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Madison River Brewing

Home of the Fly Beers

From, 4-14-08 of published article, Microbrew Montana: Madison River Brewing Home of the Fly Beers, Bill Schneider. This article is presented in agreement with All rights reserved, Copyright (© 2008)

From left, assistant brewer Robert Miller, head brewer Doug Frey, and owner Howard McMurry, at the bottling machine.

Photo by Bill Schneider.

I've been worried about readers thinking it's a stretch for the outdoor editor to write the Microbrew Montana series, but not since my visit to Madison River Brewing of Belgrade.

There, in the taproom, a long cast from its namesake, the famous, trout-rich river, you can order a Hopper, Yellow Humpy, Salmon Fly, Black Ghost, Copper John, Rubber Legged Razz, or my favorite, the Irresistible.

For the non-fishaholics among us, those are all names of fishing flies, but Madison River Brewing, located in one of the hottest travel destinations in the world for fly anglers, uses them as names for their tasty, craft beers.

From a marketing standpoint, you could call that connecting the dots.

A few years back, on my way to the Montana Brewers Festival in Bozeman, I stopped to see Howard McMurry, owner of Madison River Brewing. While waiting for him to take a break from the bottling machine, I checked out his beer board with all the "fishing fly beers." When he joined me, we started talking about fishing instead of brewing. I had to tell him about my early days of learning to fly fish, when I fished for years only having one archaic fiberglass fly rod, only knowing one knot, and only using one fly, the Irresistible.

Now, that I have a dozen rods and million flies, I still use the Irresistible more than any other dry fly. I suspect it could turn out to be one of my favorite beers, too.

Between sips of a sample of Irresistible Amber Ale, I asked McMurry what makes Madison River Brewing different than the other Montana breweries. "That's a tough question," he said, "because we're all pretty similar. I guess we really care about our beers, like they all do, but maybe we care more."

If you aren't a local, you might need to ask directions to Madison River Brewing. Located in a sprawling warehouse complex along Frontage Road to Bozeman on the east edge of town, it has a comfy taproom built only three years ago and a larger production facility than I expected to see. During my tour, McMurry noted, without boasting, that his operation produces about 6,000 barrels of beer annually, which makes him the fourth or fifth largest brewery in Montana.

So, size is definitely one difference between Madison River and the others. In addition to producing its own brews, McMurry doubles as what he calls a "contract brewer," which in his case means he also produces beer for three other companies--Big Hole Brewing, a Montana company famous for its Headstrong brand, as well as two Utah breweries, The Moab Brewery and Park City Brewing. "We ship a truckload of beer to Utah every two weeks," he added.

Another special treat at the Madison River taproom is the "mug board." Local patrons can design their own beer mug and then have it hand blown at Goose Bay Glass of Townsend, Montana. These mugs are pieces of art and flat-out gorgeous--and a good investment, too. Locals pay $100 to get one, but they get their third pint free every time they use it, and can participate in trivia contests to win more free beer, even small kegs.df

Madison River Brewing, McMurry explained, has actually been around for ten years, but he has only owned it for three years. It started out as Lightning Boy Brewing, then became Great Brewing, before McMurry bought it and made it a fly fishing hot spot.

Good fishing and good beer often go together, you know, perhaps even genetically linked, but you don't have to fly fish to enjoy the fly beers at Madison River Brewing.

Three years doesn't sound like a long time, but McMurry and his head brewer, Doug Frey, have 25 years experience in the business, so they're masters of their craft. A few sips will confirm that this experience shows up in their brews.

"Business is good," McMurry says, explaining that he has been selling statewide for two years and now is starting to sell out of state. He also echoes the sentiments of most other brewers by noting that the taproom sales are pivotal. "Without the tasting room, I'm not sure we'd make it."

He managed to sidestep the hop shortage, a major problem for some breweries. "I can still make my hoppiest beers," which includes one of his favorites the double-hop HopJuice, his only beer not named after a fishing fly. "I have enough hops for the rest of the year, and I've signed contracts for five more years."

But McMurry has to worry about being a victim of his own success. If he keeps growing and produces more than 10,000 barrels, Montana state law will prohibit him from having a taproom and selling directly to the public. To this, he says, nervously, "I hope they change the law before then."

-Bill Schneider

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