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.

When Missoula trademark attorney Bob Lukes revived the decades-dead Highlander beer brand in May 2008, he advertised a simple request in the community: He wanted stories. Lukes had already seen plenty of memorabilia from the old Missoula Brewing Company's standard brew—bottles, cans, boxes, signs, old tap handles, etc.—but the self-proclaimed beer history buff lacked the backroom anecdotes that made Highlander Missoula's go-to brew for more than half a century.

"I moved up here in '85, and I was just loving the place and the history of the place and wanting to learn more," Lukes says. "I started seeing this Highlander stuff. You go out to Fuddruckers and in one corner of it they've got this big collection of cans, or you're in the Missoula Club and they've got that neon sign and painting...It just kind of got my fancy."

So shortly after Highlander's return at the 2008 Garden City BrewFest, Lukes hosted a small bash at Sean Kelly's with an open invite to any former Missoula Brewing Co. employee. And the reverie didn't stop there. Lukes fielded stories for the next year, by letter and by e-mail, from folks across the country. Some shared childhood memories of local businesses running contests on the radio, each offering the winner a Highlander sixer. Others recalled their teenage years working at the brewery, unloading 100-pound sacks of barley from railcars and washing glass bottles that were recycled five, six, even seven times.

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Lillis Waylett, now of Decatur, Texas, responded to Lukes' plea with page upon page of insider brewery history. He remembered seasoned workers packing lunches of pretzels, cheese, chips or smoked whitefish, "anything to go along with a quart or two of beer." Employees even had their own large pails, which they filled several times a day at a tapped keg of Highlander. Bill Steinbrenner, whose grandfather co-founded Missoula Brewing Co. after the repeal of Prohibition, says beer was essentially "part of their wages."

The overwhelming response from a thirsty and grateful public convinced Lukes he'd done the right thing bringing Highlander back to the taps. But Missoula's history of beer goes well beyond that signature blend of hops and barley. Montana has been a vital thread in the fabric of the nation's beer industry since the late 1800s. The emergence of craft breweries and the ever-increasing popularity of taprooms has only strengthened our devotion to that heritage—or, rather, to that smooth, heady liquid so favored by local residents.

Missoula in the early 1870s contained a population of just over 100—hardly enough to fill a downtown bar on a Friday night these days. Half of the existing 66 buildings had been constructed after 1869. The Northern Pacific Railroad and subsequent building boom was still a decade off, making the Garden City every bit a frontier town.

Yet commercial brewing started as early as 1874 under George Gerber, and as the town grew, the demand for beer skyrocketed. The University of Montana opened in 1893, ushering in additional drinkers, and by 1900 Missoula's population numbered more than 4,000. That's about the time barflies got an official name to go with Gerber's beer: Garden City Brewery.

Like all rural communities of the day, Missoula relied on local producers for its goods and beer was no exception. More than 30 breweries statewide started up in growing communities like Philipsburg and Anaconda during the latter half of the 19th century. Bars in Missoula sold bottles delivered fresh from Garden City, and the Highlander brand officially hit the market in 1910, enjoying a decade-long reign before the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act in 1919.

Prohibition spelled the end for Montana's early hey-day of beer. Garden City Brewery held on for several years, producing soda and near-beer. But just days after President Franklin Roosevelt's repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Highlander brewing operations kicked back into gear under the newly re-founded and renamed Missoula Brewing Company. The beer was once again a hit, generating fierce loyalty among drinkers across western Montana and catching the attention of West Coast beer mogul Emil Sick.

click to enlarge The old Garden City Brewery, established in the late 1800s, sat at the base of Waterworks Hill near Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula. Over time the brewery became home to Missoula’s famed Highlander beer, a regional favorite that disappeared in 1964 and was recently revived. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB LUKES
  • Photo courtesy of Bob Lukes
  • The old Garden City Brewery, established in the late 1800s, sat at the base of Waterworks Hill near Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula. Over time the brewery became home to Missoula’s famed Highlander beer, a regional favorite that disappeared in 1964 and was recently revived.

Sick, the son of brewing pioneer Fritz Sick, inherited family interest in the highly successful and multinational Rainier Brewing Company shortly after the repeal of Prohibition. He spent much of the late '30s and early '40s expanding his beer portfolio, acquiring both the Missoula Brewing Co. and the Great Falls Breweries—producers of the popular Great Falls Select—in 1944. Highlander remained under the umbrella of Sick's Rainier empire for nearly 20 years.

Bill Steinbrenner never concerned himself much with the broader business interests at the Missoula Brewing Co. His grandfather, William Steinbrenner, had helped bring the Highlander name back to Missoula in 1933. But Bill Steinbrenner stuck to the brewery floor, working summers on the bottle line like so many other local teenagers. It was just another job opportunity, he says, like timber industry or mine work—except it had certain perks.

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