The food is long gone, devoured by roughly 150 Montana brewers and craft beer fanatics before the Lakeside marina was even out of view. But dozens of growlers of Quill Pig, Wheatfish Lager, Copper John Scotch Ale and more remain. Bomber bottles of Centennial IPA and cans of Bozone Amber are freely passed around the decks of the tour boat. The only way out of this party, dubbed the Flathead Lake Beer Cruise, is a long swim to shore, but nobody looks like they want to leave.
Tony Herbert, the event's host and executive director of the Montana Brewers Association, keeps fielding the same question: When are you doing this again? He doesn't have an answer yet. What he does have is an all-star guest to introduce to the crowd. Charlie Papazian, founder of the national Association of Brewers and the Great American Beer Festival, is considered the father of home brewing by many in the craft beer industry. And he's beaming about everything he's drinking. Asked if any single brew has really blown his socks off, Papazian laughs. "My socks are long gone."
Papazian remembers exactly which Montana beers were the first to pass his lips: the doppelbock and lorelei lager brewed by Kessler Brewing back in the 1980s. Since then, he's returned to the state a handful of times to visit friends in the Flathead, keeping a keen eye on beery developments. Montana's always on his radar, along with Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. He's particularly impressed by the glut of local brews available at nearly every convenience store—a lesson he thinks Montana could teach the rest of the country.
"The spirit of craft brewing just emerges so brightly, and is representative of what small brewers are contributing to communities all over the country," he says. "It's a great snapshot of what's happening."
The scene around the boat couldn't be more jovial. Many are talking up the Black IPA from Bozeman's 406 Brewing. Shawn and Kelley Christensen, who opened Desert Mountain Brewing in Columbia Falls just a few months ago, rub shoulders with seasoned brewers like Bitter Root's Jason Goeltz. A man leans over the top-deck railing with a growler, pouring glasses for those below.
During a speech on the top deck, Papazian dubs this the "best state association gathering ever." He's stunned by how far some brewers have come to continue the "collaboration and cooperation that has really built the craft brewing industry." In short, Montana's left an indelible impression on him.
"Some of these beers are gold-medal quality in any competition I've judged," Papazian says. He glances at his empty glass, then at the growlers nearby. "Should we get another beer?"