In the West, it’s all about beer

After sampling 50 different beers and spending a number of hours searching for garages converted to breweries, I was content. A friend and I had planned this getaway for weeks, and the night in Bend, Ore., was as central to the trip as was Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon. In fact, the visit was more of a pilgrimage: We would follow the “Bend Ale Trail” and visit all eight of the town’s craft breweries.

As I struggled through a headache the next morning, I had an epiphany.  In the West, beer really matters, and what might seem like a mere curiosity has become central to the identity of this changing region.  In the past two decades, the number of craft breweries has exploded, and every moderate-sized city and even some small towns now have at least one. Tap lines have become a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors that are distinct from the relatively mundane red, silver and blues of the major domestic brands.

While this trend is national in scale, its significance has assumed greater proportions in the West, where a brewery culture has become vital to the local character.  Eastern states produce a lot of craft beer and tend to distribute in higher volumes, but with few exceptions, taprooms featuring local beer haven’t rooted themselves in the cultural fabric. In the West, taprooms often double as community centers, and beer is designed to accommodate the outdoor lives of the people who consume it.  As a result, the identities of cities like Portland and Bend, Ore., Missoula and Bozeman, Mont., and Fort Collins, Colo., are now almost as closely linked to the beer they produce as to the scenery that surrounds them.  Furthermore, the West has always fancied itself exceptional, and producing and consuming beer locally offers a new outlet for celebrating these differences.

For starters, seven of the top 10 states ranked by craft breweries per capita are in the West, which means Westerners have access to a wide variety of craft beers.  However, numbers are only a small part of a much larger story.  In Montana, which ranks number two on that list, many of the state’s 33 breweries are located in small, isolated towns. They are local businesses that exist to serve their communities.  The population of Philipsburg, Mont., hovers around 800, yet since opening in 2012, the Philipsburg Brewing Company has become a cornerstone of the community.  As is true of places like Bend, Missoula and Fort Collins, the town’s brewery is now an inextricable part of it.

Not only does locally produced beer satisfy Westerners’ sense of self-reliance and authenticity, but breweries have also deliberately ensured that their beer is compatible with the outdoor lifestyle New Westerners cherish.  With that in mind, Oskar Blues Brewery of Longmont, Colo., became one of the first craft breweries to can its beer when it opened in 1999.  Since then, other Western craft breweries such as Missoula’s Kettlehouse have followed suit.  The decision to can instead of bottle derives, in part, from Westerners’ iconoclastic nature, but it’s also practical.

As every Kettlehouse can explains, cans are both environmentally friendly and easy to tote.  Glass is prohibited on Montana’s rivers, which means that tubers, kayakers and anglers must imbibe from cans.  Additionally, cans are lighter than glass, which make them far more appealing to take hiking, biking or backpacking.

In the West, taprooms have become as essential to the craft beer experience as the beer itself.  Because sampling craft beer has assumed the same ritual (some would say pretentious) nature of wine tasting, taprooms have earned an identity separate from bars. Parents bring their children, professors meet with students, and community groups host fundraisers.

In a perfect distillation of this phenomenon, Tamarack Brewing Company of Lakeside, Mont., crafted a special ale that it named in honor of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus’ Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act.  At the ale’s release party, Baucus discussed the importance of protecting the West’s wild lands while he sampled beer made from the clean water that his bill would help protect.

The next evening, as I casually sipped a Deschutes Black Butte Porter and watched the sunset illuminate Crater Lake, I thought about the significance of all these breweries, micro and macro, for the region.  Craft beer may never be as essential to the landscape of the American West as its epic scenery and intact ecosystems, but its place here is as enjoyable as it is undeniable.