Montana craft breweries
So you’re wondering who has the best IPA in your metropolis. But how in the world can you figure this out?
You can’t drink all of them at once. You’ll pass out before you finish and never know who won.
You can’t drink one a day until you’ve gone through them all. That would take too much time. And over time, people change. Hair styles change. Interest rates fluctuate.
There is an answer: The Annual (insert name of your town here) IPA Challenge.
It’s simple as 1, 2 3 … 4. OK, 5. Maybe 6.
- Assemble a group of friends, family, distant relatives, dentists, co-workers, sanitation engineers, Methodists, or just people you’ve passed once or twice on the street. The one thing they must have in common? They’re love of India Pale Ales.
- Find someone who doesn’t like that hoppy swill guaranteed to make you pucker more than a teenage girl taking a selfie. This individual will be in charge of procuring the samples, keeping things on time, knowing the order of the tasting, and generally chauffeuring everyone else around. The bossier the better.
- Pick an afternoon when almost everyone can attend. A Saturday not during the college football season is usually a safe bet.
- Make a list of all the breweries in an area of your choosing. If you live in a big city, maybe there are enough breweries in the chosen area that you can walk to and/or take public transportation. If you live in a smaller area, maybe it’s all breweries within a certain distance from the city center. Your choice. Then pick a route (clockwise and counter-clockwise work just fine) that lets you hit all the breweries in your chosen area.
- Visit each brewery, procuring samples of all of their IPAs for everyone (except the boss) and let the judges rate them from 1-5. Try to keep the identity of each IPA secret, if you can. NOTE: It’s OK if judges know the names of their fellow judges.
When you’ve hit every brewery, tally the points awarded for each different IPA, divide by the number of judges, and voila, the best IPAs will be the ones with the highest score.
That’s exactly what we did for the second consecutive year in Bozeman, Montana. And for the second year in a row, the winner is …
Well, not yet. First the details.
A distinguished group of IPA judges was assembled a few Saturdays ago to hit all the breweries in a 10-mile radius of downtown Bozeman. The breweries in the challenge, in order of visitation, included Bridger Brewing, Bunkhouse Brewery, White Dog Brewing Co., Bozeman Brewing Co., 406 Brewing, Map Brewing Co., Madison River Brewing, Bar 3 Bar-B-Q & Brewing, and Outlaw Brewing.
That’s nine breweries. In one afternoon. Can I get a “Hallelujah!”
The hope was to taste two IPAs at each brewery. But not every brewery had two IPAs. Two had three. And two had one. So the total number of IPAs tasted per person still ended up being 18.
Top three IPAs in town, as voted by the panel of experts, are the following:
Bronze Medal (tie) — Hop Juice Double IPA from Madison River and Horse Thief IPA by Outlaw Brewing. Each earned a 3.5 on the 5-point scale from the judges, who noted the following for the Horse Thief:
“Good IPA. Not a robust taste, but still tasty.”
“Nice IPA balance of hops and everything else. Bitter … in a good way.”
“Definitely an IPA. Hoppy. Tastes good.”
And had this to say about the Hop Juice DIPA:
“Well-balanced malt and hop flavors. Good IPA.”
“Very good. Flavorful. Balanced. Delicious.”
“Tastebuds are numb because this is &*%$ing awesome.”
Madison River’s double IPA hits you with 9% ABV and an IBU rating of 101, while the Outlaw’s IPA is a more standard offering at 5.6% ABV and 63 IBUs.
Silver Medal — Midas Crush West Coast IPA from Map Brewing is 6.9% ABV but 100% IPA goodness. The beer edged out the two third-place finishers by earning a 3.55 from the expert panel, who noted:
“Flinty. Quite nice. Interesting – hoppy and citrus.”
“Nice. Light. Good citrus.”
“Light, well balanced. I may be drunk but it tastes great.”
And finally, the winner … for the second year in row.
“Excellent IPA. Great balance of malt and hops.”
“Best real IPA. Floral tones. Lightly dry hopped.”
“Lovely. A classic IPA. Bitter, yet sweet. Nice mix of flavor intensities.”
There were a number of other IPAs that fared well during the challenge. And to those, we give an Honorable Mention nod. Checking in with a 3.1 average score were the Vigilante IPA from Bridger Brewing, the Double IPA from White Dog, and the Hop Punch IPA by 406 Brewing.
So there you have it. Another successful Annual Bozeman IPA Challenge.
Now I challenge you to create your own IPA challenge in your town.
— Eric Van Steenburg
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beer.
When stouts are a-flowing,
And porters keep going,
‘Cause malty is here.
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beer.
There’s much to celebrate during the winter months. First, there are the holidays. Second, the holiday parties. Third, there are outdoor activities like skiing, snowmobile riding, and freezing your ass off, that can only take place during the winter.
