Barley, Beers, and Hikes in Great Falls, Montana
My recent roadtrip to Great Falls, Montana featured interesting beers, beautiful hikes, and a great orientation to one of the USA’s premier barley growing regions. Great Falls is a town of about 60,000 people located on the Missouri River above what used to be a series of five waterfalls, one of which was named “Great Falls”. Many years ago, hydroelectric plants were built at the locations of each of these falls as part of a plan to industrialize the town. Various mills, a smelter, and the Montana Brewing Company eventually used the electricity but those operations are no more. Great Falls also became an important railroad center. By outward appearance, Great Falls current fortunes are as the hub of a major agricultural area and home to an Air Force base.
The downtown has seen better days but has interesting old buildings and some of them are beginning to be reclaimed for new uses. One is home to the Mighty Mo brewpub whose owners take pride in anchoring revitalization. A big attraction in the downtown is a tiki bar located in a motel called the Sip and Dip Lounge. The magazine GQ once listed this place in its list of the top 10 bars in the world, ranking it as the “#1 bar…worth flying for”.
Women in mermaid suits swim in the motel’s windowed indoor pool behind the bar and giant tourist drinks are served in fish bowls. The place was hopping when we stopped by to see what it was about and it certainly is a novel spot. Unfortunately, the lounge’s famous pianist, “Piano Pat” Spoonheim was under the weather so we missed her performance — she has played the piano there since 1963 and I understand she is a considerable part of the draw of the place.
As for hikes and beers, there is a long bikeway/pathway that follows the river, but the hikes I decided on were a half hour or so drive out of town. Great Falls has three breweries and I visited a fourth in nearby Belt between hikes. I was in town for an event called Beer Now, an annual beer bloggers conference. Several agenda items involved learning about the role that Great Falls plays in barley and malt production.
No Barley, No Beer
The northcentral part of Montana fanning northward to the Canadian border from the town of Great Falls is known as the Golden Triangle. The “golden” in “Golden Triangle” refers to the color of the massive agricultural tracts of barley and wheat grain that cover the area and turn a golden color as they are ready to harvest. This area is a huge source of a key ingredient in beer — malted barley. Trucks bring barley grain to malting facilities in the region that prepare it for use in brewing.
Just to the north of town is one of the maltworks – Malteurop. Huge grain elevators for handling the barley tower over a huge industrial building where the malting process takes place.
The process is a series of steps involving moistening the grain, stirring it in huge tanks to initiate sprouting, drying, kilning, and packaging. Malteurop is a farmer-owned, independent outfit that serves a broad clientele of brewers. In contrast, brewing giants AB Inbev and Coors have dedicated operations also in the area. The Malteurop folks indicate that they have seen substantial growth in their craft brewery customer base over the past many years. Even though craft is a big market for them, my understanding was that they sell the majority of their output to Mexican breweries.
During the visit to Great Falls I enjoyed meeting a number of barley farmers and hearing about their work. One described to me how it used to be that his production was contracted to AB InBev or Coors and they were pretty much the only game in town. With the development of the craft beer market customer options were increased and he is now highly tuned into and focused on what is going on in the craft beer world. The conversations brought me closer to a world in which the uncontrollable – weather and government policies (think tariffs) – play a huge role in making a living.
Beery Great Falls
Great Falls has three breweries and I visited a fourth in nearby Belt. That’s pretty good concentration for a population just north of 60,000. Mighty Mo Brewing Company has a brewpub located in a reclaimed, historic building in the center of town and for me is the most interesting of the taprooms. Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Company has a production facility located in the downtown but its taproom and pilot brewery are across the river at a place called The Front Brewpub. As I understand it, the two breweries share brewing time in the JJBC production brewery. Black Eagle Brewery is located in an industrial feeling area north of the river called Black Eagle. Harvest Moon Brewing Company is located in a small, historic town to the east called Belt. For my palate, Harvest Moon had the most interesting beers — I particularly enjoyed their Charles Russell Red and Pig’s Ass Porter. Their beertender also served me what he called a “Pig Nut” – a blend of the Pig’s Ass Porter and their Broken Bale Nut Brown Ale that made a nice combo.
Brewery taprooms in Montana operate under what seemed to me to be some pretty strange constraints. They are only allowed to be open until 8 pm and are limited to serving three beers per day to a given customer. I understood that these limitations were the result of lobbying by the Montana Tavern Owner’s Association – apparently a powerful lobby. I spoke to a tavern owner who told me he thought it was a fair situation because his license was far more expensive than a brewery license. I kept my immediate thought to myself – that his tavern didn’t have to invest in the cost of a brewery or take the risk that he could produce a range of beers that people would want to pay for. It also occurred to me that, in economic development terms, the breweries keep a substantially higher proportion of sales dollars in the local economy. Like many states before them, I hope Montana can figure out how to reduce and remove constraints on their local brewers.
Kellergeist was another nice find for a beer in the downtown. This self-described mini-pub was a friendly place that serves a variety of beers including dunkels from both the Andechs and Weltenberg Monastaries in Bavaria. Both of these are quite nice and the Andechs Doppelbock Dunkel is a rare find in my experience so that was a treat.
Sulphur Springs Hike
East of town starting near Morony Dam is an easy, scenic hike to a place of historic significance called Sulphur Springs. The terrain is wide open here with few trees. The trail rolls up and down between a series of side drainages.
The Lewis & Clark expedition and Native American history play large into a variety of historical sites in the area. Sulphur Springs was a gathering place for centuries for multiple Native American tribes and is also famous as a source for healing waters that are said to have helped Sacagawea recover from an illness that threatened to thwart Lewis & Clark’s progress. This is one of many sites in the area connected to the history of Lewis & Clark.
Sluice Boxes Hike
Further east is Sluice Boxes State Park and a hike that follows a former railroad grade into a narrow canyon of Belt Creek. The railroad that used to run here served mining operations upstream in their day. The canyon alternately narrows and broadens out as you head upstream. Miners thought that the stream feeding through narrow sections resembled the sluices they used in their mining, thus the name of the area. You get wet on this one as there are several stream crossings to contend with. The trail eventually travels upstream seven miles, but I had to turn around well before that due to time constraints.
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