From Montana to Wyoming to Idaho, writer and adventure traveler Adrienne So combines climbing, rafting, and mountain biking with some of the West’s best beer
Photograph by Max Lowe
One of the first things I learned on my beer–and–adventure tour through Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho has nothing to do with either beer or adventure.“Flugeling?” I say. “What the heck is flugeling?”
Construction has stalled my fellow beer adventurers and me on a tiny two-lane highway passing from Bozeman to Big Sky. On one side of us, the Gallatin River sparkles in the sun as it tumbles between its banks. On the other, steep hillsides, speckled with great gray boulders and scrubby pine, offer the tantalizing promise of bighorn sheep.
But as entertaining as looking for sheep can be, sitting in a van is still…sitting in a van. Our intrepid—and at times, alarmingly chipper—guide, Reno Walsh, casts about for some way to distract us and starts an energetic discussion of Keller Williams, currently playing on the stereo. As it turns out, everyone but me knows that the art of flugeling consists of making bugle sounds, but without a bugle. Walsh starts tootling exuberantly, like an eight-year-old Union soldier playing morning reveille. “This is amazing!” I say. “We should put together a band and play tonight at Cinnamon Fest!”
Terry Lynch, our second guide, laughs. “We’ll need two or three hours for our set.”
“At least,” Walsh says. The music on the stereo plays on. Eventually, we roll forward.
This is my first time traveling through this dream country of the West. It’s also my first guided tour. In the 24 hours after my plane deposits me, blinking, from Portland’s cool gray drizzle into the bright hot heat of a high country summer, I will hike past waterfalls and mountains, tour a brewery, visit a barley field, and speak to a scientist farmer. Given all that will happen in the very near future, I should relish the chance to sit still for 20 minutes. It’s dizzying—all of it, the scenery, the beer, and the sensation of being completely swept off my feet.
The tour is run by Zephyr Adventures, a Montana-based outfit that started in 1997 by leading in-line-skating tours all over the world. The beer-and-adventure tours are a relatively recent addition to their lineup—this is only the second one they’ve done. But including beer makes perfect sense.
After all, what is beer besides malted barley (with a little yeast, water, and hops thrown in)? And what is the American West, if not the breadbasket of America? Everywhere I turn, purple mountain majesties loom over amber waves of grain. The history of the West is intimately tied with the history of American craft brewing, and each brewery that we visit is yet another delicious reminder.
Calvin Trillin once wrote that food’s deliciousness is inversely proportional to the grandeur of the scenery. That is to say, a cook’s proficiency suffers when he is outside admiring the view, instead of slaving in front of a hot stove where he belongs.
Luckily, brewers don’t suffer from the same limitations. After we return from the hike, we head to Bozeman Brewing Company, known as “Bozone” or “the BBC” to the locals. After ordering a pint in their crowded, convivial tasting room, we walk through the brewery. The clear, dry air is as crisp and clean as Champagne and just beyond the parking lot, the nearby Bridger Range beckons to BBC employees playing darts.
Their signature beer is the Bozone Select Amber, a caramel-colored ale that derives its signature sweetness from the fact that Bozone only uses grain grown and malted in Great Falls, Montana—some of the best malting grain in the world. When we walk toward the south side of the brewery, we find another local ingredient. Massive hop bines wind their way up the walls. BBC’s manager, Tucker Karlberg, informs us that Bozone uses its own hops. Every year, they also run a lupulin-based scavenger hunt around Bozeman, where volunteers pick and sort hops from their neighbor’s yards.
After the tour and tasting, we drive to Montana Ale Works for dinner. I have a glass of the Salmon Fly Honey Rye from Madison River Brewery in Belgrade, Montana, and it proves to be a tasty, but unwise, choice for my travel-addled self. When the rest of the group opts to explore downtown Bozeman after dinner, I walk back to our hotel to fall sound asleep.
Given that foodies everywhere evince a relentless interest in sourcing coffee and cacao beans, it is puzzling that beer geeks devote relatively little attention to sourcing local grain. Karlberg’s relentless praise for Montanan grains has piqued our interest. And on our way out of Bozeman in the morning, our guides stop at Montana State University’s barley fields to satisfy said interest.
The barley’s weighted tops ruffle slightly in the breeze. It stands about knee-high as we shift our weight from foot to foot, standing on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere. A stocky, sunburned man in a baseball cap and boots pulls up in a pickup truck. He is Dr. Tom Blake, a professor in plant science and genetics at Montana State University and the director of MSU’s barley breeding program.
This particular field contains one of the 10,000 to 20,000 barley breeding lines that Dr. Blake evaluates per year to determine if each is valuable and worth releasing into production. He explains that a stalk of barley can grow in two configurations, and breaks one apart between his fingers to demonstrate. A two-row stalk of barley has two rows of grain per row, and six-row barley has six rows.