But the most wonderful part of the winter months is the increased availability of dark, malty, winter-style beers.
Every year, Santa spreads his beer magic, leading not just to an uptick in the number of stouts and porters, but the proliferation of Christmas Ales, Winter Warmers, and a never-ending variety of holiday-spiced brews. Happy days!
To celebrate this wonderful time of the beer, a half-dozen or so of us took on the quest of visiting every brewery in the Bozeman area to evaluate who makes the best beers at this magical moment in time. Patterned after the Bozeman IPA Challenge fashioned last summer, Beer-and-Burgers.com presents the results of the first Bozeman Winter Beer Challenge.
The procedure is simple. We hit each brewery — there are seven within a 10-minute drive from, well, anywhere in town — and enjoyed a four-ounce sample of every dark, malty, or seasonal beer on tap. Each participant was furnished a scorecard that allowed him or her to rate the beers on a 1-5 scale, as well as write a few comments. Oh, and everyone was also given a pen that worked. Hey, at Beer-and-Burgers.com, we spare no expense.
The seven breweries visited, in the following order, were: 1) Outlaw Brewing, 2) Madison River Brewing Co., 3) Map Brewing Co., 4) 406 Brewing Co., 5) Bozeman Brewing Co., 6) White Dog Brewing, and 7) Bridger Brewing. The official winter beer tasters knew the name of the brewery, but not what specific beers they were being served, preserving the blind-tasting illusion.
A total of 12 different beers were sampled. And the winners are …
Gold Medal — Cacao Vanilla Imperial Stout (406 Brewing). The complexity of the combination of malty thickness, cacao bitterness, and vanilla sweetness made this practically a run-away winner with an average score from the judges of 4.3 on the 5-point scale.This limited release beer packs a wallop at 11.1% ABV, and both the alcohol and aromatic strength of the beer were noticeable as more than one judge wondered if it were aged in bourbon barrels. (The answer is “no.”)
Here are some comments from the expert panel of judges on the Cacao Vanilla Imperial Stout:
“Nice sweet/bitter combination.”
“Coffee or dark chocolate at the start, sweet finish.”
“Really strong, complex, well-balanced.”
“Warms the cockles and brought on the saliva.”
Silver Medal — Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe (Bridger Brewing) — This dark brew with hints of amber at the edges had a bite that hit the judges late, both in terms of the individual taste and in terms of the entire day. Sometimes that makes scores slightly inflated, but our judges were professionals … not professional beer drinkers, mind you, but professionals none-the-less. Another beer on tap for a limited time, this concoction from Bridger Brewing does include a chili pepper spice at the finish. That, plus the smooth drinkability of the beer, impressed the judges enough to give it an average score of 3.94. Comments from the panel of experts on the CGEoYLB (it’s too long to type again) brew:
“Mellow, yet complex.”
“Slightly sweet with a bit of spice bite.”
“Sweet malts, real pepper.”
“I don’t know … tastes great.”
Bronze Medal — tie between Dry Irish Stout (White Dog Brewing) and Ghost Town Coffee Stout (Bridger Brewing) — Both beers were in the traditional stout mold, but stood out slightly from the others available that day. The only difference between the two was the stout from White Dog was drier while Bridger’s stout had slightly more sweetness with the added coffee flavor. But the judges rated the two equally, with an average score of 3.88 out of 5. And the good news is that both of these beers are staples at each of the breweries, which means you should be able to enjoy them year-round.
Comments from the experts on the Dry Irish Stout:
“Slightly dry, somewhat smooth. Quality stout.”
“Roasty, good taste.”
“Balanced, dry, not sweet but still pleasant.”
“First time here … and I am drunk.”
Comments from the experts on the Coffee Stout:
“Floral but not sweet. Wow.”
“Espresso baby. Very strong.”
“More than just coffee notes.”
“I like it! Coffee! Definitely!”
Honorable Mentions — While these beers didn’t finish in the top three, their average scores ranged from 3.3 to 3.7 and were a notch above the rest. The honorable mention beers this year included: Black Ghost Oatmeal Stout (nitro) from Madison River; Big Relief Stout from Map Brewing; and the Russian Bill Imperial Nitro Stout from Outlaw Brewing.
Add these six beers to the reasons I prefer cooler weather to the warm stuff. I’ll place them between reason #17 (that I don’t sweat like a pig every time I walk outside) and what is now reason #23 (that I don’t get sunburned ever time I walk outside).
Now if we could just convince the beer-making world to feature these hyper-malt beverages other times of the year. I know, let’s serenade them in song. Ready?
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beeeeeer.
There are porters for toasting,
And stouts for their roasting,
The dark ales are here.
