Seven Days in Montana’s Beer Country

How beer brought me to Big Sky country, and why it will again

It's may seem unlikely, but when considered carefully makes perfect sense — what do you want to do while you're fly fishing with friends? Drink beer. Rafting on mild rapids? Drink beer. Hiking among grizzlies and moose? Definitely gotta have a beer. In the backdrop of bison-filled grassy plains, snow-capped mountains, rolling streams, and wide-open roads, beer is as quintessentially Montana as the 1992 coming-of-age film A River Runs Through It (sans Brad Pitt).

With 28 breweries, the Treasure State is home to the nation's second highest number of microbreweries per capita. That probably has something to do with the fact that Montanans consume the second highest amount of beer per capita at 30 gallons annually. More than a third of the state's microbreweries line the highways from Glacier National Park, near the Canadian border, to Missoula, a funky college town. But Montana microbrews are rare in the rest of the country — only a few breweries distribute out-of-state and some only sell onsite.

That's okay with Montanans, but it wasn't okay with me. I flew there to see firsthand just how obsessed Montanans were with beer and how original it is (in my humble, outsider opinion). I set out on the three hour stretch of highway between the two points, hitting several breweries and points of interest along the way. What I found was, well, treasure. Here's how to make the best use of a warm-weather, western Montana beer and adventure mission in a week:

Day One:

Fly into Kalispell International Airport, near the western entrance of Glacier National Park, before noon and rent a car. Stay at the Bar W Guest Ranch in Whitefish, which offers opportunities to experience life as a rancher. Get acquainted with the horse you'll be riding for a couple of days. Grab a six-pack of Great Northern Brewing Company's Going to the Sun IPA from a convenience store on the way; the ranch doesn't serve alcohol. Schedule archery for the evening with a professional instructor (before cracking that beer, of course).

Day Two:

Take an early trail ride with a Bar W wrangler in the morning. Head to the Great Northern Brewing Company, about five minutes away in downtown Whitefish, for lunch and the classic Black Star Double Hopped Golden Lager. If you're lucky, you can try the seasonal Wild Huckleberry Wheat, which sells out fast and is brewed with handpicked huckleberries from a nearby hillside. In the early fall, limited edition Frog Hop Pale Ale becomes available, brewed with handpicked hops from a local farm. (Photo: iStock/segray)

Head to the West Glacier park entrance in the early afternoon, about 30 minutes away. Be sure to check that the famous Going-to-the-Sun road is open, which spans 50 miles through the park's interior and offers the best turquoise lake and snowcapped mountain vistas. Don't be surprised to see bears and moose. (Bring bear spray.) By 7:30 p.m., you'll be ready for a hearty dinner at Buffalo Cafe or Mambo Italiano in Whitefish, but you’ll want to luxuriate that evening with your six-pack in the hot tub.

 

 

Day Three:

Depart the Bar W and pick a route around Flathead Lake. If you pick the west route along Highway 93, stop at the Tamarack Brewing Company in Lakeside. If you take the east side, stop at Flathead Lake Brewing Company in Bigfork. Either way, they are about 40 minutes south of Whitefish through picturesque cherry orchards. After you enjoy lunch, fill up a growler of Tamarack's Wakeboard Wit Belgian White in the Lakeside spirit for later.

Plan ahead and book a lake house, preferably in Polson, where Glacier Brewing Company is located. Clearwater Montana Vacations, Eagle Bend Flathead Vacation Rentals, and Montana’s Best Vacation Homes offer a variety of vacation cabins around the lake. (Photo: Tia Troy/Glacier Country Tourism)

Day Four:

Spend the day on the lake in a boat you rented from the Flathead Boat Company.

Take a break for lunch in town at the Big Sky Bistro and Art Bar. It doubles as an art gallery with tables equipped with colored pencils and white placemats to inspire you.

In the evening (but before 8 p.m., when Montana's taprooms are required by law to close), visit Glacier Brewing Company, which is down the street from the bistro and identified outside only by "Brewery." Plant yourself in the beer garden and try the Flathead Cherry Ale, brewed with cherries from their doorstep.

Day Five:

This will be a big day, so depart your lake house by 8 a.m. for Missoula and stop at the National Bison Range, which is about an hour away on Highway 93. Its annual October roundup, which attracts several hundred onlookers, is used to count and brand calves and gauge the health of the herd, which is one of the most biologically pure in North America. It's possible to see the bison any time of year.

Stop at Big Sky Brewing Company at noon for a free tasting in the taproom by friendly bartenders, who will happily explain how its co-owner's mother illustrated the labels on classic brews such as the Moose Drool Brown Ale.

Arrive in downtown Missoula for all day brunch at The Shack Cafe, which resembles an old hotel inside. It offers delectable treats like the buffalo pie: hash browns topped with ham, one egg, cheddar and jack cheeses, and is drenched in gravy.

Opt to stay at a bed and breakfast for a taste of quintessential Montana hospitality. Try Blossom's Bed and Breakfast, Goldsmith’s Bed and Breakfast, or Gibson Mansion Bed & Breakfast.

Visit the Kettlehouse Brewery's southside location and try the award-winning Cold Smoke Scotch Ale, a local favorite, before popping by the Big Dipper nearby for legendary, homemade ice cream. You might just catch a limited edition, Cold Smoke Scotch Ale-flavored scoop, if you’re lucky.

Day Six:

In the early morning, hike the M Trail, a challenging trail with more than a dozen switchbacks near the University of Montana football stadium, for a panoramic view of the city. (Photo: iStock/Photolyric)

Then, opt in for a full day fly-fishing excursion with Grizzly Hackle, which includes lunch and flies (or material for learning to tie your own). Don't forget to bring Trout Slayer Wheat Ale from Big Sky Brewing Co. for good luck. And if fishing isn't your thing, take a whitewater rafting trip on the Alberton Gorge with 10,000 Waves, where you'll pass the camping path of western explorers Lewis and Clark. In this case, you'll want to take a growler full of Bayern Brewing Company's Dump Truck Double Bock (when a raft tips and dumps its contents).

Have dinner downtown at Red Bird Wine Bar for the champagne fondue (not-to-miss: ask for bison with it), then have a beer or two at one of Missoula's historic bars: Charlie B's, The Rhino, or Red's Bar.

Day Seven:

Depart Missoula and have one last Montana beer in the airport restaurant. After all, you probably won’t get another until you’re back in Montana.

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