Six-row barley is popular with big beer makers like Anheuser-Busch (which recently recommitted to using Montana malt barley in their products). The higher protein and enzyme levels in six-row make it easier to brew large batches of beer and disguise the addition of fillers, like rice and corn. Anheuser-Busch might use about 0.7 bushels of grain per barrel of beer, while craft brewers would use two or more bushels.
Most craft brewers, in America and elsewhere, use two-row barley—the kernels are more uniform in size, which in turn produces a more uniform malt. But last year’s droughts hurt barley production severely. Dr. Blake says, “The littler guys always get hurt.” As he wraps up his talk, he expostulates on an interesting solution: independent craft maltsters, like independent coffee roasters, to encourage the production of local malting barley for small brewers.
It’s an intriguing prospect, but we don’t have very much time to dwell on the possibilities. After shaking Dr. Blake’s hand, we hop back into the van and onto the next part of our tour.
Like American patriots cuffed in the hold of a British prison ship, our little group has developed a quick camaraderie—although in retrospect, it’s hard to know if this is because of the tight quarters, common interests, or the fact that we’re (I’m) slightly buzzed for most of the day. Among us, we have a former figure skater, a global marketer, a video game developer, a fly fisherman, a CPA, a grandmother, a former speed skater, and, finally, a financial analyst.
As we’re all hanging out in a bar one night, Walsh comments that ours, on average, is the youngest group he’s ever taken on a tour. More surprisingly, on average, we are an exceptionally fit group. I run half-marathons, rock climb, and snowboard, and I can barely keep up with the grandmother. I suppose this is self-selection in action, on a trip that advertises rafting, biking, and hiking among its activities—not to mention the copious imbibing of fermented beverages.
For six days, there is only one brief break in the hot, beautiful weather, and it coincides with the exact moment that someone tells me to change into my bathing suit. A guide at Geyser Whitewater Expeditions, a rafting outfit on the Gallatin River, notes that they tend to get rain around 2 or 3 p.m. every afternoon. Sure enough, we spot ominous gray clouds as we roll into the parking lot. Another guide suggests that we might be more comfortable in wetsuits. As incongruous as three millimeters of neoprene feel in July, I squeeze myself into one, grab a paddle, and hop on the bus.
In a blatant brown-nosing gesture, Meriwether Lewis named the Gallatin River after Albert Gallatin, who was the secretary of the treasury when the Corps of Discovery arrived here in 1805. In their journals, both captains give accounts of repeatedly overturning their canoes while navigating the three tributaries of the Missouri that meet here, trying to decide which one of them would lead to the Pacific Ocean. (Answer: none of them.) As our guide deftly steers us through Class III rapids, it’s not hard to imagine how those tired men would have had a lot of trouble.
Perhaps the river’s most prominent claim to fame is the fact that Robert Redford filmed parts of A River Runs Through It here. We do pass fly fishermen, with vests full of flies and faces full of gentle exasperation, as we scud around river bends. However, the most interesting feature of the Gallatin, to me, is that I didn’t know it was possible to be this cold in July. Within 20 minutes of setting out, freezing rain is pouring down on the boats, and I am pathetically grateful to the guide who suggested that I wear a wetsuit.
By the time we’ve peeled off soaked garments and headed toward Lone Peak Brewery, the sun has reappeared. I bask on the front steps for a few minutes, and order a pint of their Hippy Highway Oatmeal Stout to warm up before checking out the brewery.
Vicky Nordahl is a petite, outspoken woman in her 30s with long brown hair and plenty of opinions. She and her husband, Steve, run what was the definition of a family business. All their brewing equipment is crammed in a space that’s about the size of a standard one-bedroom house. As Vicky leads us past the mash tun, two small girls run to her and hug her legs. She swings the smaller one on her hip as the older tries to tuck a wad of dollar bills in her shorts. I tune out the next few minutes of Vicky’s talk as I wonder if eight-year-olds can legally tend bar in Montana.
Then it’s back on the van and we head to 320 Guest Ranch in Big Sky. As I carry my suitcase to the cabin where we’ll be spending the night, a man in cowboy boots and a big Stetson drives a wagon down the road. After a dinner of pan-fried Idaho trout in the lodge, we drive a short distance down the street to Cinnamon Lodge, where we listen to a bluegrass band and drink beer next to a bonfire.
Most of the other attendees seem to be locals, switching from raft guides to lift operators as the season dictates. While their career choices are different than mine, it’s hard to deny the fringe benefits—especially when we return to the cabins and Walsh says, “Hey, look at that!” When I tilt my head back, I see a distinctive creamy band, stretching across the inky navy blue of the sky. It’s the Milky Way, and I’ve never seen it this clearly before in my life.