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beeeeeer.
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beeeeeer.
it’s the most wonderful time … of the beer.
— Eric Van Steenburg
Big Sky Resort in Montana is a well-known vacation destination — both summer and winter.
Big Sky Brewing Co. is a well-known brewer of craft beer — both malty and hoppy.
But Big Sky Brewing is not in Big Sky. Who knew? Not me … until last weekend.
However, should you ever find yourself in Big Sky, the resort, and are in despirate need of craft beer (i.e. me last Sunday), you have a couple of options that should satisfy just about any quality beer-loving palate.
Lone Peak Brewery was the first craft brewery in Big Sky when it opened in 2007, and remained the lone brewery until just this year. Over that time the brewery has grown from just a few barrels to a full-fledged brew pub, featuring 14 different beers on tap and a menu so tempting you’ll order something even if you’re not hungry.
But first … how’s the beer, you ask.
I enjoyed a sampler, delivered in a snow ski, of five malty beverages that included the Class V Amber, the Steep N’ Deep Winter Ale, a brown ale called the Dark Shine of the Moon, the ubiquitious Hipy Highway Oatmeal Stout, and Willie’s Bourbon Barrel Stout.
My favorite? the Steep N’ Deep Winter Ale, even if they left off the first apostrophie in front of the N. This brew is listed as a “winter warmer scotch ale” and tastes just like that, with a ton of crystal malts to give it a slightly sweet taste, and enough hops to make sure it doesn’t become a desert. This extremely dark beer checks in at 8.1% ABV, so proceed with caution.
Likewise, the Bourbon Barrel Stout should be treated with kid gloves. On second thought, keep the kids far away from this one. Thought it’s listed at just 6.5% ABV, the bourbon aroma hits your nose like a Mike Tyson overhand punch. If you’re the type who likes barrel aged beers, this one’s a winner because of its strong bourbon flavor and relatively low ABV.
The Oatmeal Stout is also a favorite, and is available year-round at my local Ale House, which makes it a go-to beer for me in the depths of summer when most craft breweries kill their darker varities to cater the growing demand for IPAs. This is Lone Peak Brewery’s darkest beer, so don’t use it to try to read a book. It won’t work. But if you like your stouts with lots of oats and English malts, this winner will meet all your needs. And at 5.5% to 6.5% ABV, depending on whether you read the menu or the website, you could easily enjoy a couple three of these before you hit the slopes or the bike trails, depending on the season.
Of course, my IPA slurping friend had plenty to choose from at Lone Peak Brewery as well. The five in her sampler snow ski included a classic Pilsner, the XPA Xtra Pale Ale, the Lone Peak IPA, an Imperial IPA on nitro, and the Winter Ale. Of the five, her favorite was, surprisingly, the XPA, which, according to the brewery, is a highly hopped pale ale. That would explain her fondness for the beer, despite its listing of just 45 IBUs. And at only 5.5% ABV, I see plenty of XPA in her future. Who knows, she might even become my XPA slurping friend.
As a side note, if you like the Imperial IPA, I recommend Lone Peak’s. Another place where my IPA chugging friend and I diverge on the hoppy road is on the overly hopped, overly malted IPA known as the Imperial. As I once wrote, I find Imperial IPAs to be the Paris Hilton of beers. You know how Paris is so skanky she comes full circle back around to almost being hot. Well, the Imperial IPAs are so hoppy they come back around to something I can drink. However, the extra malt needed to balance all those hops send my IPA friend into face contortions that clearly indicate disapproval. Bottom line, when it comes to Lone Peak Brewey’s Imperial IPA, Joe Bob says “check it out.”
From Lone Peak we headed a mile down the road to Big Sky, the resort’s, newest brewery, Beehive Basin.
Opening just this summer, Beehive Basin Brewery had a noticeably different feel than the brew pub we’d just left. First, there was no food. Good thing we’d chowed on an order of what we call “chips all three” — tortilla chips with salas, guacamole, and queso — before leaving Lone Peak. But Beehive Basin was shiney and new. The furniture hardly looked sat in. And the bar hardly spilled on. Well, we can fix that.
Unfortuntely for me, the two beers I’d wanted to sample were tapped out. That’s the challenge of a brand new brewery with just a seven barrel system. However, that’s also an indication that the beer must be pretty good. The two that will have to wait for next time, then, are The Big Baltic Porter and the 50 cal. Coffee Porter.
That left the tasting to my IPA drinking companion, though I did my part by sampling and sumarily disapproving of each one. The Green Bridge IPA was easily her favorite, with the Li’Beer’ty American Pale Ale not hitting the right hoppy notes for her dandylion palate. The Dunkelweisen was exactly what it sounds like — a combination dunkel and wheat beer. I can always drink a good dunkel, but not one with this much wheat. Neither could the IPAer sitting next to me.
