Seeking higher ground

Jasper Miller and Fenn Nelson can't keep up. They opened their new brewery, Higherground, in Hamilton about three weeks ago. On a recent day, it had already sold out of its Dry Fly IPA, and taped a note above its taps announcing that it's not filling growlers yet. It needed to ration so as not to disappoint walk-in samplers.

Miller and Nelson, both 24-year-old Hamilton natives and University of Montana graduates, say they didn't advertise Higherground Brewing Co.'s opening on Dec. 19. "We just unlocked the doors and they flooded in," Miller says.

Bowser Brewing Company, in Great Falls, also opened in December. The two now give Montana 30 breweries, pushing the state closer to earning the distinction of having the most breweries per capita in the country.

"I hesitate to use the word 'booming,'" says Tony Herbert, director of the Montana Brewers Association, "but it's definitely a continuing growth industry. And, of course, as we're adding breweries, our existing breweries are also growing in terms of their capacity."

Last year, the Colorado-based national Brewers Association ranked Montana third in the number of breweries per capita, behind Vermont, with 21 breweries, and Oregon, with 121. That was when Montana had 27 breweries. With Missoula's Draught Works opening a few months ago, and now Higherground and Bowser, Montana's 32,981 people per brewery approaches Oregon's 31,662 and Vermont's 29,797.

Herbert says he expects two more Montana breweries to open in 2012 and as many as four others are in the works. Thirty-four breweries would put Montana in the top spot, based on the 2010 figures.

"It's a moving target," says Herbert, who hopes to market Montana as the country's microbrewery capital. "But it's all good news in terms of the industry in Montana. We're growing...and people are more than interested and willing to work with these small breweries, which is what we're seeing there at Higherground."

Miller and Nelson say the breweries in the Bitterroot, and, in general, those all around the state, compete with macrobrews more than with one another. "I think there's plenty of demand to go around," Nelson says.

Adds Miller: "Most of the people who drink beer still drink Miller, Bud or Coors. So microbreweries are teaming up, trying to get that good-beer word out there."

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