Montana! The sky out there really is bigger...and so is the Craft.
Jimmy has just returned from a week in the Big Sky State (he flew out to see the Happy Hour Gal performing in shows at the Alpine Theatre Project and, as usual, he took the THHG camera gear with him). Last Fall at The Great American Beer Festival, when Montana clocked in with a surprising 6 medals (including 3 Golds), Mark and Jimmy knew that things were changing in a state that had previously been relatively quiet, Craft-wise. Folks, there is MUCH Craft news to report from northwest Montana!
The visit began with a trip to the Bonsai Brewing Project in Whitefish. They've just moved in to a new facility and boast a 7 barrel BrewHouse in a beautifully designed former restaurant on a plot of land "just across the tracks" from downtown. It turns out that Whitefish, on the shores of beautiful Whitefish Lake, is a stop on one of the major east-west rail arteries in the NW United States - (in fact, the creation of the Great Northern Railway spurred the development of the town.) But back to Bonsai: Head Brewer and Owner Graham Hart was featuring 10 different beers the day we visited, from a 'Bouquet IPA' brewed with Lavender, Rose and Juniper, to Brother George, a funky barrel-aged dark ale that set our senses humming like strummed guitar strings. And why the name Bonsai? "We like small and incredibly well made, suggesting an age possibly beyond our years", suggested Graham. "We're lurking in the shadows of giants."
Another hallmark of this part of the state is that it's on the very doorstep of Glacier National Park, one of the most stunning Tracts of Land in all of the U.S. - so the second day of CraftVenturing took Kristen & Jimmy to Glacier Distilling Company in nearby Coram, MT; Glacier Distilling is just a few miles from the west entrance to the Park. Owner Nicholas Lee started GDC in 2010 after getting snowed in with some buddies in a nearby mountain pass. When the conversation turned dystopic (as stormy night talks often will... I mean, don't they for you?) Nick realized that while Montanans were distinctly capable of riding out an apocalypse with most basic needs cared for...NO ONE WOULD BE MAKING ANY WHISKEY. Of course this needed to be taken care of immediately, and thus, GDC was born; fast forward to today, when they're distilling 15 different products using 3 separate stills, ranging from a dynamite cask-strength Rye Whiskey to a Prohibition inspired 'white dog' called Glacier Dew. A morning of shooting and sampling that included some nicely palate pleasing cocktails, and then an afternoon hiking up to Avalanche Lake in the Park: This was an amazing, memorable day.
Day 3 found the crew at Glacier Hops Ranch back in Whitefish; after paying such close attention to Craft Beer around the world, it's terrific to delve into the craft and science behind the specific ingredients that make them so great - and no ingredient is as lauded in Craft Beer (for better or worse) as hops. Owner Tom Britz has a limited experimental 1/8 acre plot on farmland he owns; his initial intention was to awaken farmers and investors to the fact that Montana has a perfect climate for hop growing, with long summer growing days and low humidity - a terroir perhaps even on par with one of the epicenters of the hop world, Eastern Washington.
Mission accomplished: Tom has had enough interest (and support) that he'll be entering Phase Two next year by planting a massive expansion of 27 acres! And much of his projected crop is already spoken for through term contracts from local brewers that are growing fast and are desperate to source local hops for 'wet hop' harvest beers, as well as pellet-tized hops for year-round use. Oh, and one huge difference between Glacier's product and other hop growers; with all hop growers, the processing from field to pellet involves drying hops so that they don't spoil. But too high a temperature during that process (unavoidable when you're processing A LOT of hops) can actually boil away some of the most tender oil compounds in the hop cone; so Tom uses a low-heat drying process (he calls it 'Artisinal') that preserves many of the hard to maintain flavoring / aroma oils that brewers so deeply prize. It's slower and more expensive, but the rewards are instantly noticeable. The upshot? Expect big things from Glacier Hops Ranch in the coming years.
And from The Happy Hour Guys, expect upcoming video episodes to augment each of these places in this here blog post! Stay tuned, everyone - because it's always a good time to laugh, learn, and drink. Now let's get our Big Sky on.