Some 23 years before Montana became a state in 1889, the territory had a brewery. So they’ve long had their priorities straight in this region.
There are probably between 60 and 70 breweries at this point on a Montana road trip, with 49 of them large enough to belong to the Montana Brewers Association. There’s not much happening in the eastern third of the state, so I didn’t miss much by sticking to the other two-thirds from Billings to Whitefish. I covered a lot of ground while I was there, putting a lot of beautiful miles on the rental car and spending the night in a lot of different locations. There are a few towns and cities with breweries I didn’t make it to, but I did get to try some beers from some of those places too in tap rooms or from cans sold in grocery stores.
This rundown starts in the Southwest, heads up toward Glacier National Park, then loops through the rest of western 2/3 of the state.
The Social Hub of Philipsburg
Philipsburg Brewing Company has played a big part in the town’s resurgence since it opened in 2012 and it’s the downtown social hub in a mining city that went boom then bust then boom. (Read my online magazine story about the whole region here: Mining the Past in Southwest Montana.) It sources nearly all its ingredients from regional sources, including Montana Barley, and used whole-cone hops from Oregon. In less than a decade, they’ve won quite a few awards.
They have live music on weekends, usually a singer with a guitar perched on a catwalk above the fermentation tanks. A cooled copper metal strip runs the length of the bar.
Their Razzu Raspberry Wheat and Haybag American Hefeweizen have both won multiple awards, but my favorite was the Tramway Rye Pale Ale, The Algonquin Amber would be better for the cold months.
They quickly outgrew the available space in their main location, so they have a production brewery further out where a brewer operated in the 1800s by a fresh water spring. “The Springs” has a patio beer garden space open “on weekends during comfortable outdoor drinking weather.”
Philipsburg is a great comeback story and is a lovely place to stroll around. It has one of the best candy stores I’ve ever been in and wish I had been able to spend a little more time there.
Missoula, Home of Great Craft Beer
If you can only do a brewpub tour in one place in Montana, the college town of Missoula would certainly be a good bet. It’s a great city for walking or biking, plus there’s a free electric public bus looping around Missoula, so it’s easy to get around without getting behind the wheel.
The city has around a dozen breweries, with some of the notable ones I didn’t visit including Bayern Brewing, Gild Brewing, Imagine Nations, and Conflux. Beyern is actually the oldest craft brewer in Montana, established in 1987. Most of their names are kind of boring, just the brewer name and style, but I did always smile when I saw Face Plant Doppel Weizen, with a skier going face-first into the snow. The Groomer Lager seems like kind of a skier’s inside joke too, the least complicated beer named after a ski slope made to look like corduroy pants.
Kettlehouse Brewing is the home of Cold Smoke Scotch Ale, one of the best-known and most notorious beers in Montana. It goes down easy, but is 6.5% alcohol and comes in 16-ounce cans. So it has a reputation for getting people in trouble. I visited their location across the tracks from downtown, in a historic warehouse building that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a big open space with exposed brick and visual interest to spare.
I got a Cold Smoke Nitro in my flight, along with a few others I hadn’t seen before. The Bongwater hemp ale didn’t really taste like bongwater thankfully. My favorite of the flight was the Shady IPA, which was juicy and bright, with just the right amount of citrus overtones. They’re not afraid to experiment: during my visit there was a watermelon gose, Peaches & Cream Milkshake IPA, whiskey barrel double IPA, and a Crowd Gose Wild sour.
My next stop was Draught Works, an inviting place with indoor and outdoor seating. The young and energetic staffers seemed like true beer nerds who loved their work. I got a flight here that included That’s What She Said cream ale, Clothing Optional Pale Ale (seeing a trend here?), Britney’s Batch hoppy blonde ale, and Sweet Heat Mango Habanero pale ale. That last one started out easy then punched its way across my tongue, going down like a spicy taco. It’s probably not the best choice if you’re prone to frequent heartburn. Clothing Optional is a nice, well-rounded pale ale that’s copper-colored, like a British ale more than a Pacific Northwest one. See the current line-up here.
