Bison and Beer—Craft Brewers Believe In It

By Nate Schweber

Sometimes after a long sip of a particularly good craft beer, I time travel in my mind. As a lover of both beer and wildlife, I imagine what it would it have been like to visit America in the early 1800s.

Imagine standing at the gates of the Missouri, as Lewis and Clark did, and see those plains stretching forever east turned black with bison. What must it have been like to travel up river valleys to towns populated by German, French, Irish, English, Danish, Scottish, and Swiss settlers, all of them crafting beer with a mix of old world knowledge and new world grains? What a sight that America must have been.

Of course, those little breweries of yore met the same fate as the poor bison. Where once some 60 million bison roamed North America, by the turn of the 20th century there were just 23 solitary wild buffalo left, all in Yellowstone Park’s Pelican Valley.  Similarly, all the family breweries across America were shuttered by prohibition, and the ones that resurrected after the 21st Amendment were quickly lost with corporations like Anheuser-Busch and Coors still thriving. The combination of railroads and greed were at the root of much of the eradication of both bison and family breweries.

What’s interesting is that today there are more bison in America and more family owned breweries than at any time since the 1800s. And, the two are often intertwined, with many brewpubs offering bison burgers, steaks, chili and more, often made from bison raised on a local ranches.

As wild buffalo begin to rut in August, and grillers across America sizzle bison as the summer wanes, August provides incredible opportunities to pair bison with craft beers.

Across America bison and beer are staples at brewpubs. In Hamilton, Montana, Bitterroot Brewing Company owner Tony Wickham pours pints of his nut brown ale, a smoky porter, and IPAs with bison burgers, made with meat raised in the Flathead Valley, home of the National Bison Range, just to the north.

“The darker, the hoppier, the more roasty and toasty flavors seem to go real well with the bison meat,” he said.  “We serve bison because it’s something new, something different, something unique; like our beer selection.”

Brewpubs like Upland Brewing Co. in Bloomington, Indiana and Broad Ripple Brewing Co. in Indianapolis also serve bison dishes raised by local ranchers.  In Bloomington, a bowl of spicy bison chili makes a great one-two when enjoyed with a pint of Banshee Strong Scotch Ale. And, at Broad Ripple, their modest yet scrumptious bison burger is delicious with a pint of IPA.

Some brewpubs even tailor the names of their brews to their bison dishes. At the Gaslight Brewery and Restaurant in South Orange, NJ their juicy, satisfying bison burger goes great with—what else—the Bison Brown Ale.

Bison has a hearty, gamey flavor that is less bland than cattle. It goes particularly with toasted caramel and delicate, sweet malts.

Bison is good for you. The meat is far higher in protein and iron and far lower in fat and cholesterol than beef.  Because it is so lean, bison is best prepared medium rare, lest it get too dry.

Bison are also good for the earth. Bison evolved in North America, so their systems are perfectly suited for the climate here. Cattles’ ancestors evolved in Eurasia and the swamps of India, which is part of the reason why some strains of cattle need to be pumped full of hormones and antibiotics to survive on America’s high plains. Bison forage fine on native grasses and even though those on ranches are undomesticated and wild, federal law prohibits them being shot with any growth hormone.  Also, bison produce far less greenhouse gasses than cattle.

Jim Matheson, assistant director of National Bison Association in Westminster, Colorado, and a homebrewer calls bison, “a very sustainable, local, natural product which fits in well with craft brewers.”

Bison are a perfect fit in the culture of craft brewing. Both hearken back to bygone American days, yet both are enjoying a renaissance thanks to modern, individualistic and entrepreneurial folks. Eating buffalo and drinking craft beer are acts that are at once romantic and patriotic, plus simultaneously good for local business and kind to the environment. Plus, every bison burger ordered helps grow the market for bison meat, which is why there are half a million bison in America today, more than at any time since the 1870s.

So, next time you’re at a brewpub order a hunk of buffalo and a dark brew. Close your eyes and enjoy a taste of the past—maybe the future too.

Nate SchweberNate Schweber is a freelance journalist who graduated from the University of Montana Journalism School in 2001. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Budget Travel and the Village Voice. He sings in a band called the New Heathens and he also loves visiting his local brewery.