MD –> MT

I just came back from a week-long trip to Montana. Last Tuesday afternoon my fiance BL and I touched down in Bozeman, a college city in the Southern part of the state, where we would spend four nights in a hotel before driving three hours west to Missoula to camp out in an Airbnb tiny house/shanty in the mountains outside town.

“Why Montana?” Everyone would ask, and I don’t totally blame them. The plane ride was four hours either way, but about seven to eight when the layover was factored in, plus this was only my second time out west, and Montana is the third least densely-populated state in the U.S. There’s not really a lot of people around, even in the state’s biggest cities. Even our Missoulan Bnb host asked us, “Why Missoula? Why not, say, Denver, Colorado?”

The truth is, BL and I really wanted to go somewhere we’d never been before that would be kind of-if-not-completely alien to us both, so we all but through a dart at a map and decided that Montana would be the place to go. I embarked on the trip with almost no expectations or prior presumptions about the northwestern region of this vast country. All I knew is that I was really looking forward to the brisk dry air, sleeping in the mountains and trekking through Yellowstone. I was also really, really looking forward to the beer.

In small towns and “big” cities, breweries abound

That was one of our few preconceived notions about Montana: It’s a craft beer haven, or so they say. And maybe knowing that before we even chose our summer vacation location subconsciously swayed our decision.

After all, while Montana ranks 24th in the U.S. for total number of craft breweries, it’s number two in breweries per capita (at 9.6). The economic impact is relatively low compared to that of other states — likely, in part, because Montana’s population just barely reaches the one million mark — but it ranks eighth in gallons produced per 21+ adult (at 7.5) and fifth in economic impact per capita. That’s a big deal for a state that’s so small, at least in terms of its population.

And in terms of being a beer lover’s paradise, Montana didn’t let us down. But it did surprise us, in a few ways.

Many of the state’s laws regarding breweries and craft beer production are exceedingly pro-beer. Last July, Governor Steve Bullock signed a bill that raised brewery production caps from 10,000 to 60,000 barrels. In Missoula, a city with eight independent breweries, brewers and distributors have estimated that nearly 40% of all beer sold is from the city’s small breweries. Breweries within the state operate at a high profit margin because distributors don’t take a cut of their taproom sales.   

Of course, beer distributors and bar owners aren’t a fan of such laws and big sky country’s ever-expanding craft beer scene (from 2011 – 2017, the number of craft breweries in the state jumped from 33 to 75), and there is legislation in place that is… well…. Not so pro-beer.

Summer Honey seasonal ale by Big Sky Brewing Co., The Juice Double IPA by Madison River Brewing and Moose Drool brown ale by Big Sky. Our first purchases in Montana, naturally.

The first actual brewery that BL and I visited was MAP Brewing Company in Bozeman. We had just finished up a long day of tubing on the Madison River, we were both suffering from pretty bad sunburns and even worse farmer’s tans, and I was in the throes of a badly-timed sinus infection. But we were happy to be there. I was even happier when I showed the bartender my ID and she yelled “Bingo!,” because apparently Maryland was the last state she needed to see to finish her state ID-themed Bingo card, and I received a free beer.

She also handed me a slip of paper with three boxes, one box already marked with an “X.”

Our mountain shanty.

“Just bring this back if you want another one,” she said.

We quickly realized that Montana breweries are only allowed to sell you three pints per visit. This is a reasonable enough law that didn’t bother us, especially because we weren’t trying to get plastered while spending tons of money before we headed back to our hotel (and who wants to share a bar with some dude who’s had more than three 10+% double IPAs, anyway?). Almost all craft breweries I’ve been to country-wide have maintained a family-friendly atmosphere, and if anything Montana’s three-beer law only helps enforce this.

But when we hit KettleHouse Brewing Company in Missoula, around 8:30 p.m., we were sad to learn that the brewery had stopped pouring pints for the night, per state law. Breweries producing no more than 10,000 gallons can only  legally serve 48 ounces of beer per customer in the taproom between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. Bars don’t want competition from breweries, and apparently lawmakers don’t want it either. The legislation results in a few hours of missed opportunity for the breweries.

However, at least during the daytime and afternoon hours, there’s a seemingly endless supply of breweries in Montana, and the beer trails don’t disappoint. Plus, nearly every person we met was a craft beer drinker like ourselves (with the sole exception of Bones, a guy we met in a Bozeman bar who was strictly a Budweiser guy).

Drinking home brew in the mountains

BL, one half of the other couple at the Airbnb, and our host Garrett.

Garrett, our host at the Missoula Air BnB, was more than happy to share his home-brewed sour concoction with us, and show us the hops he had growing in his garden. He and his wife Alla rent out their hand-built mountain shanties in the summer but spend the rest of the year teaching English in South Korea. He’s a part-owner of a South Korean brewery called The Ranch. One can of beer goes for about $6-8 in Korea, he said, so we were at least partly thankful we hadn’t chose to vacation there. He also said that the Montana town he went to high school in, a town of 400 people, had its own craft brewery.

“Would you say the market’s over-saturated, then?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “People love their beer.”

Gotta love Montana.  

The elevation, the dry air and the craft brewery laws were just a few things we had to get used to in Montana, but we more than survived and are happy to report that the treasure state is a more-than-phenomenal place. Nothing beats being surrounded by mountains, wildlife and beer.

It is strange that in a state where craft beer has proved to be such a tourism-booster and economic benefit, antiquated brewery laws would remain in place even as the number of breweries and the potential local dollars they could bring in grows exponentially each year. In that way, Montana reminds me a lot of Maryland.

Kristin Helf
Author: Kristin Helf

Kristin is a writer and picture-taker in Ocean City, Maryland. She likes puppies, pumpkin ales and watching movies for the Ocean City Film Festival in her spare time.

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