Autumn. Just the word gives me goose bumps. Autumn is chili and beer with a big square of cornbread. It's pumpkin-braised short ribs and a peppery Zin. It's oompah bands and Octoberfests and -- did I mention the beer?
Few places are more serious about beer than Montana. Where we have our wine trails, they have a Brewery Trail -- no small feat when you consider the state is 700 miles wide. Montana is also the No. 1 producer of barley, and more folks than ever are harvesting hops there -- the flowery cones that grow on leafy green vines up to 20 feet tall.
Each fall in Whitefish, Mont., the Great Northern Brewing Company hosts a hop swap. Townsfolk bring in their hops (picked within the previous 24 hours) and exchange them for beer at the Black Star Draught House. And those homegrown green bitters go into the brew ery's Frog Hop Pale Ale.
I had a chance to taste Frog Hop Pale Ale at a beer pairing dinner in Whitefish this summer. Think wine pairings without the snooty sophistication and the lofty price tag. In fact, beer dinners are served at long tables with each course prepared in a food truck. Local Chef Tim Good parks his "Cuisine Machine," a tricked-out mobile kitchen, outside the brewery and creates farm-to-fork dishes that complement the flavors of each microbrew.
Where else but Montana would your dinner begin with an appetizer of Yak Carpaccio paired with heady red ale? The salad was a fresh plate of goat cheese and local greens paired with huckleberry wheat lager. When the Black Star beer cheese soup came out in a bread bowl, it was garnished with popcorn and served with a rich golden lager. And the dessert was the topper -- a dollop of ice cream in a mug of Empire Builder Stout capped with whiskey whipped cream.
Yes, beer is big business in Montana. There are 28 breweries in Big Sky Country, ranking it second only to Vermont in the number of breweries per capita. People here like their beer, even if it isn't a microbrew. A butler at the luxury guest ranch in Greenough, The Resort at Paws Up, once told me he made a beer run to Missoula for a guest who had a hankering for a Pabst Blue Ribbon. It's not a craft beer, but more Pabst Blue Ribbon is sold in Missoula (home to the University of Montana) than anywhere in the country -- or at least that's what they claim. To that I say, "Bottoms up."
Whitefish and Missoula are each serviced with direct two-hour flights from Oakland on Allegiant Air. For more information on the Whitefish region, see www.explorewhitefish.com. For a look at the "Cuisine Machine" and an interview with Chef Tim Good, see my website at www.ginnyprior.com.