Since St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, we thought we’d share a little history of beer in Missoula. As you might guess, the beer-loving culture here is no recent phenomenon.
One of the city’s more famous brews, Highlander, was originally crafted by a the Garden City Brewing Company, which opened in 1895. The brewery was located in the Rattlesnake, at the base of Waterworks Hill, where Interstate 90 now roars overhead. Garden City made beer for the local community (transportation through the mountains made it less than cost effective to ship product farther afield) until Prohibition put a halt to the sale of all alcoholic beverages nationwide. The owners tried to sell in 1922, but no one wanted to invest in a brewery during Prohibition times. They hung on selling “near beer” and other non-alcoholic beverages, then sold the business in 1934, the year after Prohibition was repealed. The new owners renamed the business the Missoula Brewing Company.
Ownership changed hands again in 1944, when the company was bought by Mr. Emil Sick. Sick owned several other breweries in the Pacific Northwest, including the Rainier Brewing Company. He released a light lager under the Highlander brand, which became enormously popular in Missoula. Most folks who grew up here have memories of Highlanders in the fridge or on tap at a bar downtown. The brand adopted its classic tartan logo in the mid-1950s; the previous logo, of an eagle spreading its wings, was a slightly revamped version of the old Garden City Brewing logo, seen in the photo of “4 Mile Exchange” below.
Highlander suffered, however, in the 1960s, when a general economic slowdown hit the region, and small breweries began to face fierce competition from new and growing beer conglomerates. Mr. Sick sold off many of his brands and decided to shutter the Missoula Brewing Company. The timing seems connected to the construction of I-90; Mr. Sick likely took the opportunity to close the brewery when an alternative (government buy-out) presented itself. Sadly, the old building was razed in 1964.
Missoula’s last old-school brewery closed in 1968, and it was almost 20 years before another one — Bayern — came to town. Now Missoula is back to producing excellent suds. What will you be downing this St. Paddy’s Day? In honor of the (mostly) German-American crew who created the brewing industry in Missoula (and America), we recommend a nice (green) lager and some pretzels with mustard (and corned beef). Or try a Highlander! The brand was revived in 2008. While the formula has changed, you’ll still be drinking a little piece of local history.
In the early 20th century, a glass of beer cost a nickel at the 4 Mile Exchange in Cold Springs, Missoula.
Many of these photos were donated to the Historical Museum by Irene Dolan, whose father Henry Emmerick, shown in many of these images, worked at Garden City Brewing Company.