W. Averell Harriman was a New York politician, best known for advising Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II and for being a little less ostentatious with his wealth than fellow railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, whose ex-wife Harriman would later marry. Rather than build a grotesque mansion off the eastern seaboard, Harriman built a retreat for his family on 11,000 acres in eastern Idaho.
We briefly tour a collection of buildings in what is now known as Harriman State Park, marveling at the views from Harriman’s living room and his gear collection for what I believe is known now as “glamping,” like Kate Moss lolling about in a custom-made teepee with Turkish rugs at the Glastonbury Festival. But soon we are off. The hiking trail winds through wetlands and over freshwater creeks, where we spot baby trout milling to and fro, far-off herons and egrets, and—much to my alarm—fresh bear scat. When we remove our shoes to wash off the hiking dust in a secluded little inlet, we discover leeches on several people’s legs.
We drown out the collective horror with a tour and tasting at Grand Teton Brewing Company in Victor, Idaho. At first glance, Victor is unprepossessing—the sort of low-to-the-ground, monochrome, one-lane town that breeds unfulfilled dreams like mosquitoes in stagnant water. But when we park, the Tetons face us on one side. Locals sip Bitch Creek Extra Special Brown on the patio, their dogs lying under their chairs. As we start to play lawn games, Grand Teton brewmaster Rob Mullin, comes out to greet us.
Mullin is considerably older and more experienced than the other brewers we’ve met so far, with broad, square hands and a striking shock of gray hair. He took over the venerable facility from Charlie Otto, the inventor of the modern-day growler, but he seems pleasantly unburdened by the weight of history. When we sit at a table laden with glassware, Mullin reassures us: “Beer should be fun, not hoity-toity. I don’t want beer to ever be intimidating.”
A beer’s taste is dependent on a brewer’s skill, but as any chef will attest, the quality of the ingredients matters as well. Mullin urges us to taste the water straight from the tap—“We had the water analyzed,” he said. “The mineral content is close to Munich water,” and as everyone clearly knows, “the best beers are in the Munich style.”
We sip our way through stouts and saisons, and a Snarling Badger Berliner Weisse that is so flavorful, soft, and sweet that I kick myself for the rest of the trip for only bringing a carry-on bag. By the time we get up from the table, we are all pleasantly relaxed. I nap all the way to Jackson, Wyoming.
The Grand Tetons are probably one of the few sights on the continent that could render the taste of Snarling Badger unmemorable. The next morning dawns cold and gray, and I’m shivering as we pedal our rental bikes away from Dornan’s Resort. I start to warm up and relax just as the morning sun burns off the fog. Right on cue, I reach the top of a small rise and the giant stone hulks of the Tetons loom over me.
The Earth consists of giant plates that move, unsettled, on the top of dynamic molten lava. This concept is easy enough to understand in geology class, but for obvious reasons, remains somewhat abstract to most of us—that is, until you see the bright line where the Tetons jut from the ground, the result of one fault plate colliding and grinding over the edges of another. Two hours’ leisurely riding brings us to the shores of Jenny Lake, a clear and still aquamarine jewel, nestled among the pine trees under several peaks.
If I had one complaint to make of guided tours, it is how tightly the agenda is scheduled. We race back from Jenny Lake to Dornan’s for a quick lunch, and then, with my quadriceps aching, we pile back into the van for the two-hour drive through Yellowstone National Park to the historic Old Faithful Inn.
We arrive just in time for Old Faithful’s 6 p.m. show. Our group is barely distinguishable from the swarms of humanity that have amassed on the platform around the geyser—until Walsh pulls out 10 bottles of Grand Teton’s Old Faithful Ale. We pop off the tops and cheer as Old Faithful explodes from the ground, releasing a thunderous 70-foot-tall jet of sulfurous steam into the air.
Traversing the walkways through Yellowstone’s geyser field is the closest I’ve come to skimming over the surface of the moon. The geysers erupt, seemingly at random. If you’re unlucky enough to be standing on the wrong side of them, the steam scalds your skin. A vista overlooking the park reveals wisps of steam from fumaroles too numerous to count, dotted by pools of water dyed unearthly shades of blue, red, and green.
As we walk and sip our beers, we pass several groups of what Walsh refers to as “geyser gazers,” devoted geyser enthusiasts that come with camp chairs, fisherman’s hats, and guidebooks and spend hours a day observing the eruptions. Bursting with pride, a 12-year-old expert gives us tips on when the best ones are scheduled to blow. It’s on his recommendation that we swing back after dinner to witness the Lion Geyser’s spectacular eruption later that evening.
