Jürgen Knöller rings in a 30th anniversary with Bayern 

If not for the spring 1989 protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Bayern Brewing may well have fizzled out of existence long ago. Certainly German-born brewery owner Jürgen Knöller's story would be different.

Knöller knew nothing of Missoula or Montana when he traveled here from his Bavarian home in fall 1987. He'd taken a six-month job at Bayern. Then-owners Reinhard and Trudy Schulte needed a hand getting the brewery started, and Knöller, then a 25-year-old student at the Doemens World Brewing Academy, needed a gig while he waited for Munich-based Spaten Brewery to send him to the Chinese city of Wuhan to help open a new facility. After a year of delays at Spaten, Knöller says, came the Chinese government's massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square, sending diplomatic relations between China and Germany into a tailspin.

"The whole project was canceled," Knöller says of Spaten's plans in Wuhan. "Here I was."

And here he stayed. On Aug. 19, Bayern will mark its 30th anniversary with a party in Caras Park. It's a milestone not only for Montana's oldest operating brewery, but also for the state's craft beer scene as a whole, and for Knöller, a man who's been in the business of brewing beer since he was 16.

Tiananmen Square wasn't the only world event to shape Missoula's Bavarian-style brewery. After the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, the Schultes—also originally from Bavaria—decided to sell Bayern and their other American holdings and shift their investments to eastern Europe. Knöller recalls a friend suggesting he buy the brewery. When Knöller hesitated, the friend lent him the down payment. Bayern became Knöller's.

Even before acquiring the brewery in 1991, Knöller had been the brains behind the beer. He drew from recipes he'd worked on as far back as 1978, when he apprenticed at the 600-year-old Schiffbraueri in his hometown of Kaufbeuren. Bayern's owners asked him to brew a beer slightly darker and hoppier than the readily available domestics, with just enough bitterness to build a discriminating customer base without scaring anyone off. The result was Bayern Amber. Gradually Knöller introduced an Oktoberfest, a doppelbock and a pilsener (Bayern has stuck with the style's traditional spelling), all with an eye toward brews that would be "distinctly different without offending anybody."

click to enlarge Bayern may be turning 30, but for owner Jürgen Knöller, the brewery’s roots run deeper—into the centuries-old legacy of beer in his Bavarian homeland. - PHOTO BY PARKER SEIBOLD
  • photo by Parker Seibold
  • Bayern may be turning 30, but for owner Jürgen Knöller, the brewery’s roots run deeper—into the centuries-old legacy of beer in his Bavarian homeland.

"When we did our Bayern Amber, that had 28 bitter units, which was probably the most bitter beer in all of America," Knöller says. "Now we have IPAs with 100 bitter units."

Eventually, the spark struck by Bayern turned into a small flame. Big Sky Brewing rolled out its first batch of beer in 1995, the same year that KettleHouse opened as a sort of communal home-brew location. Knöller's decision in 1997 to begin packaging Bayern for retail sale in bottles came years before there was a reliable supply of glass bottles for craft brewers.

Then there was the state's infamous 10,000-barrel production cap, which for the past three years has forced Bayern to restrict its own growth in order to continue selling beers in its taproom. Knöller says that restriction was a large part of the reason Bayern added its upstairs Edelweiss Bistro in late 2015.

"I thought I was going to retire in 10 years and that thing still wasn't going to be changed," he says of the barrel cap and the years of political skirmishing it caused. "You need your outlet with your taproom. That's still your best word-of-mouth advertising you're going to have."

Now Knöller's tenure has outlasted that challenge as well. Last month he sat next to Gov. Steve Bullock on a heavy wooden bench in the Edelweiss Bistro as Bullock signed a ceremonial copy of a law raising the barrel cap to 60,000. The decision to hold the event at Bayern was no coincidence.

Knöller is "a pioneer in Montana," Bullock told the Indy. "And now we have over 70 brewers" across the state.

Bayern's future may look more flush than ever, but Knöller isn't letting the 30th anniversary pass without a nod to the past. Continuing his history of bringing "the old country" to Montana, Knöller in May released his Celebration Pilsener—a recipe he first brewed at the Schiffbraueri almost 40 years ago.

"Instead of doing all that funky, fancy, think-up-something-new," he says, "I went back and said, 'I can do something again that I never thought I would ever be able to do again.'"

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