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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"There were just tons of people in the state of Montana who had worked at the brewery for various summers between the '40s and 1960 or so," says Steinbrenner, now 73. "One reason people wanted to work at the brewery was you could drink all the beer you wanted, no problem—as long as you didn't get drunk on a union contract."

Steinbrenner remembers the typical first-day gig for prospective employees. High school or college kids would unload 100-pound sacks of barley from railcars, before moving on to work the heavier bottle-washing machinery. Steinbrenner says the former task weeded out about 20 percent of the applicants.

By Steinbrenner's account, beer had a drastically different presence in Missoula society during the 1940s and '50s. The high cost of transporting beer long distances meant the lion's share of draft beer in Missoula was Highlander. Occasionally Steinbrenner, who says he had his first sip of beer at age two, got a taste of something else from the region. But beer was unpasteurized then, giving it a short shelf life and necessitating daily deliveries of fresh bottles and kegs.

click to enlarge In the past two decades, microbrews have become more popular in Missoula. More than a dozen breweries have opened statewide since 2000, bringing the total to 25. - PHOTO BY SARAH DAISY LINDMARK
  • Photo by Sarah Daisy Lindmark
  • In the past two decades, microbrews have become more popular in Missoula. More than a dozen breweries have opened statewide since 2000, bringing the total to 25.

"When I was a kid, the only beers were Highlander, Kessler out of Helena, Rocky Mountain out of Anaconda and maybe Butte Special," Steinbrenner says. "The beers were all very local. It was like the dairy business. You had your milk delivered to your door, and same with your beer."

Sick's purchase of the Missoula Brewing Co. gradually changed the localized character of Highlander. Signs painted on buildings across the state proclaimed it "Montana's Favorite." The company altered its advertising strategy in the '50s, adopting the now-familiar tartan label. Montana had already established itself as a player in the country's beer industry with Leopold Schmidt, who created Centennial Brewing in Butte in 1879 before moving west to found the Olympia Brewing Company in Washington. The growing distribution of Highlander through the Rainier network made the brand a regional favorite and further solidified the state's role in U.S. brewing history.

However, this second wind in Missoula brewing was also destined to end. Sick began shedding his beer assets in the early '60s, among them his entire Montana portfolio. Rainier's Seattle brewery continued producing Highlander for a short time, but the brand died completely in 1964, when Missoula Brewing Co. closed its facility at the base of Waterworks Hill to clear the way for Interstate-90. The costs of transporting beer through the Rocky Mountain West and competing with national conglomerates simply became too great. One by one, Montana's other breweries folded, with the last—Great Falls Breweries, then owned by Blitz-Weinhard—shutting down in 1968.

The disappearance of localized breweries across Montana resulted in a 20-year dry spell for the state, an era punctuated by what Worden's Market owner Tim France calls "brand loyalty." Large companies like Anheuser-Busch, Rainier and Olympia replaced hometown brews with mass-produced American pilsners. Community radio contests ceased, gimmicky local beer products became memorabilia. France says Montana drinkers chose a big-name beer and stuck to it. Rainier had its run, as did Lucky Lager, each generating a die-hard following that drank for the drink, not for the taste.

click to enlarge Missoula’s microbrew renaissance began with the founding of Bayern Brewing Company in 1987. Five years later, Bayern masterbrewer Jürgen Knöller collaborated with owners from the Rhino, Iron Horse and Worden’s Market to start the city’s first brewfest. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula’s microbrew renaissance began with the founding of Bayern Brewing Company in 1987. Five years later, Bayern masterbrewer Jürgen Knöller collaborated with owners from the Rhino, Iron Horse and Worden’s Market to start the city’s first brewfest.

"Nobody talked about Oly or Rainier or anything," France says. "It was just a given."

When he first bought Worden's Market 30 years ago, France sold about 6,000 kegs annually. Whether it was fraternity rush parties or a night with the guys, "beer was the social lubricant." People just drank to drink, France says, end of story.

Rhinoceros bar owner Kevin Head first arrived in Missoula for college in 1977, in the days when Olympia and Rainier were more widely accepted with local crowds than the likes of Budweiser and Miller. Imports were a luxury back then, Head says, something strictly reserved for those rare moments when beer was more than just a social norm.

"It used to be that if you went over to a friend's house and went into a refrigerator and they had a six-pack of Michelob, you would ask, 'Well, what's the occasion?'" Head says. "Same with a six-pack of Heineken or Beck's."

So when a seeming novelty began to emerge in the Missoula beer market in the late '80s, no one knew quite what to think. Bayern Brewing introduced the city to the distinct flavor of craft beer in 1987, a bold move by German masterbrewer Jürgen Knö¨ller that both Head and France recognized as an opportunity to turn local drinking culture on its head.

"What I saw a lot were people who were willing to drink up and enjoy something over a longer period of time, rather than just get a glow and drink as much as possible," Head says. "They were willing to buy up and drink less."

Worden's Market and the Rhino teamed with Bayern and the Iron Horse Brew Pub—the microbrewery's partner at the time—in 1992 to host the first BRIWFest in Caras Park (the first initial of the four businesses' names made up the acronym). The event featured some 20 breweries from throughout the region, Head says, and helped expand the community's awareness of fine craft beer. The foursome eventually handed the event off to the Missoula Downtown Association, creating the annual Garden City BrewFest.

"It's been a very welcome change, and it's been a lot of fun," Head says. "There's a real experience in trying new things now, whereas before, you knew what you liked and that's what you went for."

That change came slow at first. When Neal Leathers, Bjorn Nabozney and Brad Robinson entered the local scene by founding Big Sky Brewing in 1995, Rainier still held the monopoly on local taps. Big Sky's debut brew, Whistling Pig Red Ale, appeared at a number of regional brewfests to mixed reviews. Leathers says the culture in the West at that time didn't instill much confidence in the chances of local craft beer making it big.

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