When you walk into some Montana microbreweries, you get the feeling you’ve stumbled across somebody’s expanded home brew operation, but that is hardly the case when you visit Bayern Brewing of Missoula. It’s more like you beamed yourself to Hamburg or Munich for real masterbrew instead of those “malt-flavored beverages” sold by mega-brewers.
In fact, owner Jurgen Knoller is mighty proud of being “the only German microbrewery in the Rockies.” And he’s always anxious to elaborate.
“Nobody has the beer-making technology the Germans have,” Knoller boasts. “There’s a big difference between German beer and German-type beer.”
(Translate: A friendly, but not-too-gentle, dig on other microbrewers who claim to sell German beer.)
“We’re actually from Germany, and we have all German equipment and recipes,” adds Bayern brewmaster Thorsten Geuer. “That’s different than just making German beer. We even do everything in metric until we pay our taxes.”
Including having the truest, bluest German given and surnames, of course.
So, what’s different about Bayern Brewing? Duh!
“Only 500 people in the United States have our experience and qualifications for brewing German beer,” Knoller asserts, “and nobody else in Montana.”
Both Knoller and Geuer have Master of Brewing degrees from German universities, “and we earn our titles,” Knoller says, noting that both of them did a three-year shift as an apprentice in a brewery in Germany before coming to Montana, Knoller 30 years ago and Geuer 12 years ago, and they’ve brewing the good stuff ever since. Together, they have 42 years combined experience working as brewmasters of genuine German beers. “We’ve always been brewers. We’ve never done anything else.”
“We brew strictly by the German Law of Purity,” Geuer adds. “Other breweries say they do, but they don’t.”
Knoller is more blunt. “Most brewers don’t even know what the German Law of Purity is. They make malt-flavored beverages that in Germany you wouldn’t be allowed to call beer. Budweiser and Miller products couldn’t be called beer in Germany. The Brits know how to make tea; the Germans know how to make beer.”
Another difference is size and scope. When you tour Bayern’s new facility, you can’t think microbrewery, even though the company still describes itself as such on its website. It’s more like a high-tech production plant that cranks out almost 10,000 barrels of masterbrew per year. That makes Bayern the second largest brewery in Montana behind Big Sky Brewing, also in Missoula.
Bayern opened in 1987, long before Montana law allowed taprooms, which makes it the oldest operating brewery in the state. Since then, Knoller, the sole owner, has moved three times. “We have been here for a whole generation now, and we have consistently produced the same quality beer.”
In 2002, he built his current, multi-million facility that could be expanded to produce up to 100,000 barrels per year. But Knoller isn’t interested in doing this–not now, anyway. Now, he’s more interested in spending time with his newborn son and maintaining the status quo. “I’m happy with what I have. I don’t need to expand to satisfy investors.”
In the not-so-different department, Knoller describes Bayern as “a true local Montana business.”
Which is not as easy as it sounds, he complains. “Montana is not a very business friendly state,” referring mainly, but not exclusively, to Montana’s “archaic liquor laws.”
“We’re basically a 10,000-barrel brewery, and we sell 80 percent of it in Montana,” he explains. “If we wanted to produce more beer, I’d just have to do it somewhere else.”
By that, he refers to Montana statute prohibiting brewers who produce more than 10,000 barrels per year from having a high-profit taproom. A sad commentary, perhaps, that Montana’s law would force a business owner who has already built an expensive, expandable facility and could create more Montana jobs to build another plant in another state to avoid becoming a victim of his own success.
His taproom is, Knoller notes, the only place that features all and only Bayern products, “From that standpoint, it’s very important.”
Bayern makes three basic beers (Amber, Pilsner, Dancing Trout) and nine seasonal brews that come out on a strict schedule, one every ten weeks. The seasonals account for 40 percent of total sales while in the marketplace. All but two beers are bottled.
“We’re not a one-trick-pony brewery with one flagship beer and a few others sort of like it,” Knoller notes.
And then, he told me the story of Dancing Trout, which used to be called Trout Slayer.
He had to pay high royalties for use of that brand name–and clearly not too happy about it. Then, one day, after talking with his friends at Montana Trout Unlimited, it became clear to him that the killer image wasn’t really what he wanted for his company.
While searching for a new name, he had dinner with Monte Dolack, a well-known Missoula artist and good friend, at The Shack one night. Dolack suggested the name, Dancing Trout, and Knoller liked it. Dolack then did the gorgeous label you see on those bottles–and for sale on his website. Read the whole story here.
Actually, the label art might qualify as another difference between Bayern and most, but not all, Montana microbreweries. Because of the relationship with Dolack, Bayern has some of the most incredible artwork on its labels. Dolack, in fact, has done all of them except the Hefe label, St. Wilbur Weizen, which has art of Wilbur, Knoller’s beloved, 155-pound St. Bernard that he rescued from the local animal shelter. Part of the proceeds from sales of St. Wilbur merchandise go to the St. Bernard Rescue Foundation. Read the whole story here.
At Bayern Brewing, you could say, every bottle of beer is a work of art, in more ways than one.
Dancing Trout, incidentally, is now the “official beer of Montana Trout Unlimited,” and part of the proceeds of every drop sold goes to benefit TU’s efforts to preserve cold-water fisheries in Montana. With the exception of the customized license plate, the Dancing Trout is the biggest fundraising effort for the nonprofit group.
“We need clean water (to brew beer),”” Knoller observes, “but trout do, too, so it’s a match made in Heaven.”
(Just in case you remember recently seeing Trout Slayer bottles, that’s because cross-town rival Big Sky Brewing picked up the brand name.)
And there’s at least one more difference between Bayern and most of his brethren. At Knoller’s taproom, you can have four beers, but hold off, Revenuers, it’s perfectly legal. Bayern serves beer in 12-ounce glasses, so no taproom customer gets more than the maximum allowable 48 ounces.
So, next time you hit the Bayern taproom say, Ich habe auf Neuem Westen gelesen, dass Sie echtes deutsches Bier brauen and don’t be surprised by the reaction.
To read the entire Microbrew Montana series, click here. To track Bill’s travels, see the map of Montana Microbreweries below.