Garden City BrewFest: 26 years of camaraderie and connection
As the largest and longest-standing beer festival in Big Sky Country, the Garden City BrewFest celebrates its 26th year on Saturday, May 5, from 12-8 p.m. It is the rite of spring, the celebration of a long spring semester and the convergence of Missoulians initiating the start of events season in the Garden City.
This year’s festival features 70 beers on tap, a dozen different wines to sample and more ciders than ever before. Attendees can sample 15 beers from Missoula, 25 beers from elsewhere in Montana and 30 more from across the United States.
For those who prefer fruits over hops, there will be several wines to sample, plus mimosas made with a Spanish sparkling wine and several different ciders. This year’s wine bar will feature Missoula’s own Tattoo Girl Rosé, a Sauvignon Blanc from France, a Pinot Noir from Argentina and several others.
Garden City BrewFest was created in 1992 by the owners of Bayern Brewing, the Rhino, the Iron Horse and Worden’s Market back in the day when craft beer was brand new. It was gifted to the Missoula Downtown Association in 2001, and revenues from the event are reinvested into downtown projects including Caras Park improvements, flower baskets, holiday décor upgrades and wayfinding.
As one of several community festivals organized and offered by MDA, Garden City BrewFest has been the recipient of several awards, including Best Festival by the Missoula’s Choice Awards and the Best of Missoula Awards.
Setting this event apart from others in the marketplace is the Garden City Beer Awards, selected by a panel of judges from Missoula’s homebrewing crew, the Zoo City Zymurgists. Judges sample each of the offerings and rank the beers based on character, aroma, appearance and mouthfeel. Beer judging is not for the faint of heart; imagine taste-testing 70 beers in just a few hours!
This year’s festival also features a wide variety of entertainment from three distinctly different western Montana bands. Missoula’s own Milltown Damn will open with high-energy bluegrass music from 12-2 p.m. Salsa Loca, also from Missoula, will bring Latin jazz with a hint of funk as the event transitions into the evening. Marshall Catch will close out the evening with alternative rock from the Flathead Valley.
While Garden City BrewFest is admission-free for all to enjoy, those interested in sampling the offerings will need to purchase a 7-ounce commemorative glass, wristband and three tokens for $15 or six tokens for $20. Additional tokens are $1.50 each. A variety of food vendors will also be on hand, including Clove Cart Pizza, El Cazador, Covered Wagon Hot Dogs and Dobi’s Teriyaki. Big Dipper Ice Cream will be serving up some special beer-flavored treats to sample as well.
Sponsors for this year’s festival include founder Bayern Brewing, Farmers State Bank, Missoula Broadcasting, Gecko Designs, the Missoula Independent, Rockin’ Rudy’s, Datsopoulos, MacDonald & Lind, Sweet Pea Sewer & Septic, Dollar Rent-a-Car, Clover Social Media and KBGA Radio.
Reflecting on the Garden City BrewFest’s 26-year run reminds us of how beer has provided joyful experiences, camaraderie and connections for people throughout the Missoula community and the state. Don’t miss Montana’s largest and longest-standing beer festival: It’s a blast.
Linda McCarthy, executive director
Missoula Downtown Association
How to drink beer
Because if you’re not in it for the taste, what are you in it for?
by Alex Sakariassen
In the 31 years since the term “microbrewery” first worked its way into the local vernacular, Missoula has become obsessed with craft beer. We sip it, we chug it, we slap it on hats and hoodies and bumper stickers. A can is now the go-to companion on chairlift rides and river trips, and a pint is the quickest way to stir up envy in out-of-town visitors. We were collectively amused when our brewery count hit four, stunned when it hit seven, baffled when it reached nine. By 2019, we’ll be at 11.
With so many flagships and seasonals and one-offs within arms’ reach, it’s easy to grow complacent, or get swept up in the latest stylistic craze. The likes of Summer Honey and Scepter have usurped yesterday’s yellow fizzy-water as our casual drink of choice, their hometown-crafted taste a secondary consideration to the Missoula impulse to have a beer in hand after the work whistle blows. What, in this crazy world of scotch ales and saisons and session IPAs, is a drinker to do when he or she realizes that reflection has taken a backseat to reflex? How, in other words, does one slow down and smell the barley?
In an effort to transcend simple drinking, the Indy convened a panel of professionals last month to discuss the finer points of actually tasting craft beer. The evening took one rollicking turn after another, but over the span of a flight of beers at the Dram Shop, these experts succeeded in imparting most of the wisdom a Missoulian might need to take beer drinking to a deeper level. First, let’s introduce our panelists.
Jeff Shearer is a longtime homebrewer and current president of the Zoo City Zymurgists, the homebrew club that volunteers its tasting expertise to judge the Garden City BrewFest every year. Shearer got started as a beer judge largely to improve his game at homebrewing competitions, and his passion for evaluation only grew from there. He’s less of a stickler for the style guidelines put out by outfits like the Beer Judging Certification Program, preferring instead to rate a beer on its own inherent merits. He’s also not the sort to fault anyone for enjoying a beer that he has issues with.
