Adapting to the times
Exploring an early Montana brewery
Breweries changed with the times during prohibition and again as craft brewing became trendy. In the coronavirus era, social distancing effectively shut down breweries, but their adaptive nature keeps the kegs flowing.
Henry S Gilbert, who possessed this nature that lent itself to a lengthy brewing industry, arrived in Virginia City in 1863 plagued by the same disease as many—gold fever.
“Mining was not to his liking, however, and he sold his claims,” an excerpt from Pioneer Trails and Trials said. He established the Virginia City Brewery with surnamed accomplices Smith and Richter in 1863 and served two terms as mayor of Virginia City.
After 11 years, Gilbert took over the brewery and saw the operation through until his untimely death in 1903. Pinned underneath an overturned wagon, he died before help could come. “Thus, ending a fruitful career of one of Madison County’s prominent pioneers,” an excerpt from Pioneer Trails and Trials said.
Other early arrivers to Montana included Irish and Ger- man immigrants who brought their beer-making traditions with them. “That played into the early rise of brewing beer in the state. They were doing what they loved and what they knew,” Anneliese Warhank, archivist with the Montana Historical Society, said in a virtual tour of the Good Beer Here exhibit.
After the Civil War, southerners made up another demographic of Montana’s population. They came to make a living, for the anonymity and to live life on their own terms instead of in a Reconstructed South.
Prohibition coursed through the country at varying times as states wanted to have control over how it worked for their populations. Nationally, prohibition extended through 1920-1933.
Montana passed its own prohibition law in 1916. “There was a real push for brewers to begin to unite and ask, how
can we fight this?” Steve Lozar, Montana Historical Society Board member, said in an in- terview in 2017.
Breweries took up ads in local papers admonishing whiskey and presenting beer as a non-intoxicating alternative. The Montana Brewer’s Association began as a way to separate whiskey’s characteristics from beer.
Some breweries in Montana went underground and produced beer. Some citizens took up home brewing. Some bigger breweries just keep trucking along.
Many brewers were local politicians, and citizens watched as ‘upstanding, leading men in their towns’ ended up fined or arrested for production. Many breweries claimed to make ‘near beer,’ which was monitored closely as it needed to have less than a percent of alcohol to qualify. Others produced cheese, soda and soda water to stay in business and sold malt product that people used to make beer at home.
In many ways, beer quite accurately demonstrates the ‘Montana mentality.’ Many pioneers felt like prohibition was not an ‘American approach’ and wanted to make their own decisions about the topic.
“’A man’s skin is his own skin’ was the slogan by the mine owners. It had a lot to do with that individual idea of a man makes his own decisions,” Lozar explained. Montana repealed prohibition in 1916 before it happened nationally.
A change in laws made it difficult to jump back into production. Before prohibition, breweries could sell their beer, exclusively in many cases, directly to taverns or saloons. After, breweries could not own a saloon or tavern or even be a shareholder in saloons. As a consequence, a lot of breweries failed. Many were bought out by bigger companies, the domestic beer companies of today, that had a larger advertising budget and could sell cheap beer thanks to mass production capabilities.
Valentine Gilbert ran Gilbert Brewing Company right up until prohibition and was to reopen in 1934. Articles of incorporation were filed in 1935, but operations never began. Charles Bovey bought the building in 1945 and turned it into a tourist attraction.