“A Million Glasses a Day—Someone Must Like It!” announced the Centennial Brewing Company’s slogan in 1905. The Centennial was right. Near the turn of the century, it would seem that nearly everyone in Butte liked beer. At the same time, Butte’s other four large breweries, the Butte Brewery, the Tivoli Brewery, the Silver Bow Brewery and the Olympia Brewery, also operated at peak production. For Butte’s ethnically diverse citizenry, beer was the democratic “fluid of inspiration.” Brewing in Montana started with the discovery of gold in the territory’s creeks and gulches. It has long been accepted that Henry Gilbert and Christian Richter established the first brewery, the Virginia Brewery. Gilbert started producing beer in Virginia City in 1863. However, according to an 1886 report, Christian Nissler brewed beer for German Gulch miners as early as 1861. Not long after, a brewer named Wilson set up business on Silver Bow Creek near the future site of Butte City.
At the end of the Civil War, miners flowed into the area around the Big Butte. Many had grown up in the beer and hop producing areas of Central and Eastern Europe, and they brought with them a love for their familiar lagers, pilsners, bocks, alt-biers and mead along with the skill to brew it. An influx of Irish immigrants further enhanced the area’s embryonic beer industry. They brought with them their own brewers and favorite recipes for lagers, porters, stouts and cream ales.
Breweries were built near readily available water, including Silver Bow Creek and Crystal Springs, and many sunk deep wells on their brewery properties. Lager was a staple in the early days, since it was relatively quick to brew and mature, and it required cold temperatures in its processing. Another favorite was the slow-brewed bock, a dark libation fermented in fall and aged during the colder months. In spring, it was the tonic that signified the end of winter. The Centennial, Silver Bow, Crystal, Washington and Capital Breweries all specialized in brewing robust brews.
Butte’s brewers also made sure that their breweries were in close proximity to Butte’s growing ethnic enclaves. Immigrants wanted desperately to become Americans, yet they held fast to their familiar traditions, languages, foods and religious and political associations. Often a beer drinker’s occupation, socioeconomic status, place of residence and fraternal organizations could be generally identified just by noticing which brand of beer they hoisted to their lips. Butte also took great pride in its unionism, and all the breweries were union shops.
From Butte’s early years up until Prohibition, Bavaria-trained brewers made up the bulk of the Butte brewing fraternity. Many of these families initially lived in houses on their brewery properties. As their breweries grew, so did their economic stature. Many successful brewing families lived in a wealthy section of Southwest Butte known as “Little Bavaria.” Leopold Schmidt and partner Raymond Saile founded the Centennial Brewery in 1876. The brewery’s original log building was soon replaced by frame, stone and brick buildings. Prussian-born Henry Mueller joined the business between 1886 and 1888. By 1899, the brewery covered 10 acres and produced over 1.3 million gallons, or 40,000 barrels of beer, each year. It used five million pounds of Montana barley and 85,000 pounds of hops, and the annual payroll for its unionized workforce of 100 people totaled $144,000. The owners claimed it was “the largest brewing plant west of St. Paul and north of Sacramento.” Another early brewer, Christian Nissler, located his large Silver Bow Brewery two miles west of the Centennial Brewery on the old Silver Bow Road. In June 1876, he was selling his beer to “saloons, families, excursionists and everybody.” Within the first 10 years, his business grew to the point that he opened brewery depots in Uptown Butte City and Anaconda. By the end of 1885, the output of Nissler’s Silver Bow ales, porters and pale lagers had reached 4,000 barrels (132,000 gallons).
German brewer Henry Muntzer established the Butte Brewing Company in 1885. Within 12 years, he had grown his brewery from a five-barrel-a-day operation to a 50 barrel-a-day plant. T.J. Nerny and John Harrington succeeded Muntzer as owners in the early 1900s. They brought with them the “luck and pluck of the Irish” as they lead the Butte Brewery through the dark days of Prohibition by manufacturing Checo brand soft drinks. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Butte Brewery was the only local brewery to reopen.
The announcement of the opening of the Tivoli Brewery on Rocker Road, one and a half miles southwest of Butte, appeared in the Montana Journal on February 24, 1900. Tivoli’s flagship beer was a lager called Standard Gold, but the brewery also made a seasonal bock. This large German-style brewery operated until Prohibition.
Of course, Butte’s German immigrants actively supported their local breweries which advertised extensively in Butte’s three German-language newspapers. The efforts to build brand association even extended to the color of the horse pulling the delivery wagons. If a fellow looked down Park Street at the turn of the century and saw a beer wagon pulled by four or six dapple-gray Percherons, he could be sure the cargo was a fine German-style beer.
If a fellow lived in Dublin Gulch, Corktown or up the hill in Walkerville, he most likely drank the beer produced at the Butte Brewing Company and delivered in wagons pulled by roan or brown horses. Irish customers had their growlers filled with Dublin Gulch Porter or Eureka Pale as they came off shift and headed home. If an Irish miner was walking down Main Street, he might stop for a stout at Joe Dyers’s New York Brewery. Rounds of “Danny Boy” could be sung while enjoying the beer brewed the California Brewery in Walkerville. Walkerville’s other brewery, the Vienna Brewery, was famous not only for its keg and bottled beer, but also for “The Czar,” the “best 12½ cent cigar in the market.” The Scandinavian population of Butte did not boast any homeland brewers. They did, however, enjoy their beer as much as any ethnic group in the metropolis. The Butte Brewery was located closest to Finntown and played a prominent role in the Finns’, Swedes’ and Norwegians’ annual festivities, often hosting impromptu lutefisk-eating and beer-drinking competitions as well as street dancing and bare-fist boxing matches.
While it is true that flavorful Chianti was a dinner table mainstay, the Italians in Meaderville also enjoyed their beer. The Basin Brewing Company in nearby Basin sold a great deal of its product in Butte. In the early 1900s, especially, Meaderville supported those sales since the brewery’s principal stockholders were Italian Meaderville businessmen.
The Bertoglio family also distributed Missoula’s Highlander beer in Butte. This association lasted from the repeal of Prohibition until that brewery closed in 1964. The large brick Bertoglio warehouse still sports two 40-foot-high Highlander advertisements.
A large number of Slovene, Slovak, Serbian and Croatian immigrants lived in Butte’s Centerville and on the south side of Meaderville. Their preferences in malt beverages ran along the same lines as the Germans’. They steadfastly supported the Mueller family at the Centennial Brewery as well the Butte Brewery. In my own Slovenian family home on Cherry Street, it was customary for each place setting at the dinner table to include a bottle of Butte Special. Age was not an issue — each man, woman and child was expected to say grace, clean their plate and finish their beer.
Steve Lozar is a professor of anthropology at Salish Kootenai College, a Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal councilman, and a member of the Montana Historical Society Board of Trustees. He is the great-grandson of Native Americans and Slovenian immigrants and has researched, collected, and written about Montana brewery history for 40 years.