By the time I got to Tamarack Brewing—an extension of the larger one in Lakeside to the north—my taste buds had already been through quite a workout. So I decided to order a little food and just pick one. I wasn’t in the mood for the Sip ‘N Go Naked Apricot Ale the bartender said was a favorite of the ladies and I’d already had their Yard Sale Amber in other places, so I went for the Rye Sally Rye Pale Ale. The 1/4 rye in the grain mix makes for an interesting and complex brew, though I think I’d like it better without the grapefruit peels in the mix.
I’d come across a lot of great beer names in Missoula, but one of the restaurants that also brews beers made me smile the most: “The Notorious P.I.G.” barbecue joint.
I arrived in Kalispell late and had to leave before they started serving, so I didn’t get to taste anything from Kalispell Brewing on site. They produce three flagship beers though that you can find in other cities: Cloudcroft IPA, Two Ski Brewski pilsner, and my fave, the malty Winter at Noon dunkel. The first one is full-flavored, with four kinds of hops and 7.2% alcohol, so go for one of the other two if you’re going to have several.
Around since 2014 on Main Street, where they also serve a hefty stout and whatever seasonal beers they’ve tapped recently. As with many others in Montana, they are only allowed to open until 8. This is a state meant for day drinkers.
On the way to Kalispell from Missoula, by Flathead Lake, is the original Tamarack Brewing Company. This is the place to order food if you’re hungry—that was our meal above. Sample some of their excellent beers with good “sense of place” names like Hat Trick Hop IPA, Sip and Go Naked Apricot Ale, Lakeside APA, and Yard Sale Amber Ale (the crashed skier term, not the actual yard sale). They had a great “Beer Season” t-shirt with antlers coming out of a beer bottle that I wanted badly, but they only had small ones left.
Another brewery is around the shore a bit north: Flathead Lake Brewing in Bigfork.
Whitefish for Skiing, Hiking, and Drinking
[2021 Update – The owner of Great Northern Brewing sold off the building and the brewery is now kaput. So consider this is a historic account and try Bonsai Brewing on Wisconsin Avenue instead.]
The Great Northern Brewing Company is not a very original name, but they’ve got killer artwork with a real sense of place and they’ve been around since 1995. (Update: 1995 to 2020 – R.I.P.) You can’t get away from huckleberry in this state so I started with the Wild Huckleberry Lager, one of their flagship brews. I also put another flagship on the list, the Good Med Montana Red Ale. That one goes down easy—maybe too easy considering it’s 7% alcohol. It has some heft, but it disappeared in a flash. The next one was a sipper: the Bluebird Day Double IPA, weighing in at 8.6%. Thanks to some caramel malt and a mix of hops, this one has a lot happening in the glass. Ditto for Fred’s Black Lager, which lived up to its color more then many black lagers I’ve tried in the past.
I didn’t order a Going to the Sun IPA in the taproom because I had already bought a six-pack of that in a store a week earlier, a couple hundred miles away. I’d gladly buy it again right now.
Fun fact: the building, now sold, vies for the title of tallest in Whitefish: at three stories high. They were also open later than any brewery I visited in Montana, probably because they serve a lot of food: until 11:00 p.m.
What I wish I could have done in this area, but didn’t have the time, was to go on one of the Big Sky Brews Cruise trips around the Flathead Lake region. Their three to four-hour tours stop at three breweries (or cideries), with four samples at each stop, plus a brewery tour here and there. Participating breweries include some I’ve mentioned already, plus others I didn’t visit like Rough Cut and Sacred Waters. See BigSkyBrewsCruise.com and hit them up if you want to book out the whole van for your private group.
The Other College Town: Bozeman
Bozeman is home to Montana State University and a lot of those students end up trying to find a way to stick around. There were 10 breweries open during my visit. The oldest one is Bozeman Brewing Company, around since 2001 and known for its Bozone Amber, Pinhead Pilsner, and Sad Snowman Vienna Lager.
I decided to check out the newest one instead: Union Hall brewery and distillery had only been open a week and a day when I bellied up to the bar downtown, walking distance from our RSVP Hotel BZN. I got a good cream ale and tried one of three IPAs they had on tap—both good. They also had a stout, an amber, and a huckleberry shandy.