Still, the Green Bridge was a winner. And hopefuly, I’ll be able to weigh in on the two porters soon. When I do, I’ll definitely let you know.
So the next time you plan a ski vacation, or want to escape your summer heat, head to Big Sky, Montana knowing two things: 1) Big Sky Brewing isn’t there; and 2) there are two extremely capable craft breweries at the resort that give everyone another reason to hit this place any season.
— Eric Van Steenburg
Word has it that my new home state — Montana — has great craft beer. So we decided to put one city’s beer to the test.
A year ago, my IPA drinking friend joined a hundred or so fellow IPA chuckers at the Virginia IPA Challenge, in which two dozen different IPAs were sampled in a blind tasting at our favorite pub in Harrisonburg, Capital Ale House. But we won’t there this coming weekend for the annual event because, well, we’ve moved west and now live 2,108 miles away.
Even worse, there’s no Capital Ale House in Montana. Well, at least not in Bozeman. There’s an Ale Works, but not an Ale House. And it’s not just the name that is different. Bottom line, we’re on our own this year.
The challenge? To create our own IPA challenge.
To accomplish this important task, I brought in an outside expert — my IPA slurping friend’s Father In Law, a.k.a. FIL (or Phil, as he’s known down at the lumber yard).
The FIL has been known to throw back an IPA or two. He’s all about the IBUs. And that makes him an expert IPA chucker.
The set-up was pretty simple. There are six breweries in the Bozeman area. and each has at least two IPAs on tap. So while my IPA tasters would know the name of the brewing company as they sampled their beers, they would not know which beer was which. In fact, I made them choose a table away from the taps and had them face away from the bar just so that they did not know which beers were brought to them by the Bozeman IPA Challenge assistant, and the day’s chauffeur, my IPA chugging friend’s Mother In Law (a.k.a. the MIL).
A clockwise trip around town nets the six breweries in the following order: Outlaw Brewing; Madison River Brewing Co.; 406 Brewing Co.; Bozeman Brewing Co.; White Dog Brewery; and Bridger Brewing. Two samples at each brewery means 12 different beers to taste.
Each participant was given a scoresheet with 12 blank lines for them to write their comments about each beer, and a five-start rating system in which they could fill in as many stars, and as many parts of a star, as they wanted. My only other rule to the participants and the gathering crowd of onlookers was to keep in mind that this was an exhibition, not a competition, therefore … no wagering.
After a full afternoon of tasting, which included bonus tastes compliments of the bartenders at Bozeman Brewing Co. and Bridger Brewing — they must have known our tasters were getting a bit tipsy and therefore thought there was a chance to influence the vote — the results were in:
My IPA slurping friend said:
- Gold — Hopzone IPA (Bozeman Brewing Co.) — Straightforward. Right amount of hops. Delicious
- Silver — Horse Thief IPA (Outlaw Brewing) — Slightly hopped. Balanced. Lite. Yummy.
- Bronze — Lee Metcalf Pale Ale (Bridger Brewing) — Very good. Smooth. Unassuming.
- Honorable Mention — Hopper Pale Ale (Madison River Brewing Co.) and The Juice DIPA (Madison River Brewing Co.) — For the former, the taster noted that it “has a bite” and was “lemony delicious” and for the latter she said “balanced” and “yummy.”
Then the FIL weighed in:
- Gold — Hopzone IPA (Bozeman Brewing Co.) — Nice hops, not too heavy. Well balanced. Almost perfect. Wow.
- Silver — Antilogy Black IPA (Bridger Brewing) — Good hops.
- Bronze — Hangin’ Judge Imperial IPA (Outlaw Brewing) — Balanced. Could have several, easily.
- Honorable Mention — Lee Metcalf Pale Ale (Bridger Brewing) and the American Pale Ale (White Dog Brewery) — For the former, Phil said it was “a smooth, nice IPA” and “somewhat lite, but very drinkable” and about the latter commented “nice, but a little lite … low hops … drinkable.”
After a full day of tasting, in which I had one or two stouts on the sly (I lost track), the first ever Bozeman IPA Challenge was over.
Congratulations to the folks at Bozeman Brewing Co. for taking gold from both tasters. And thanks to all the tremendously nice bartenders and servers who put up with the antics of the two IPA chuggers.
Now that we’ve conquered all the IPAs in Bozeman, it’s on to the rest of Montana. Watch out Missoula, we’ve got you in our sights.
— Eric Van Steenburg
The new checklist for a summer beer festival:
- Wool socks
- Long johns
That should prepare you to comfortably enjoy any beer fest in July.
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.
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
- Gold — Mountain 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.
- 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