For the Love of Montana Beer Culture
Steve Lozar is a one-man repository of Montana beer culture and history. Not only that, he has collected and built an outstanding small museum showcasing 150 years of Montana beer and brewery history in space above his family’s business in Polson, Montana. Steve is a classic example of a Renaissance man — he is an anthropologist who teaches at the local college, a prolific collector of breweriana, a former tribal councilor of the Salish Kootenai, and a businessman still involved with his family’s screen printing business. His family history in Montana goes way back through both his Salish Kootenai roots and his great grandfather, Josef Lozar who immigrated from Slovenia in the 1880’s.
I made an appointment to visit with Steve at his museum not quite knowing what to expect. I had met him briefly at a beer event in Kalispell earlier in the week and he seemed genuinely enthusiastic about my coming to see him. Entering the museum, I was blown away by an overwhelming explosion of colors and artifacts of all shapes and sizes that have been arranged in a visually interesting display. Steve invited me to the museum bar where he poured us some beers. He explained that the bar, tables, chairs, and some other architectural artifacts had been salvaged from his family’s saloon in Helena at the time that the building was being demolished. The bar had to to be painstakingly reassembled — some parts of it were in splinters when he was able to recover it. It is looking good and is quite functional nowadays.
Steve grew up with beer culture as his family, from the time of his great-grandfather, was involved in the saloon business and with the now-defunct Kessler Brewery in Helena. Steve likens the saloons of those days to the classic idea of the public house — places where people of all classes would rub elbows and talk about the news and issues of the day. Pre-prohibition, there were as many as a couple of hundred breweries in Montana. A big activity throughout the state was mining and the miners came from places with well-established beer cultures like Ireland and central-Europe. Every town and camp of any size would have at least one brewery as transportation wasn’t that well developed yet to allow for broad distribution. Prohibition pretty killed the industry (no breweries from that time survived) until the fairly recent emergence of craft breweries. Nowadays Montana is once again approaching a hundred breweries in the state.
Steve has some great stories to tell that he connects up with various artifacts as illustrations. Some of them mingle Montana history with that of well-known brewers from far away like Olympia, Miller High Life, and Pabst or with national institutions like the New York Yankees. Did you know that Olympia’s famous tagline, “it’s the water”, originated in Montana in 1906 and was eventually “migrated” to Washington state when the brewer relocated there? Or that the “High Life” brand originated in Montana as a brand of Capital Brewing in Helena? The Kalispell Malting & Brewing Co. was operated by a member of the Best family (Pabst in Milwaukee was operated by the Pabst and Best families), and PBR was once bottled in Troy, MT in some kind of tax avoidance scheme of the day. Also, the distnctive font of the Highlander Beer logo (a Missoula beer) connects to Ne York Yankee lore — the Yankees were once known as the New York Highlanders and their owner (a brewer himself) agreed to let the Garden City Brewery in Missoula use the Highlander marking once he renamed the team to the Yankees. The Yankees continued to use the font though.
Steve’s interest in breweriana connects to his interested in commercial art and design. That has always been (and continues to be) an aspect of the brewery business and how beer is marketed. Steve showed me all kinds of posters and old-school swag that use creative and interesting artwork and design. Bottle openers, hand fans, sewing kits, ashtrays, serving trays, matchbooks, ice picks, playing cards, lint brushes — you name it. Steve showed me his favorite — a cardboard whistle that was intended to be used to summon your next beer — I could use one of those if anyone would pay attention.
Another interesting story Steve related was about the growler. He said that what we call growlers today were known simply as beer jugs back in the day. A true growler is really a copper beer vessel used by brewery workers. As the story goes, breweries all had a coppersmith on their staff who could do copper work and solder together pipe fittings and the like. When a new worker at the brewery proved their competence, the coppersmith would make and present them with a growler – a copper mug. Workers who had earned their growler were allowed to fill it with beer once per hour during their time at work as a nice fringe benefit of their job. I asked Steve what he knew about what beer must have tasted like back in the 1800’s. He said that early Montana brewers were emulating the styles they brought from their countries of origin. The Central-Europeans were making lagers and the Irish ales and stouts. Supplies of hops could be uncertain so there was a good bit of experimentation. Things like pine needles barks, and mosses would be substituted when hops couldn’t be had. So I guess that answer is that it is hard to know what the taste was like way back when but it might have been unusual. Steve says that part of his collection includes old recipes and that he has selectively worked with brewers to try some out.
Steve welcomes visitors but requests that an appointment be made in advance. You can contact him at 406 270 7695 or steve.lozar [ at ] cskt [ dot ] org
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Swag and Advertising Artifacts
Historical Photos and Records
Bottles and Containers
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