Sheridan’s Ruby Valley Brew is currently the only Madison County brewery outside of Big Sky. But there’s soon to be one more: Burnt Tree Brewing in Ennis is currently in construction with hopes to open later this year. (R. Colyer)

In pursuit of hoppiness

Study finds Montana has second most breweries per capita

MADISON COUNTY—A recent study confirmed something most westerners already know: Montanans love their beer.

Chicago-based C+R Research took an in-depth look at trends in craft brewing nationwide, examining which states had the most breweries, regional trends, impact on state economies and volume of beer production, among other metrics. Montana rated highly in several of those categories.

The study dubbed Vermont the “Beer Capital of the U.S.,” with a whopping 11.5 breweries per 100,000 people in the state. But Montana was right behind, with 9.6 breweries per 100,000 people over 21 years old. Montana was followed closely by Maine, Oregon and Colorado rounding out the top five. Just be glad you don’t live in Mississippi, Georgia or Alabama, each of which has fewer than one brewery per 21+ adult.

C+R contributes the lack of hoppy enthusiasm in the Deep South largely to liquor laws that make selling alcohol more difficult and less lucrative. One such law in Alabama and Georgia prohibits breweries from selling their beer directly to consumers.

In 2007, the study reports, there were 1,511 craft breweries in the United States; as of July, there are 6,655. And while that growth might not be happening in the South, the brewery wave has been building in Montana for years.

Bozeman and Missoula each have nearly a dozen craft breweries, several of which—like Missoula’s Kettle House and Bozeman’s Bridger Brewing—are transitioning into breweries, restaurants and concert venues all in one, hugely increasing their guest base.

The Montana Brewer’s Association reported 73 breweries in the state at the beginning of last year, with 12 known breweries planned to open. Those breweries were producing the seventh highest volume of beer per person in the nation at 60 pints per resident of drinking age.

In Madison County, there are currently three breweries in operation: two in Big Sky—Beehive Basin Brewery and Lone Peak Brewery—and one in Sheridan, Ruby Valley Brew, which opened in 2017.

Amanda LaYacona and her husband, after moving to Sheridan from the Midwest, took one look at the main street’s buildings and said to themselves, “it looks like there should be a brewery there.” So, they opened one.

And like many towns around Montana and the nation, the brewery became a meeting place for locals and visitors alike, a place to share a conversation and a brew you can only get in Sheridan, Montana. It shocked LaYacona, who admits she knew little about brewing before this endeavor.

“Beer is fun. It’s a really neat industry,” she says. “But what ended up happening is we fell in love with the Ruby Valley and with Sheridan. We wanted to give people a reason to stop in Sheridan before they move on.” And it hasn’t just been tourists passing through who have fallen in love with it.

“It’s really mindblowing how the community has gathered around it,” says LaYacona. “With this explosion of breweries, it’s neat, because these communities get to call their little brewery their own. They take pride in that.”

And in larger cities with multiple breweries, the focus is becoming less and less on “regional” beers and more and more on “town” or even “neighborhood” brews. Each new brewery captures a bit of the local identity, and the trend is set to continue in Ennis with Burnt Tree Brewery.

The new addition, which is currently being built and will hopefully open this summer, will be a tasting room with a handful of beers available: a collaboration with the Gravel Bar next door and a complement to the hard liquor at Willie’s Distillery across the street.

The growing craft beer industry also, naturally, carries a growing economic impact, something else C+R looked into in its study. They report that Vermont’s 11.5 breweries per 100,000 people rake in a sizeable $667 per of-age drinker, but it wasn’t enough to hold off Colorado, whose breweries have an economic impact of $764 per person. 

Montana still ranked highly even with a sparse population for its geographic size: the craft brewery industry brings in $549 per person in the state, the fifth-highest in the nation behind Colorado, Vermont, Oregon and Pennsylvania.

However, the economic impact of local beer is being halted in some areas due to the federal government shutdown, which has stretched into a three-week stalemate. During the shutdown, many federal offices and services, especially “nonessential” ones, have been shuttered and can’t operate as they normally do.

One of those is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. While the name may not sound glamorous, the TTB is responsible for approving the labels for new beverages and ensuring producers are meeting compliance requirements, which means new or seasonal beers that have been brewed but not labeled are simply sitting in limbo, waiting to be labeled.

This could mean that consumers see fewer new varieties on shelves in the coming months and that brewers and distillers are stuck waiting for their new offerings to become available, which won’t happen until the federal government reopens and the TTB can begin processing label applications. Until then, the requests will continue to pile up with no one to evaluate them.

But fear not: Montana still has plenty of beer available. And as the rise of the craft brewery continues, there will still be plenty in the pursuit of hoppiness in Big Sky country. You can find the full results of the study at

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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