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"We came in in that dead zone when Highlander was gone," says Leathers, who moved to Missoula from Michigan in 1990. "When we came in here, because I was already a homebrewer and into craft beer, it was great just having Bayern Brewing. But I don't think aside from Bayern there was anything I associated with Missoula beside the keggers, and even that was before my time. That was sort of the beer-drinking culture—big parties."
Head at the Rhino had already given microbrews a shot when Bayern came onto the scene, increasing the number of available drafts at the bar from three to six to accommodate local tastes. But those at Big Sky were surprised how quickly Missoula's prevailing attitudes toward beer morphed, making way for what most devout brew-a-holics hail as Montana's microbrew renaissance. Bars that once had two draft beers now had four or five, and craft beers were even bumping popular domestics off the taps.
"Rainier was still the hot number, and in Missoula alone that was, I think, the single largest impact we had on any beer," Nabozney says. "We took 65 Rainier handles within a couple weeks of starting the brewery. Talk about a strange switch, from Rainier to craft beer."
When Big Sky started brewing at its former Hickory Street location, there were fewer than 600 microbreweries established nationwide. But the early successes of Bayern and Big Sky gave the industry a strong foothold. Tim O'Leary founded the Kettlehouse Brewing Company as a brew-on-premises operation the same year Big Sky opened. For its first few years, Kettlehouse acted as a community homebrew location, where individuals could craft their own batches of beer.
O'Leary says he'd grown familiar with the model while living in Boulder, Colo.—already a hotbed for microbrewing by the early '90s. The idea worked, until the demand for craft beer by local bars and drinkers overwhelmed the number of homebrew enthusiasts taking advantage of the Kettlehouse facility. Greater business interests prevailed, and O'Leary began using the building on Myrtle Street to market a line of brews.
Kettlehouse was an instant hit with classic American styles like Eddy Out Pale Ale. But the brewery quickly established a reputation for being edgy and experimental, implementing new-to-Missoula ingredients like hemp in the brewing process. O'Leary says local business owners proved an invaluable asset to early success at Kettlehouse, with bars like the Rhino eager to open taps to even the strangest beer. O'Leary even credits the Rhino for coming up with the name for his popular hemp porter, Olde Bongwater.
One obstacle still stood in the way of serious expansion, however: Microbreweries could produce beer, but they couldn't legally sell pints on-site. Most breweries allowed customers to fill growlers in the '90s, allowing the growing hoards of loyal drinkers to take their craft beer home. Still, O'Leary says selling beers straight from the taproom was a pivotal marketing tool to lobby for, and represents one of the greatest hurdles the local beer industry has faced in decades. In addition to helping business, the taproom acts as a "Petri dish," he says, or a place to test new brews before adding recipes to the regular line-up.
"We had people that just wanted to come in and drink a beer," O'Leary says. "We'd say, 'Well, we can give you [space] and you can brew your own and when you bottle it you can sample your own bottle.' But people wanted brewpubs in this state, and when your customers are asking for something, if you're a smart business person you give it to them."
In 1999, O'Leary helped lead the fight to rewrite Montana's laws governing taprooms. (See George Ochenski's "Battle for the breweries," page 10, for more on this topic.) The Kettlehouse's growth had been hindered by the state's limitations, and O'Leary believes the brewery wouldn't have made it without the brand loyalty generated by on-site sales. By January 2000, after a contentious battle in the Legislature, O'Leary says "we were able to sell the first pint beer from a taproom in Montana."
The ability for microbreweries that produced fewer than 10,000 barrels a year to sell customers 48 ounces of beer—or three pints—opened the industry floodgates. More than a dozen breweries cropped up over the subsequent decade, including taprooms in small towns like Stevensville, Lakeside and Wibaux. According to the Montana Brewers Association, founded in 1998, Montana's 25 micobreweries now produce more than 70,000 barrels of beer a year, employ roughly 200 residents and distribute to 19 states.
The sudden spike in Montana microbreweries mirrors in a large way what's happening to beer culture across the country. Craft brewers nationwide sold over 9 million barrels of beer in 2009, and 1,595 microbreweries are now in operation—the most since before Prohibition, according to the national Brewers Association.
"The newness of it all, it was like a little toy in Montana," Nabozney says of the growth statewide. "People thought the whole idea, the whole concept of craft beer was just pretty cool."
Head credits the rising popularity of craft beers in Missoula partly to the interest and ingenuity of local brewers. Mostly though, he says Missoula's tastes evolved. The average citizen is more worldly these days, and most college kids have grown up with one or two brewpubs in their hometowns. Like the Rainier years, there's a shifting loyalty. Only this time it's shifting back toward the local product.