Malt. Water. Hops. Yeast. Those are the essentials. They’re the commandments of brewing. They’re not etched in stone, but they’ve certainly survived the eons. And they’ve been revived quite expertly in the mountain regions of the inland northwest: The area of mild and fruity hops, earthy barley and trained and passionate craftsmen. Here are the 10 best breweries in Montana.
This brewery and its creations are ubiquitous, and synonymous with Montana. With roots stretching to the early 1990s, Big Sky preempted the popularity of microbreweries in the region. Six days a week, the taproom dispenses gallons of golden and amber libations, with a mezzanine overlooking the brew-room. Beers run the gamut: Moose Drool, the well-known brown ale, is caramel-tasting, Trout Slayer has a wheat flavor, and their IPA packs a gentle punch.
At the base of the beautiful range that zig-zags along the Idaho-Montana border, Hamilton is a medium-sized rural town home to a big-time brewery. Nearing year 20, Bitter Root has perfected from-scratch beer making, using exclusively Montanan ingredients. There’s some decent grub at the brewery, to be sure, but most come for the tasty brews: The citrusy and bitter eponymous IPA, and a surprisingly good “gluten reduced” golden ale.
For its day, this draught house is surprisingly cutting edge in its design and brew process. The old-school gravity-fed procedure creates a breadth of beers that, like its surrounding Glacier wilderness, can be smooth and approachable or sharp and forthright. With a worthwhile food menu and plenty of comfortable chill space, the brewhouse is a great stop, near national parks and ski resorts. Try the refreshing Going to the Sun IPA or the floral Wild Huckleberry.
In an era in which microbreweries are now “mega,” this co-op is still smalltime in the best ways. The brew-meisters are intimately entwined with the ingredients and process of beer making, conjuring relatively small batches of very good Montanan ‘local. The building itself, a late-1800s bank, is elegantly aged and holds a refined must that contributes to the alchemy. Just recently, the brewery won accolades for its wheat-fruit beer, Razzu! Raspberry Wheat.
As the website professes, Kettle House aims to brew beer that tastes as good as its surroundings. And that’s a tall order in Big Sky Country. The taproom fits the bill, filling growlers with some of Montana’s best brew, and offering tasters and pints of the newest seasonal and special batches. Most known in-state is the Cold Smoke Scotch Ale, with a decent punch softened by chocolatey and coffee aromas. But the Double Haul IPA is a crowd-pleasing standard, bitter but not overpowering, and the exclusive hemp ale, Fresh Bongwater, is much more delicious than it sounds.
The tasty seasonal ales and lagers here are as eclectic as the artsy university town of Bozeman. Embracing the German spirit of purity in brewing, the simplest and purest Montana ingredients are appreciated and employed to full effect. Seven days a week, the tasting room in northern Bozeman discounts pints of delicious concoctions. The flagship Bozone Amber Ale has been perfected from its owner’s several incarnations over the decades. But the seasonals are the fun ones: the Belgian Trippel or Imperial IPA are particularly delicious (and strong!).
Twenty years into its reign, and in a relatively new facility, Blackfoot fires on all cylinders, with a hip tasting room open seven days a week. This brewhouse is Bavarian all the way, an oasis for those loving the wheaty ales or smooth dunkels a la Munich. If ever there was a desire to recreate Oktoberfest, some of the best choices are from Helena.
The brewery itself is more of a complex, an amalgam of buildings absorbed over the years (centuries!) into a labyrinth of pipes, kettles and dials. And like its humble structure(s), the beer itself is literally handcrafted: The mixing, brewing and bottling, all done as old-school as possible. And with a time-tested attention to detail, the quality of craftsmanship and ingredients is mirrored in the beer (the Miner’s Gold Hefeweizen has a rejuvenating crispness). Heck, even the spent barley malt is used in the pizza dough.
The beers pumped out this Billings staple are both tried-and-true, and refined in their execution. There’s little to say about the brewery that’s consistently received more awards than any of its Montana counterparts. A few sips on the orangey Whitetail Wheat or the mild (but not bland!) Sharptail Pale Ale surely makes the case more elegantly (and deliciously!).
The Belgrade-Bozeman area encompasses some of that untamed and impressionistic panorama found in movies like “A River Runs Through It.” Skiers flock to the hills in the winter, but year-round, it’s a fisherman’s mecca. The rivers and streams writhe with salmonids, and they all flow towards Madison River. The Honey Rye is round and refreshing, on or off the stream, and the newer Session IPA drinks frighteningly easy.