MAP Brewing had the best view of any brewpub taproom I visited in Montana. I could sit there all day with a notebook and a beer looking out at the mountains across a small lake. It’s owned by Shenan “Dash” Rodman, a long-bearded former wilderness guide. The interior is fun and funky too, with metal sculptures of animal heads instead of the real thing.
I sampled a few different beers here, mostly picking by what had a name that made me smile. I Got an Old School IPA, a Sharks with Laser Beams IPA, and a Rasta Cowboy NE IPA. Then there was a good Marzen that I wish I could order right now and a Scotch ale that’s good competition for Missoula’s favorite.
Their year-round beers range from a Kolsch and “party lager” a shade above 5% to a double IPA that’s 8.5%. They typically brew a few gose sour styles with fruit that are 4.5% on up to an Asphyxiation Belgian Strong Dark Ale aged in rum barrels and clocking in at 10.2%. Take it easy sipping that one.
Go to Bridger Brewing for the pizza and their eight year-round beers. Then go to Mountains Walking for some beers you’ve never seen before. Anyone up for a Double Milkshake Guava IPA or a Peanut Butter Chocolate Pastry Stout?
Big Sky Beers in Ski Country
I didn’t get to visit Big Sky on this Montana road trip, but I certainly drank my share of beers from Big Sky Brewing Company. They’ve been around for 15 years and are the biggest brewery in Montana by volume. That started while I was in Wyoming and I had Moose Drool for the first time. I couldn’t resist the name, but it was actually a tasty brew they call “the best American brown ale in the world.” Quite a boast, but I did order it a few more times in different cities and was glad I did.
I didn’t love their Rasberry Blonde, but my wife who doesn’t love beer thought it was good. The “Huck It!” huckleberry blonde worked a little better for me and their Big Sky IPA is a solid entry that’s popular across the state.
Red Lodge and Billings Craft Beer on a Montana Road Trip
I was morning when I passed through the town of Red Lodge while road-tripping around Montana, so it was too early for the taproom of the town’s namesake brewery. They have five year-round beers in cans though and I managed to try four of them while I was there. Their Bent Nail IPA is a citrusy Cascade hops variety, while I liked their award-winning Glacier Amber Ale in cans and on tap when I could get it. For lighter tastes, I’m surprised nobody else thought of this name: Czechmate Pilsner. A Scottish red ale and a wheat beer round out the standards.
They can have a dozen seasonal ales out at any given time and some of those are in cans too. The brewery takes the “Ales” in its name quite seriously. A list of what’s current will typically be half ales, ranging from session ale to black IPA to double IPA and plenty of subtle variations in between. If you’re a hop-head, you can’t go wrong spending a night in Red Lodge on your way to Cody or other spots in Wyoming. And hey, the taproom is open a tad later than most in this state with restrictive serving laws: 9 p.m.
My last stop for this Montana road trip was Billings. It feels like a small town, but with 110,000 people, it’s the most populated city in Montana! It’s a hard-working kind of city too. While Bozeman and Missoula swell when their universities are in session, Billings is known more for its industrial past and petrol refineries. So naturally, people do a lot of drinking there.
We covered Billings on its own though on this blog because I did a formal brewery tour there, so follow this post for more on that: Billings Breweries and Brewpubs.
I only had a couple of weeks on my Montana Road Trip so despite my best efforts, I missed a few spots where you can get a good craft beer. I was in the town of Ennis in the morning, so I didn’t get to try Burnt Tree Brewing. I didn’t go further east than Billings, so I didn’t set foot into far-flung Sidney, home of Meadowlark and 1035 breweries.
There are five breweries at the moment around Great Falls, which I just passed by after visiting Glacier National Park. Ditto for Livingston, which I drove past and missed Katabatic and Neptune breweries. You’ll have to discover those on your own.
I did spend a night in Butte and had a good flight at Muddy Creek Brewing. I’m hoping they’ll be back someday, but the historic building they were housed in caught on fire this past January and the whole interior was destroyed. You’ll have to check out Butte Brewing Company or Quarry Brewing in the meantime.
Have you been on a road trip through Montana? What did you love drinking while you were there?