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Missoula and beer: A history

From the first tapped keg to the latest round at the bar, we quench your thirst for the story of how that cold, craft-brewed pint came to be.

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"As people have come to enjoy a good beer, they've come to demand more choice," Head says. "When [the Rhino] first started, most of the places had two, maybe three beers on tap. That was it. I think you'll find now, because of the micros, that most have five to 10 on tap. That specifically is because the people are demanding it. They'll go to the bars that have it.

"People's expectations have changed," he continues. "Their palates have changed, and they want the better stuff."

At Worden's, France says many consumers have simply grown bored with domestics. But the danger of boredom also applies to the microbrews. Big Sky, Kettlehouse and Bayern all need to release seasonals and specials on a constant rotation to stay competitive and hold the attention of consumers.

Any of the local breweries would be the first to admit a competitive edge to the local industry. But they're just as quick to point out how vital each is to the continued success of the others.

"It's a very symbiotic relationship that all us breweries have with each other," Nabozney says. "We're dependent on each other...Competition is good. It raises the bar. It raises the expectations of all the beer drinkers."

Kevin Keeter checks the brewing tanks inside Big Sky Brewing Company. Neal Leathers, Bjorn Nabozney and Brad Robinson established Big Sky in 1995, and are currently the largest producers of craft beer in Montana. In 2009 alone, the brewery cranked out 36,500 barrels of beer. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Kevin Keeter checks the brewing tanks inside Big Sky Brewing Company. Neal Leathers, Bjorn Nabozney and Brad Robinson established Big Sky in 1995, and are currently the largest producers of craft beer in Montana. In 2009 alone, the brewery cranked out 36,500 barrels of beer.

That competition continues to spur growth in Missoula. Kettlehouse gained so much popularity in the region that O'Leary opened a second brewery location on North First Street in spring 2008, largely to meet distribution demands.

"Did I ever think it would go to this? No. I would have been happy to be 3,000 to 4,000 barrels keeping my buddies in canned beer for their ski trips," O'Leary says. "It's only icing on the cake that there's a demand for it in western Montana, and in the region. We can't send beer to Billings yet because we want to make sure we don't run Missoula out of beer if the beer switch really turns on."

Big Sky, already the largest producer of Montana beer, can't stop growing either. The brewery currently distributes across most of the western United States, from the coast all the way to Minnesota. In 2009, Big Sky produced 36,500 barrels of beer—an increase of about 10 percent from 2007. With local passion for craft brews as strong as it is, Leathers says he's even surprised Missoula hasn't given rise to a fourth brewery.

While the mass-produced domestics won't disappear anytime soon, the return to prominence of fresh, local brew makes Missoula's beer culture seem somewhat cyclical. Though the recipe may be different, and though the beer is now brewed in Whitefish at Great Northern Brewery, the triumphant return of the Highlander name goes a long way in proving the point.

Lukes hasn't worked up distribution beyond local taps yet, but based on the community's initial strong reception to the new Highlander, he's hosting a full-on Celtic bash for the brew's 100th anniversary this July in Caras Park.

"We've just signed the Young Dubliners to play," Lukes says. "It's going to be a free concert, they're going to have a bunch of other Celtic activities out there. It's going to be fun."

One of the Missoula beer moments that really pops out for Lukes occurred downtown on a summer afternoon shortly after Highlander's return. Lukes was cruising in a vintage truck tagged with Highlander's tartan label and caught the eye of an elderly man who, upon seeing the familiar brand name, rushed home to retrieve an old Missoula Brewing Co. box.

"So many people here have a story about, 'I remember that's all my dad used to drink,' or stories about their grandfather," Lukes says. "People come up to me and say, 'We were remodeling our house last year and we opened up this wall and there were 30 cans of Highlander in there. The workers must have just put the cans in the wall.' I've heard that story about a dozen times."

Clearly the Missoula community never really let Highlander go. Or perhaps it's just that sudsy allure of beer, whatever the brand. France sums it up perfectly.

"It's the culture, man," he says. "It's the history."

Head prefers a conclusion that's a tad more grand, though in no way overstated for those with an unquenchable thirst: "Beer is universal."

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