In his documentary on their creation, filmmaker Ken Burns calls national parks “America’s best idea.” They are. The beauty of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, as captured by the painter Thomas Moran and the photographer William Henry Jackson, prompted Congress to protect Yellowstone by creating the first federally owned park in America, and the world.
Standing on the north rim of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon is the visual equivalent of listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It makes your heart soar. The blue-green Yellowstone River pours through a deep cleft in the earth, yellow stone striped through with rust-red ochre and dotted with pine trees gnarled by wind.
I eat an apple and a sandwich while sitting in an overlook, and, seasoned with the scenery before me, it tastes like a gourmet dinner prepared by Mario Batali. It is unbelievable that this magnificence exists in the same universe as the two teenage girls that I pass on the trail back to the van, sulking by the railing in trendy plastic sunglasses. “Why’d we have to leave the car, Mom,” one of them says, sneering. “This totally wasn’t worth it.”
It’s a three-hour drive from Yellowstone to Beartooth Pass, back across the state line to Montana. The first time I see a herd of bison next to the side of the road, I nearly asphyxiate with excitement, but by the third or fourth time I am content to let them pass by. The road leading up to Beartooth Pass is harder to ignore.
One of the most scenic highways in America, the Beartooth Highway borders Yellowstone National Park before climbing steadily into the mountains between Wyoming and Montana. As I peer out the window at slopes still covered with silken snow, Max Lowe, our photographer, points over my shoulder. “That’s a fun chute. You park here, ski down, and hike back up.”
I examine it. The chute to which he appears to be referring is a near-vertical slash between two cliffs, a straight 200-foot drop with no rest and no hope of escape if you fall. “You’ve done that?” I say, skeptically.
“Well, yes,” he says. “But it’s hard to hike back up.”
A striking figure awaits us as Walsh steers the van into a pull-off at the top of the pass—a tall, stocky man, with leather wristlets, big black boots, and a Utilikilt. His name is Doug the Beerbarian, and he has a truck full of downhill bikes awaiting us. We can finally abandon the van and proceed the rest of the way into Red Lodge, Montana, via downhill bike, cruising down switchbacks at 30 miles an hour.
Red Lodge, Montana, is an hour south of Billings. It’s tiny, a former mining town with a one-lane Main Street that looks exactly like a Wild West movie set. When I stroll down the street, peeping into shops and restaurants, the incredulous expressions on people’s faces make me think that no one here has ever seen anyone quite as twerpy as me before.
Sam Hoffmann, the owner and founder of Red Lodge Ales, certainly hasn’t. He started the brewery when he was a mere 24 years old. Fifteen years later, Red Lodge Ales is a standout among Montana microbreweries—not only for the quality of the beer, but for Sam’s pioneering green technologies. A solar array heats their water, and during the winter, they pump in frosty Montana air to refrigerate the beer.
Now a congenial if somewhat reserved man in his late 30s, Sam demurs when I ask him whether it’s fair to say that Red Lodge is a “green” brewery. “That’s definitely how the media has painted it,” he says, carefully. But he goes on to explain that they implement technologies that save the brewery time and money. Green tech for the sake of green tech, like updating the building to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, would cost money, so they just don’t.
Dinner later that evening pairs some of Red Lodge’s excellent ales with a meal at the Pollard Hotel, an art deco-inspired building that makes me feel like the Unsinkable Molly Brown should be coming down the stairs at any minute. Standouts include Red Lodge Jack’s 90 Scottish Ale and the Liver Eatin’ Ale, a dark wheat beer named after the famous Montanan mountain man and sheriff, Liver Eatin’ Johnson.
Johnson is reputed to have eaten the liver out of the men he hunted down, playing off an old Native American legend that by eating the liver, you absorb the vitality of the creature you’ve killed. Montanans take a disturbing amount of pride in his cannibalistic exploits. He comes up several times over the course of the trip.
The next morning sees us on one last hike outside of Red Lodge before driving to Billings to each fly our separate ways. There are hugs all around and promises to keep in touch. Slightly wrung out, I board the prop plane back to Portland and doze on the way home.
My feelings about guided tours are mixed. Traveling with guides is a bit like being babysat—albeit by a pair of enthusiastic, engaged experts, instead of a bored high-schooler telling you to go to sleep every 10 minutes. Still, it would’ve been impossible for me to pack seven days with as many activities, and as much information, as Walsh and Lynch had managed. Remarkable vistas mingle in my memory with a lot of great beer and fond memories. When I think of Yellowstone and bison, I will remember the taste of rich red ale, and the sweetness of that famed Montana malted grain.
I arrive at the Portland airport around 5:30 p.m., having not changed my shirt for a week. When I hug my husband, a cloud of sandy dust rises off my shoulders. “So,” he says, putting my bag in the trunk. “What do you want to do for dinner?”
Despite my hangover, I smile. “Let’s go grab a beer.”
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