In the West, it’s all about beer

 

After sampling 50 different beers and spending a number of hours searching for garages converted to breweries, I was content. A friend and I had planned this getaway for weeks, and the night in Bend, Ore., was as central to the trip as was Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon. In fact, the visit was more of a pilgrimage: We would follow the “Bend Ale Trail” and visit all eight of the town’s craft breweries.

As I struggled through a headache the next morning, I had an epiphany.  In the West, beer really matters, and what might seem like a mere curiosity has become central to the identity of this changing region.  In the past two decades, the number of craft breweries has exploded, and every moderate-sized city and even some small towns now have at least one. Tap lines have become a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors that are distinct from the relatively mundane red, silver and blues of the major domestic brands.

While this trend is national in scale, its significance has assumed greater proportions in the West, where a brewery culture has become vital to the local character.  Eastern states produce a lot of craft beer and tend to distribute in higher volumes, but with few exceptions, taprooms featuring local beer haven’t rooted themselves in the cultural fabric. In the West, taprooms often double as community centers, and beer is designed to accommodate the outdoor lives of the people who consume it.  As a result, the identities of cities like Portland and Bend, Ore., Missoula and Bozeman, Mont., and Fort Collins, Colo., are now almost as closely linked to the beer they produce as to the scenery that surrounds them.  Furthermore, the West has always fancied itself exceptional, and producing and consuming beer locally offers a new outlet for celebrating these differences.

For starters, seven of the top 10 states ranked by craft breweries per capita are in the West, which means Westerners have access to a wide variety of craft beers.  However, numbers are only a small part of a much larger story.  In Montana, which ranks number two on that list, many of the state’s 33 breweries are located in small, isolated towns. They are local businesses that exist to serve their communities.  The population of Philipsburg, Mont., hovers around 800, yet since opening in 2012, the Philipsburg Brewing Company has become a cornerstone of the community.  As is true of places like Bend, Missoula and Fort Collins, the town’s brewery is now an inextricable part of it.

Not only does locally produced beer satisfy Westerners’ sense of self-reliance and authenticity, but breweries have also deliberately ensured that their beer is compatible with the outdoor lifestyle New Westerners cherish.  With that in mind, Oskar Blues Brewery of Longmont, Colo., became one of the first craft breweries to can its beer when it opened in 1999.  Since then, other Western craft breweries such as Missoula’s Kettlehouse have followed suit.  The decision to can instead of bottle derives, in part, from Westerners’ iconoclastic nature, but it’s also practical.

As every Kettlehouse can explains, cans are both environmentally friendly and easy to tote.  Glass is prohibited on Montana’s rivers, which means that tubers, kayakers and anglers must imbibe from cans.  Additionally, cans are lighter than glass, which make them far more appealing to take hiking, biking or backpacking.

In the West, taprooms have become as essential to the craft beer experience as the beer itself.  Because sampling craft beer has assumed the same ritual (some would say pretentious) nature of wine tasting, taprooms have earned an identity separate from bars. Parents bring their children, professors meet with students, and community groups host fundraisers.

In a perfect distillation of this phenomenon, Tamarack Brewing Company of Lakeside, Mont., crafted a special ale that it named in honor of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus’ Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.  At the ale’s release party, Baucus discussed the importance of protecting the West’s wild lands while he sampled beer made from the clean water that his bill would help protect.

The next evening, as I casually sipped a Deschutes Black Butte Porter and watched the sunset illuminate Crater Lake, I thought about the significance of all these breweries, micro and macro, for the region.  Craft beer may never be as essential to the landscape of the American West as its epic scenery and intact ecosystems, but its place here is as enjoyable as it is undeniable.

Michael Dax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes in Fargo, North Dakota, where he longs for Montana beer.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac