The first time I met KettleHouse Cofounder Tim O’Leary, he took me on a tour of his new production brewery’s wastewater treatment facility. It’s not the sexiest introduction in the world; while other brewers might have shown off some fermentors or a rapid-fire canning line, O’Leary schooled me on biological oxygen demand and sediment loads. But he explained that this expensive endeavor is what’s making KettleHouse’s entire future possible.
“This whole scene and lifestyle is made possible by that wastewater plant because we couldn’t be here without it,” he says.
The scene he’s referring to is KettleHouse’s new 25,000-square-foot production brewery and campus in Bonner, Montana, on the scenic banks of the Blackfoot River. It’s about a 15-minute drive from the brewery’s other two Missoula taprooms, which have operated since 1995 and 2010. The new facility has upped KettleHouse’s capacity to 30,000 barrels from 20,000 barrels; allowed them to install a centrifuge, a new canning line, and a third taproom; and most visibly, given them space to build a 4,000-seat amphitheater. In its first season last summer, the theater hosted acts ranging from Slayer to Lyle Lovett to Tedeschi Trucks Band to Ween.
“Being located on the banks of a blue-ribbon trout stream, where A River Runs Through It was situated in the novel—you can’t beat that location. What we do in beer is we sell an awesome consumable, but it’s really about imagery and a story. What better place to tell our story than the banks of this famed river?” O’Leary says. “Obviously we don’t want to pollute our aquifer or that river and there was no municipal sewer hook-up, so we had to build our own.”
Water is crucial to every brewery, but to KettleHouse, it’s responsible for their most popular beers.
“The water here in Bonner is much like our water in Missoula because the aquifer flows in from the valleys over a similar topography, so the hardness and mineral makeups are almost identical,” he says. “That’s the reason why Cold Smoke Scotch Ale has done so well. It’s got the roasted barley in it and dark malts that help do the pH buffering that really smooths that beer out.”
Cold Smoke paved KettleHouse’s reputation across Montana and with visitors to the state. Behind Big Sky Brewing’s Moose Drool brown ale, it’s probably the best-known beer to come from the Treasure State. One in every eight beers consumed in Montana is brewed in Montana, and a good chunk of that is Cold Smoke. It’s behind most bars, even the tucked-away cowboyish ones that traffic primarily in Kokanee and Rainier, and it’s for sale in Missoula’s charmingly taxidermied airport.
That wasn’t always the case, though. In the early days when KettleHouse was self-distributing, O’Leary and longtime KettleHouse employee Al Pils could hardly beg bars to give them the time of day.
“We were trying to sell beer to bars and just getting the worst reactions from bar owners. They’d look at me with literal disgust in their eyes,” O’Leary says. “No one wanted craft beer back then; it was a pain in the ass. They wanted to sell the same beers they’d always sold. We overcame that by making Cold Smoke, a great beer that our customers would go out and ask for. We had the distinction of outselling Bud Light in some bars for the first time ever; no craft beer had ever upset that.”
But just because Cold Smoke has been KettleHouse’s best ambassador doesn’t mean O’Leary wants to brew it at the expense of new beers. The brewery has canned it since 2006 and is only now able to catch up with demand for it. The new production facility frees up space for innovation including new IPAs and, down the line, a mixed-IPA variety pack. The Bonner warehouse is also full of cans destined for the brewery’s other mainstays, including Double Haul IPA, a World Beer Cup gold medal-winning English IPA; Eddy Out Pale Ale; and Fresh Bongwater Hemp Ale, a subtly nutty, amber-colored ale brewed with hemp. The cans are filled by a brand-new Krones canning line, which O’Leary brags only produced six low-fills on a recent 55-barrel batch of Double Haul.
The pride and joy of his new facility, though, is the centrifuge. On a recent tour for other members of the Montana Brewers Assocation, O’Leary told fellow brewery owners that if their banks wouldn’t lend them the money to buy such an expensive piece of equipment, those bankers could call him personally for a lecture on why it’s such a crucial purchase. It’s a doubly useful piece of machinery in his eyes, contributing to both environmental and beer-quality priorities.
“It makes better beer because you’re leaving a little more in the beer. The centrifuge helps clarify the beer and stabilize it without removing a lot of the proteins and hop aromatics. And it increases our yield,” he says. “So we do it as a sustainability piece, too. You don’t want to make something and then have it go down the drain.”
O’Leary’s sustainability focus is altruistic, sure. As a native Montanan and a former employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), he understands the fragility and splendor of natural landscapes. But, as a brewery owner, his advocacy is also a smart business decision. Good water is crucial to good beer, and preserving the state’s reputation as a tourism destination also matters to KettleHouse’s future.
“People talk about Montana like they talk about Shangri-La, like ‘Someday I’m going to live there. It’s the land of giant trout and deep powder and no crowds.’ And they’re right,” he says. “And at the end of one of your epic days in Montana, we want you to have an epic beer.”
Back in its earliest days in the mid-1990s, when KettleHouse was still operating as a brew-your-own business, O’Leary began to understand what an incredible beer in an incredible place could mean to someone. He had a customer come in who asked him to make a certain style to replicate a beer the man had while stationed in Germany during military service. He’d been on a train for eighteen hours in hot and cramped quarters only to emerge in a pristine mountain town with some of the best beer he’d ever had.
“That’s what educated me about how people associate a great day in their life with a great beer experience,” O’Leary says. “It’s our duty and our mission at KettleHouse to give our fans the best beer with the best possible Montana experience. We want our beer to be a tool to cement that memory in your mind forever.”