A Summer Beer Fest in Winter

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The new checklist for a summer beer festival:

  1. Wool socks
  2. Boots
  3. Parka
  4. Long johns

That should prepare you to comfortably enjoy any beer fest in July.

Wait. What?

OK, perhaps I won’t wear all that cold weather gear to the next beer tasting extravaganza in the middle of summer. But it would have come in handy at the last one.

The temperature in Big Sky, Montana, was in the upper 60s when I arrived on site last weekend with my IPA chugging companion. Not bad. It felt like a early spring day.

But three hours later, as we drove away, Mini told us the temperature was 49. I would have guessed even lower.

Blame it on the front that blew through that afternoon. Or blame the high altitude of Big Sky, which is perched at about 7,500 feet. Or blame the thunderstorms that dropped buckets of rain on the place. A quick thanks to P.T. Barnum for inventing the giant tent. Or was it Bailey?.

Well, whomever came up with the idea to hold the Big Sky Brewfest in a couple of large event tents was brilliant. It might not have kept the attendees, volunteers, and brewery reps warm, but it did keep them dry, for the most part.

The craft beer fans at the Big Sky Beerfest decided close quarters meant warmer.
The craft beer fans at the Big Sky Brewfest decided close quarters meant warmer. Doesn’t it just look like everyone is dressed for a typical summer day?

And for the most part, the beer was pretty good. We focused our attention on the tent with the Montana beers rather than the tent featuring beers from around the United States because we’d tried almost all the national craft beer brands before. And besides, the Montana beer tent was warmer.

One look around, though, and you could tell this was a summer beer festival … not a single porter or stout to be found. Oh wait, there was one. Thanks to the folks at Bridger Brewing Co. for bringing the Ghost Town Coffee Stout or I would have been on an island surrounded by hostile IPA waters. It is one of the best stouts I’ve tasted so far from the Big Sky state.

Despite the lack of my favorites, there were still plenty of malty beverages available. In fact, Scotch Ales easily outnumbered the IPAs. I think Montanans like their Scotch ales. At least in the “summer.” So we split the tasting chores into two camps — IPAs for her and Scotch ales for me. Here are our choices for best of the fest:

India Pale Ales

  • Gold — Double Haul IPA from KettleHouse Brewing Co. A nitro IPA that will knock your wool socks off. Smooth and easy drinking, this became my IPA slurping companion’s go-to beer all afternoon. Enough hop bite at 65 IBUs to meet the needs of almost any IPAer, it also checks in at a modest 6.5% ABV. Why not have more than one? In addition to winning Gold from Beer-and-Burgers.com, this beer also captured gold medal at the 2008 North American Brewers Association, which is almost as prestigious.
  • Silver — The Juice Double IPA from Madison River Brewing Co. This golden beer has a malty taste at the start that is quickly overtaken by a strong hop bite in the middle and end. No wonder. The brewers use three types of hops and four types of malts to create this delicious concoction that checks in at 9.0% ABV and a whopping 101 IBUs.
  • Bronze — Soul Shine IPA from The Front Brewing Co. My IPA chugging friend could only say it was outstanding. Then again, everything we’ve tried from TFBC has been so far. And Joel and Josh from TFBC were great to chat with. Must visit the brewery in Great Falls, MT, sometime.
  • Honorable Mention — A tie between Lone Peak Brewery‘s Imperial IPA and their Idiosyncratic IPA. According to the official IPA taster, both were “delicious.”

Scotch Ales/Scottish Ales

  • GoldMountain Man Scotch Ale  by TFBC. This is a delicious blend of caramel, chocolate, smoke (which usually I don’t like), coffee and toffee. A beautiful mahogany color with malty goodness throughout.
  • Silver — Big Sky Brewing Co.’s Heavy Horse Scottish Ale. The brewery known nationally for Moose Drool brown ale delivered in a big way with this limited release version of a wee heavy Scotch ale. It is a deep red color with lots ofcreaminess. At 6.7% ABV, you can afford to have a couple.

    LaNette Jones, one of the owners at Katabatic Brewing Co., was on hand to serve.
    LaNette Jones, one of the owners at Katabatic Brewing Co., was on hand to serve.
  • Bronze — Among the four beers that Katabatic Brewing Co. had on hand was their Scotch Ale, which tasted exactly the way a Scotch ale should, light and malty. (The others being poured were a Hefeweizen, an American Pale Ale, and Summer Ale, obviously in the wrong place.) By the way, Katabatic is the name for the heavy winds experienced regularly in Livingston, MT. So the front that blew through the beer fest that made me think the tent would come crashing down any minute was nothing to them. In fact, they said “this is a breeze.” To which I replied “Literally.”
  • Honorable Mention — Lewis & Clark Back Country Scottish Ale. The beer won a silver medal at Great America Beer Festival in 2014, so it didn’t need another medal from Beer-and-Burgers to validate its goodness. I found it to be crisp without much maltiness. Good for a hot summer day.

Which this was not, by the way. As the thunder and lighting raged above the mountains in the distance, the rain fell in buckets — seriously, the organizers placed buckets around the tents to catch some of the run-off in hope that the place wouldn’t turn into a muddy mess. And, of course, the temperature dropped.

We’d brought jackets. Unfortunately, neither was down lined because, well, who thought one would need a ski jacket in the summer? So when it became too cold for us transplanted Texans, we bailed to the nearby tavern for a plate of nachos to soak up the day’s tastings.

By the time we got to the car and hour later, the temperature was below 50. I knew those seat warmers in the Mini would come in handy in Montana. I just didn’t think it would be in July.

— Eric Van Steenburg

 

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