“I’ve sat next to people and I’m drinking the same beer as them and to my palate it’s just a really flawed, poorly crafted beer, and they love it,” Shearer says. “More power to them. I’m not going to tell them otherwise.”
Corey Regini considers tasting essential to her line of work. She was the lead brewer at the Northside KettleHouse for nearly four years (she left in late April for a gig at Terrapin Brewing in Athens, Georgia) and has served as the Montana chapter coordinator for the Pink Boots Society, an international nonprofit for women in the brewing industry. The key to being a good brewer, she says, is knowing your ingredients well enough to predict how they’ll come through at the end of the process.
“How could I not drink beer? How could I not taste and critique it?” she laughs. “I’m like my own biggest critic in the taproom.”
Then we have Mark Waiss, a second-generation beer industry guy who’s been guiding Missoula’s maturation from behind the scenes since the 1990s. He’s the resident craft-beer guru at Summit Beverage, the distributor that handles Bayern, Draught Works and KettleHouse, along with a host of familiar western Montana and regional breweries. Waiss has been in the beer biz for 40 years, and around it for 60.
“I have an incredibly spoiled palate,” he says, “because of the fact that I have access to an amazing portfolio of beers, whether they’re really great local Montana beers or some of these really great national and regional brands that we sell.”
As Shearer, Regini and Waiss warm up their taste buds with pints of Firestone Walker Brewing Company’s lager and await the incoming flight of snifters, they talk about the first major step in really tasting a beer. Turns out it has nothing to do your mouth.
“If you’re going to go through the various different beer-judging certifications out there, there’s sort of a process they walk you through,” Shearer says. “Visual, aroma, appearance, flavor, overall impression. It builds your frame of mind on how you break that beer down.”
So, let’s begin.
You can tell a lot about a beer just by looking at it. Take the lager the panelists are drinking: light-colored, clean, clear, bubbly. There’s no mistaking it for a malt-heavy porter or an unfiltered wheat beer. The glass screams crisp and refreshing.
When the flight arrives, our panelists take a minute to examine the contents. Waiss comments on the colors, which range from the light yellow of Imagine Nation’s Alchemy 3 Pale Ale to the deep ruby of Ballast Point’s Sour Wench Blackberry Ale. Still, Shearer warns that appearances can sometimes be deceiving. At the recent Backcountry BrewFest put on by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, he served beer for Darby’s Bandit Brewing. On one of the taps was a brew called the Juggernaut, billed as a blonde stout. It looked like an unfiltered pale, he says, but had all the taste-trappings of a stout: roastiness, chocolate notes, a hint of vanilla. Despite the misdirection, Shearer says he wound up serving five glasses of Juggernaut to one glass of any other beer.
The story prompts Regini to offer a word of caution: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Before touching the Alchemy 3 to his lips, Waiss holds the glass to his nose, tipping it so his nostrils hover just above the liquid inside. His chest puffs visibly as he inhales.
Aroma can tell you far more than mere appearance. Hints of citrus or chocolate broadcast the types of hops or malts used, and set the table for what you can expect to taste. A good whiff can also tell you how fresh the beer is. Hops react quickly to sunlight, Regini says, and when they do, the beer puts off a funky odor. “It literally smells like a skunk,” she says. Maybe that just means you let the glass sit too long in the sun, or maybe it means the beer wasn’t stored very well. It’s little cues like that, Regini adds, that are helpful to recognize.
By this point, Shearer, Regini and Waiss are antsy to drink something. Each tips back a glass and the table grows silent while they ponder. Waiss takes a longer, larger, second pass at the Alchemy 3. Shearer gives Odell’s Rupture Fresh Grind Ale a moment more on his tongue. Regini speaks first, on the Sierra Nevada Little Stronghand Stout.
“It’s almost like brownie batter,” she says. “There’s definitely chocolate, there’s a little bit of roast. It’s absolutely a stout. I wouldn’t gravitate toward this, but I would absolutely order another one.” It’s exactly what she expected after reading Sierra Nevada’s description on her phone — a tasting tip she encourages other drinkers to utilize.
Shearer gets big tropical fruit notes from the Rupture, along with a bit of caramel sweetness. The former, Waiss chimes in, is probably from the specialized process Odell uses to produce the brew. The Colorado brewery built its own machine to grind the hops, releasing the oils and maximizing the hop flavor.
The trick with the first sip, they all agree, is to hold the beer in your mouth long enough to pick up on the full medley of flavors. That’s when you’ll detect any bitterness, the extension of those smells you detected before, and, if you’re unlucky, any off-flavors or flaws the beer might have. Pay attention, too, to the liquid’s consistency, Waiss says: “Is this beer thin and watery when it’s not supposed to be thin and watery? Has it got a perfect body to it? Is it chewy?” These sensations are referred to as “mouthfeel,” and if the beer’s done right, it’s where the brewer’s art truly shines.
