Several media outlets have named Missoula as one of the U.S.'s best beer towns — Photo courtesy of Taylar Robbins for Destination Missoula
As home to the University of Montana and no stranger to media labels like “One of 17 Best U.S. Cities for Hippies,” Missoula, Montana, is better known for its college students and outdoorsy ethos than its beer scene. But Missoula is starting to command serious attention among beer lovers.
“People seem to think of us as a cowboy, backwoods, pony express kind of place. But it couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to craft beer,” says beer blogger Alan McCormick, who co-founded Missoula Craft Beer Week.
Consider this. The community of 68,000 year-round residents supports six breweries and has at least two more in the works. The newest, Draught Works, took home two national honors from this year’s Great American Beer Festival: the title of best “Very Small Brewery” and a gold medal for Scepter Head IPA in the American-Style Strong Pale Ale category.
If you visit, you can choose between two tour companies – Montana Brewery Tours and Tap Room Tours – for a guided brewery excursion or a whitewater rafting trip that doubles as a beer tasting. As for downing a few pints or taking home some bottles, The Rhino bar pours 50 beers on draught and Summer Sun Garden and Brew Supply triples as a combo garden store, homebrew supply and bottle shop.
“It’s becoming a really fun industry for Missoula,” says Barbara Neilan, executive director of the Destination Missoula tourism marketing agency.
Missoula’s modern brewing history dates to 1987, when a Bavarian brewmaster opened Bayern Brewing. Today, Bayern still claims the distinction as the only brewery in the Rockies to follow strict German brewing traditions. Big Sky Brewing came along in 1995 and holds the dual distinction of being Montana’s biggest brewery and the one that brews the best-known beer outside the state, Moose Drool Brown Ale.
“It’s really fun to get all of these emails from people visiting the western part of the U.S. (where Moose Drool is sold) telling me that drinking Moose Drool was the best part of their trip,” says Big Sky co-founder Neal Leathers.
Big Sky Brewing's Moose Drool Brown Ale is popular among beer lovers around the country — Photo courtesy of Big Sky Brewing
In Missoula, you can find Moose Drool at just about any bar or liquor store and you can sample small pours of it at Big Sky’s tasting room. Montana law keeps a brewery the size of Big Sky from selling full beers in-house, but you can enjoy up to three pints of liquid at every other brewery in the state. That means if you’re lucky, you can sip a pint of Pumpkin Pie Mexican Chocolate Porter at Draught Works and a dubiously named Fresh Bongwater Pale Ale at KettleHouse Brewing.
Missoula brewers consider themselves pro-experimentation, but they do favor dark, robust Scotch Ale as a signature style suitable for cold-weather sipping. Be sure to order KettleHouse’s flagship, Cold Smoke Scotch Ale, or ask the staff at Big Dipper Ice Cream if they’ve got their icy, creamy version of it in stock.
Tamarack Brewing owns a bar in Missoula and a production facility out of town — Photo courtesy of Taylar Robbins for Destination Missoula
Missoula has no one geographical “beer district,” per se, but notable beer bars (which Missoulans call “brewpubs” even when they don’t serve food or house brewing operations), Tamarack Brewing, Flathead Lake Brewing and The Iron Horse Grill, all lie downtown within walking distance of one another. Tamarack and Flathead Lake are affiliated with production breweries outside of town. Other local breweries, including some up to 30 miles away, are easily doable in an overnight visit.
“You could visit a dozen breweries in a day,” says Leathers.
Don’t plan your night around brewery tours, though. Any place that makes beer has to stop serving at 8 p.m. And some serve light food or let you bring it in, but none has a full menu.