thing about Prohibition in Montana is that they were the first state to repeal enforcement in 1926, in essence lifting the ban “to restore constitutional rights and liberty in the state of Montana by repealing all laws relative to prohibition except those relating to minors.” But not too long after World War II, most of the state’s breweries were shuttered, with only Gilbert lasting until 1974.
Craft Beer quickly took off in the mid-80’s, kicking off with the state’s oldest continuous brewer, Bayern Brewing. Opening in 1987 in Missoula, they claim to be “the only German microbrewery in the Rockies for over 25 years” and back it up with their excellent bocks, lagers and all manner of Germanic styles.
The largest and most widely distributed brewer from the state is Big Sky Brewing (1995) who are known for their ubiquitous Moose Drool Brown Ale and their top-rated Ivan the Terrible Imperial Stout. In total, since 1987, Montana’s brewers have earned 43 medals at GABF – an impressive number for a smaller populated state to accomplish in just under 30 years.
5 More Montana Breweries We Like and You Should Check Out
Great Northern Brewing (Whitefish) – Our first introduction to Minott Wessinger’s brew was in the form of Black Star (since 1995), which certainly put brewing in Whitefish on the map. Known as a 5th generation brewer and the great-great-grandson of Henry Weinhard, Minott’s state-of-the-art brewery has earned 4 GABF medals for two of their Black Star offerings and more recently for their Wheatfish Lager.
KettleHouse Brewing (Missoula) – The most recent offering we’ve tried from Montana was this brewer’s Cold Smoke Scotch Ale (a 2 time GABF winner), something we’ve been clamoring for ever since. Opened in 1991 as Missoula’s first Brew-On-Premise location, KettleHouse was central in getting outdated alcohol regulations changed in the state, as well as the first to can their beer.
Madison River Brewing (Belgrade) – One of the newest brewers on the list, Madison has been up and running since 2005 and was just awarded their first GABF medal, a gold for their Copper John Scotch Ale. Madison River’s beers stand out with their names derived from fishing flys, as fly-fishing on the Madison is considered some of the best in the world.
Montana Brewing (Billings) – Opening in 1994, Montana is a destination brewery because, to our knowledge, they do not distribute beyond tap offerings. With limited production, it’s clear that they’re focused on quality being that they’re the most awarded brewer in the state, boasting 16 GABF medals alone since 1998.
Red Lodge Ales (Red Lodge) – Often called the gateway to Yellowstone Park, Red Lodge is a small town known from some big time beers. Open since 1998, they’ve collected 5 GABF medals for their excellent offerings such as the Helio Hefeweizen and Bent Nail IPA.
Find more brewers in the state via the Montana Brewers Association Trail Map.