Made in Montana; it’s a slogan you see on everything from huckleberry jams, to jewelry, to films, and of course beer.
For breweries, finding that authentic Made in Montana path is as challenging as it is rewarding.
Mike and Greg Howard opened Missoula’s Great Burn brewery two and a half years ago.
“We’ve been craft beer lovers for a long time now,” Mike said. “I’ve been in the industry for almost 20 years now, and we wanted to do our own thing. A family business.”
Six years ago, Mike and Greg lost their brother Chad to cancer.
Chad was a wild land firefighter, who also served as the inspiration for the brewery’s name “Great Burn.”
“It was always kind of our dream amongst the brothers that we would try to start something like this,” said Greg. “After he passed, it became Mike and my goal that we were going to do this for Chad.”
But the path of a Made in Montana brewery is a difficult one.
Much like Great Burn, Big Sky Brewing Company started out as a dream of three friends, who all worked in a ski lodge and wanted to find a way to make money selling beer.
Bjorn Nabozney from Big Sky Brewing says they are still unable to source 100% of its products from Montana.
“A good chunk of our barley, I would say over 50% of our barley is grown in Montana that we use,” said Nabozney. “Hops is a different story.”
When Big Sky Brewing first started 21 years ago, hops weren’t grown in Montana at all.
Other disadvantages Montana presents to breweries come in the form of smaller population, and the growing culture of beer fans around the world, forcing Montana breweries to try and keep up with increasingly more savvy beer drinkers.
“If somebody likes a smoke beer, they could actually get it now,” Nabozney said. “Before, it was like ‘No way, you are not going to get that beer style.’ But the industry has evolved so much that you can pretty much get any style that you can dream of.”
But for smaller breweries like Great Burn, who have actually chosen to deliberately remain small, keeping up with savvy customers might be more challenging.
“Oh they always want something different, which is sometimes hard to cater to,” Mike laughed.
Competition aside, Montana brewers are a tight knit group because above all else, they’re beer fans first.
“Big breweries have come before us and they’ve kind of helped blaze the path of the craft beer scene,” said Greg. “They give us something that we can look up to.”
Nabozney echoed similar sentiments, saying their goals are all one in the same. “At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing: that Montana beer, no matter where you get it, is high quality.”