And so came the brewery. Before heading up through Idaho and into Montana, I happened upon a list of breweries in the city of Missoula. I instantly spotted one called Bayern Brewing. And that was it.
Given our well-documented relationship with Germany, this one stood out and had to be the one we visited while in town. We knew nothing about it other than the fact that they make beer and we’d be in the same town.
I looked it up and realized that it was actually founded and run by a German, and had a much different history than your average American micro-brewery. I emailed Jared at Bayern and asked him if we could stop by to check it out. I figured maybe we could talk to the founder if we were lucky, possibly get a small tour, and certainly drink some beer.
Jared said they were in the midst of one of the busiest times of year, including a huge bottling session that’d be going down when we were there. Good for us in that there would be a lot of action. Bad for us in that the founder would be crazy busy. We rolled the dice anyway, and told him we’d be down the next day.
We had no appointment, but we popped in and asked for Jared, who immediately introduced us to said founder. Meet Jürgen Knöller: Founder, brainchild, owner, operator, and visionary of Bayern Brewing.
Originally from Bavaria – that’s Bayern in English, in case you didn’t know – Jürgen came to America in the 1980s. Specifically, he started Bayern Brewing in 1987, easily making it one of the oldest micro-breweries in the entire country. And you probably never heard of it, unless you’re from the Northwest or have stumbled across it on your travels. Why? Well, reading this post will answer that for you, among other things.
Back in the 80s, Jürgen was doing apprenticeships for large German breweries, finishing his masters in brewing technology and hoping to secure a spot working across the globe at German-owned brands. While awaiting a job in China, he was recruited by a German family in Montana who wanted to open a brewery and restaurant.
In 1987, he started work in this land he’d never heard of, setting up and operating the brewery for them. During this time, Tienanmen Square all but dissolved German-Chinese relations, and his first, upcoming, international job at a major brewery vanished into thin air.
So, he figured he’d stay in Montana and build up the brewery. Not to be outdone by what happened in China, the Berlin Wall was then felled. And the Germans who’d hired him decided to drop the U.S. and invest in the newly-open Eastern Europe. This left Jürgen with a visa, skills, and an empty brewery.
At the urging of a friend and a small but sizable loan, Jürgen bought everything and made the brewery his. Once he had it up and kicking, he was doing about 600 barrels a year. Not massive, but not tiny by any standards. He eventually needed more space, and secured one that allowed him to knock out 2,500 barrels per year. At that point, it was at its capacity, and he needed an even larger space.
After looking around for a while, he found his current space. While its capacity can exceed 10,000 barrels, Jürgen won’t go bigger. “Wait,” you say, “This is America! Go big or get out!” And that’s where I sit you down for a little reeducation.
While state-to-state laws vary, Montana doesn’t allow you to have a tap room if you break the 10,000-barrel limit. Only a tasting room. And that doesn’t fly with Jürgen. If you have a brewery, he correctly reasons, you should be able to serve your customers the product you work your ass off to create.
Jürgen wants his tap room. And Jürgen has his tap room. Which is why he won’t cross the 10,000-barrel threshold, and why you only see Bayern products in certain states. So, being at a semi-forced capacity, what’s a guy to do to keep making quality product, serve it to his customers, and not see his profit run dry considering costs for everything in existence are on a constant rise?
He innovates. He increases his efficiency and looks for ways to make everything more responsible and cost-effective without losing quality or raising prices. After all, there’s a network of distributors and chains that more or less control the market, and everyone wants their cut.
The best way to describe what Jürgen and Bayern Brewing are doing is their comprehensive Eco League program, which promotes sustainability and explains all the different things they do in order to be more environmentally responsible and production-efficient.
A lot of breweries claim to be sustainable. They have their own sewage systems, or use green energy, for example. Two of the biggest things – by far – that no one else does are two things that everyone should do. Being semi-German, we couldn’t agree more with these two things as they’re part of daily life in Germany.
One: Bring back your bottles for reuse. Jürgen says he can get at least two uses of a bottle before it needs to be recycled, sometimes more. It all depends on how the bottle was treated and the glass’s integrity.
Two: Bring back your cartons for reuse. Your case boxes and your six-pack boxes should not be thrown away. They should not be “recycled.” They should be reused.
For both of these things, Bayern Brewing offers discounts and buybacks in order to get more distributors, supermarkets, shops, and end users to bring back their bottles and cartons. Jürgen puts it best:
“Crushing bottles for road fill is not recycling. It’s decycling…I like to reuse something until it breaks, then we can use it for something else. Use it until it breaks. Breaking a perfectly good product to make something else out of it is not recycling.”