Wait for it…
Once you’ve let the first sip cascade over your palate, it’s important to pause for a moment and take a breath or two. This is when the aftertaste will kick in. It could be that hint of caramel malt that Shearer detected in the Rupture. Or, as Regini points out, it could be a wave of heat from beers brewed with peppers. Sometimes lingering flavors, like green apple or white grape, will come not from the hops or malt, but from the yeast.
This is an especially important distinction to draw when it comes to sours, a style that’s caught fire with Montana breweries in the past several years. After a sip of the Sour Wench, Regini says it’s the blackberry flavor promised in the name that lingers. Less fruity sours have given rise to some rather bizarre descriptors: forest blanket, goaty, mousey. Regini recalls coming across a sour at a beer festival that was advertised as having notes of parmesan cheese.
“I always laugh at the mousey one,” Shearer says. “Like, how did anyone ever come up with mousey as a term to describe a flavor?”
Waiss suspects that the sour craze originated with beer geeks who endeavored to find styles strange and unfamiliar enough to keep them two steps ahead of the masses. Oddly enough, he says, when he first came to Missoula’s craft beer scene, that cutting-edge mantel belonged to India pale ales. Most IPAs at the time were based on the English style, with heavier malt bills and less aggressive hops profiles. But after hopped-up American IPAs became par in most taprooms, fanatics turned to centuries-old recipes from mainland Europe to bolster their brew cred, even though those same Europeans had for decades flavored their lambics and other sours with fruit to make them more palatable.
“In America, we’ve got to take everything and make it bigger and bolder, and that’s kind of what we’ve done,” Waiss says. “We’ve taken almost every style of beer and made it our own by making it bigger and bolder and gnarlier and putting more stuff in it.”
As the evening wears on and the volume of beer in their glasses decreases, Shearer, Regini and Waiss launch into one snaking, nuance-laden discussion after another. Regini talks about the oft-overlooked importance of carbonation, which will radically alter the taste of a beer the more it decreases. It’s why so many breweries warn patrons to drink growlers quickly. More than a day or two in the fridge and that beer will go flat. This leads to one of the panel’s most important taste-based tips: Be mindful of how the beer is stored, and for how long.
For instance: If Shearer is going to drink an IPA, he says, he’s far more likely to go with a local one. Hops are usually the first ingredient to degrade in a beer, a point Regini seconds, and if an IPA has had to make the trek from North Carolina, it’s not likely to be as fresh. Similarly, brews like the Firestone Lager need to be kept in cold storage. If it tastes off, Waiss says, odds are it sat in a warm warehouse for a while. Even leaving a glass on the counter for too long can change a beer’s taste.
The consideration extends to packaging. Cans and brown bottles are great, the panel agrees, but some bigger breweries still choose to distribute in clear or green glass. That gets back to the light-struck aspect Waiss described earlier, the factor that can make hoppy beers smell and taste funky. Clear and green bottles don’t filter out sunlight, he says, so it’s likely the beer inside doesn’t taste the way it should.
“Most people that drink Heineken don’t even know what Heineken is supposed to taste like,” Waiss adds. “You taste Heineken in Europe, fresh out of the tap, it doesn’t taste anything like the Heineken people experience here in places like Montana where it’s old and it’s light-struck.”
Keeping beer cold, not letting it sit, protective packaging. These are all great tips to help ensure that when you decide to truly taste your beer, it’s worth the effort. But as nerdy as it all may sound, Shearer says the most important thing is to not lose sight of what motivated you to crack open a brew in the first place.
“Don’t forget that you’re drinking beer, and it should be enjoyable,” he says. “That should still be the end goal in it all. Don’t get too caught up in critiquing the beer when it’s just an enjoyable drink.”
Tunes to drink by
Your soundtrack for the 26th Garden City BrewFest
Milltown Damn, a high-energy bluegrass band from Missoula, opens Garden City BrewFest this year. The Damn band features Pete Barrett (of Lil’ Smokies’ fame) on guitar and vocals, along with Caleb Dostal on banjo, Troy Morgan on bass, Paul Scarr on mandolin and Henry Reich on fiddle.
Salsa Loca, Missoula’s favorite Latin jazz band with a hint of funk, will take the stage mid-day. Salsa Loca features a sizzling hot horn section and virtuoso Latin percussionists, with Hellgate High School band teacher Leon Slater on trumpet, Chuck Florence on saxophone and Bob Ledbetter and Cody Hollow on percussion. First-class bass by Beth Lo and rapid-fire guitar and piano work by David Horgan round out the energetic and accomplished band. You will enjoy danceable Latin and Afro-Cuban styles, including mambo, cha-cha, danzon, guaracha, guaguanco, merengue, bolero and everything in between.
Marshall Catch, a four-piece alternative rock band from the Flathead Valley, will close out the evening with a powerful performance that melds the songwriting style of Cat Stevens with the guitar-driven sounds of Collective Soul. Band members include founder Luke Lautaret, bassist Matt Haun, drummer Erik Delaney and lead guitarist Tyler Rounds. The Catch has garnered widespread acclaim for their ability to play stripped-down and intimate sets or full-throttle rock and roll. The band showcases harmonies that nod to early Eagles records and riff-rock anthems of the 1980s.