BILLINGS — The Montana Brewing Company (aka Brew Pub) celebrated 25 years of good food, great times, and award winning craft beer by giving away a free pint glass and beer to fill it with to everyone from 5-8 p.m. Wednesday.
The Montana Brewing Co. has a lot to brag about: it's the first brewery in Montana to serve food, first to serve sweet potato fries in Billings, and has the most beer awards of any brewery in the state.
Brew Pub co-owner Sean Graves said his brewery helped start the proliferation of craft breweries across the state. The Brew Pub was the third craft brewery in Montana, behind Bayern Brewing and Big Sky Brewing, both located in Missoula.
“This was the first brew pub in Montana that had food, liquor and craft beer," Graves said. "We were the third brewery that kind of started a revitalization of the industry. There were a lot of breweries in the '40s and '50s all over Montana. It kind of went away for awhile, but then they came back. This was the third brewery that was started up and now I think the number is around 100.”
Billings is now home to eight breweries, two distilleries and one cider house, along with a brewery in Laurel, High Plains Brewing.
Graves said the old breweries business fell off in the '60s or '70s. During this time, people were mostly drinking domestic lagers and light beers. Graves credits part of the craft brew revolution to people getting tired of lite beers that were first introduced in the '80s. People were looking for something different.
"If you went to a store in 1990, that would be all they offer is a domestic lager," Graves said. "You would never see anything craft. The people in Denver really got things going by offering some stouts and some ambers and some wheats.
Montana Brewing Co. has brewed about 50 different types of beer and served about 1.1 million pints over its lifetime. Graves said the White Tail Wheat beer has been consistently sold over 25 years and is a crowd favorite. But tastes are constantly changing.
“People just really enjoy the wheat beer," Graves said. "I think that when the craft brew thing started in Billings, you saw people going with a lighter style because they weren’t accustomed to the pales and the stouts. When the market opened, it was a lot of our golden ale and the wheat beer. Now it’s really shifted to where a lot of the beer drinkers palates have converted to IPAs and the bitter stouts.”
The Brew Pub has won an award at every major festival in the world for the White Tail Wheat brew, Graves said.
The downtown Billings breweries also served to jump start downtown Billings revitalization in the late '90s and mid-aughts.
“I used to remember looking out the window across the street where Doc Harper’s is, those windows were boarded up for about five years," Graves said. "When they started revitalizing this block and bringing things back, you can see all the walking traffic going by us. That’s what makes it really special because it’s the growth. And that’s what people want to see in their downtown.”
The Billings Chamber of Commerce took note of the Billings breweries in 2013 and leaned into Billings' beer drinking roots by creating a walkable brewery tour map to market to locals and tourists.
“We thought, 'what better way to market drinking beer then market it safely?' Where people can walk from one brewery to the next," said Ali Murnion, the Visit Billings leisure marketing manager.
Murnion said six breweries being within 1.5 miles of each other is a great asset to get people visiting Billings.
"It’s been really awesome," Murnion said. "We continually get requests from journalists and bloggers and vloggers to come here and shoot our brewery district. It really has become a really prized thing for us."
Graves said the eight Billings breweries are able to stay afloat because they each have something different to offer their customers.
“Everybody has found their niche and I think that’s what makes everybody successful is they are finding their customer that likes their product like that,” Graves said.