We hate to break it to all y’all out there who think you’re doing the world a favor by taking your glass to a recycler, but he’s dead-on with this one.
It’s kind of the same view I have with cars. Do you have any idea how much energy and waste goes into making your new car? If you want to recycle for real, then you should buy a used car. Sure, there’s a point where the drawbacks outweigh the benefits, but the vast majority of people out there never get to that point. With their cars or with anything else.
As far as he knows and as far as we know, there are no other breweries in the U.S. that do either of these things. Yet, it’s commonplace in Germany. In a country of greed and be-cool and what’s-next and no-time-for-anything, incentive is what drives people to be proactive and think about things like this.
That’s why the tiniest percentage of Americans recycle. Most people don’t take their bottles back. And the ones who do? They take them somewhere that’s recycling a reusable product, only to be made into another product before the original was anywhere near its breaking point.
This is why we vigorously support the idea of Pfand (deposit). In Germany, you must pay a bottle deposit on nearly every bottle you buy. Plastic, glass, whatever. It’s made extremely visible to you that you’re paying, say, 25 cents extra for a bottle at the supermarket. It’s on the bottle and it’s itemized on your receipt.
When you’re done, you bring the bottles back to the bottle return. You drop them in a (very cool) machine, and it gives you your Pfand back. The motivation is there because the incentive is there and the cost of not doing it is highly publicized.
A few states in the U.S. give you money back for your bottles and cans. This is advertised on the product. What’s barely advertised is that you’re actually paying this deposit when you buy the product. So, if you don’t notice it and it’s not rammed into your brain, you don’t even think about following proper procedure by taking your bottles back. And for every one you throw in the trash, you’re throwing away 5 cents.
We say this: Raise the deposit and require it in all 50 states. If people won’t do it themselves, sometimes you just have to give them an incentive to do it. And that incentive can be reward, punishment, or both.
As of now, Bayern Brewing puts out around 50,000 bottles of beer every week. That’s 2.5 million bottles a year. Out of that, they currently reuse about 40% of the bottles they send out. That means their fervent actions with the Eco League are getting people to bring back a ridiculous amount of bottles. Hence the fancy bottle washer that made it all the way over from Germany.
By the end of the year, Jürgen wants that number to be 60%. And by 2014, he wants it to be 80%. That may be asking for a lot, but he is not at all bashful about becoming more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
We didn’t ask him what percentage of cartons and boxes they’re getting back every week, but we know they have the previously mentioned system in place to incentivize everyone in the supply chain. Even while we were in the tap room, we saw several people walk in with box (and bottle) returns. It works.
Jürgen knows that he didn’t invent any of these things. He knows it happens in Europe and the idea is out there in the ether. However, he has a damn good point:
“What I’m doing isn’t rocket science and isn’t anything new – it’s just something that no one else does.”
So, there you have it. After 35 years, Jürgen’s goal is to create the most efficient brewery around. The perfect brewery. Holding himself and his team to a 10,000-barrel capacity means finding other ways to continue being successful.
We ask Jürgen if he’s happy with what he’s done and what he has. He never envisioned living in Montana for nearly four decades, running his own brewery and becoming a master at efficiency and environmentalism. He thought he’d be living all over the world, working for larger breweries and seeing everything the planet has to offer.
While he unfortunately hasn’t had a chance to see the world, he says he is happy and he does seem to be. He is proud that he came to a new country and made it more or less on his own. That he created something out of the opportunities given to him, and therefore created new opportunities for himself and those around him.
“I like that I can say I single-handedly created 23 jobs. I didn’t just come and open my hand and expect people to give me stuff.”
He feels that he has and is still creating a legacy. That’s his goal with the brewery and the Eco League. He’s happy to have his family, to have created jobs, and to show people they can actually do something about the environment instead of simply sitting around talking about it. Words are cheap. It’s all about persistence.
As we always say: Don’t talk about it, be about it. This is Jürgen and this is Bayern Brewery. This is the Fabric of America.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur, an environmentalist, an activist, a beer drinker, an immigrant, or even a dreamer, this man and this company serves as an example of aspiration, success, and forward-thinking. Knowing about what they do, learning from it, using that knowledge, and spreading the word can only be good for you, for us, and for the world.
And to that, we say Prost!
Bayern Brewing is located here:
1507 Montana St.
Missoula, MT 59801
Tel: +1 (406) 721-1482
Any thoughts about Jürgen, Bayern Brewing, or anything we discussed? Have you ever been to the brewery or tried their beer? Any other thoughts? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!