Montana’s complicated yet longtime love affair with beer is the subject of a new exhibit “Good Beer Here: Montana’s Brewing History” opening Feb. 27 at the Montana Historical Society in Helena.
Records of human-produced beer date back as far as 7,000 years. In Montana, immigrants were brewing beer based on Old World recipes from central Europe almost four decades before the Treasure State formally existed.
Amanda Streeter Trum, curator of collections at the Montana Historical Society (MHS), said that brewers set up shop in or near mining camps, offering cold beers, mainly lagers, to weary workers beginning in the 1850s.
Anneliese Warhank, an MHS archivist and oral historian, added that the remote locations of many of the camps forced brewers to be creative. “They had to make sure they had plenty of supplies when heading into the mountains, because come wintertime they couldn’t readily get into town to pick up items like barley and hops,” Warhank said. “So they used ingredients like tree bark and grass to bitter the beer instead.”
Roberta Jones-Wallace, the exhibit specialist, noted that the health benefits of beer often were touted for entire families, from infants to elders. “They said it was better than water, because after being processed it was considered safer than water,” Jones-Wallace said. “It was like a pork chop in a bottle, nutritious and encouraged for the whole family in the early 20th century.”
The exhibit walks visitors through the earliest beer brewing years and the 1916 passage of the state law prohibiting alcohol sales by 1918. It shows how many of Montana’s brewers turned to dairy or soda products, and other small breweries closed shop. When the national prohibition of alcohol ended in 1933, only a handful of breweries remained.
That wasn’t the end of Montana’s connection to brewing, however. The exhibit also explores the synergies between beer and agriculture as the state grew to become an industry leader in barley production, which is used by brewing giants like Budweiser.
In addition, the exhibit reviews the recent rise in home brewing and microbreweries, featuring oral histories with some of those instrumental in passing legislation that legalized brewery taprooms in Montana and those who hopped on board during the newest brewing boom in the 1990s. Displays include historic cans, bottles and beer steins; a home refrigerated “Serv-O-Draft” keg case from the 1930s; and a risqué life-size Italian marble statue that is believed to have graced one of Helena’s barrooms along with a wide range of historic brewery signs.
The exhibit’s opening, which takes place from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 27, is a free, family-friendly event that celebrates Montana’s beer history with trivia, games, free snacks, Montana craft brews, and samples of root beer from Canyon Ferry Brewing in Townsend, Montana.
For more information, contact Eve Byron at email@example.com or 406/444-6843.