Flavors: KettleHouse Brewing Company Clears Path in Montana for Craft Beers

Jun 17, 2019

Zach Nelson, Head Brewer and Mike Ashworth, Sales Representative of KettleHouse Brewing Company in Missoula in the the studio.
Credit Stella Fong

Even with obscure names as Cold Smoke and Shady for their beers, KettleHouse Brewing Company  continues to light the way in the Montana craft beer world. The brewery opened in Missoula by Tim O’Leary and Suzy Rizza in 1995 began as a “U-Brew.” It was then the first microbrewery to charge patrons for a pint of beer, and recently one of the first Montana producers to package beer in a can.

For the Brewmaster Symposium for the 2019 Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival, Head Brewer Zach Nelson and Sales Representative, Mike Ashworth shared the story behind the brewery. Then a tasting of their beers paired with food created by Executive Chef Jeremy Engebretson of Lilac and the Petroleum Club showcased how beer can be paired with fine food.

Nelson said of the “U-Brew,” “People could come in and they would brew their own beer inside. Tim would take care of it for them and then they would come and bottle.” Though this was a good idea, the owners wanted to make their own beer and provide a place where people could gather.

In 1999 KettleHouse Brewing Company along with Kessler Brewing and Himmelberger Brewing in Billings lobbied the Montana State Legislature to legalize on-premise consumption of beers. This allowed the customers to come in and drink beer between the hours of 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a per customer a daily limitation of 48 ounces of beer.

At the Petroleum Club this night, I will admit to consuming a little beyond the taproom limitations. The menu was as follows:

Welcome Beer

Slant Street Pilsner

“A traditional German style pilsner brewed the traditional way using Hallertau and Tettang hops which help bring the beer a herbal/spicy flavor and provide a light bitterness. Slant Street is a well-balanced, German style pilsner that is easy to drink anytime.”

Hellgate®Honey Hefeweizen

“Hellgate® has been a perennial favorite in our taprooms for years. It’s a smooth drinker for those hot summer days. The honey helps boost the alcohol content while also adding a floral bouquet to the nose. Yeast is left in the beer to add body, head retention and stability, as well as a slight haziness”

 with corn and crab fritter, black olive tapenade, and corn citrus aioli.

Cold Smoke®Scotch Ale

“Our flagship beer and biggest award winner. Cold Smoke® is a dark smooth ale with a slightly sweet coffee finish. Referred to a s a “gateway beer” – light macro beer drinkers find this an easy transition to craft beer because of its smooth and delicious flavor”

with smoked short ribs, backyard celery salad, and salt potatoes.

Northwest IPA

“Northwest IPA is made with primarily Montana grown barley and Columbus, Cascade, Chinook, Simcoe, Mosaic, and Citra hops. This one is a juicy, citrusy, refreshing dink that will satisfy your taste for something delicious, wet and hoppy!”

with cioppino, chorizo, shellfish pepper spiced broth.

Shady New England IPA – Shady brings huge flavors of orange juice, mango, and grapefruit. Using copious amounts of late addition Citra and Mosaic hops, along with East Coast Ale Yeast, Shady has a smooth mouthfeel and little bitterness. This smooth drinking juice bomb of an IPA that is unlike any other beer you will have. It’s made for the shade!” - with roast chicken, salad of flowers and herbs, spicy chicken and lemon jus.

Afraid of the Dark White Stout – “Taking the first sip of this beer tastes as a stout should, full body, creamy feel, with hints of coffee, chocolate, and vanilla. Using only light colored malts, this beer is brewed very similar to any other stout. To make it even more complex, we aged it in Dry Fly White Wheat Whiskey barrels for 6 months, giving it a boozy bite and clean whiskey aromas” - with chocolate mousse, fried almonds.

Cold Smoke Scotch Ale is KettleHouse Brewing Company's most popular beer. A beer Head Brewer Zach Nelson terms as the "gateway beer" to the craft beer world.
Credit Stella Fong

Ashworth said of the pairing, “A lot of people have in their mind that wine is the item that pairs with food.” He explained, “The carbonation cleanses your palate so as you are drinking you think wine and cheese, but cheese is kind of waxy and it coats over your palate. The bubbles grab whatever is on your palate and rinses it and washes it away.”

Aside from the cleansing properties, the craft beers also carry nuances and flavors that pair well with food. Nelson said of his pilsner, “It was a little bit for me like a sparkling wine and champagne. It gets the appetite going” in anticipation for the food. The similarities continue as a pilsner is crisp, light and refreshing much like a sparkling wine.

Nelson was working for a company restoring Airstreams. He said, “Sadly and luckily at the same time they went out of business.” He then applied for a job at KettleHouse in hopes of making beer. He did not get the job, but instead was hired to be a part time keg cleaner. Seven years later, he is now the head brewer for the company. “I just trained myself and learned everything I could through KettleHouse and here I am today.”

For Ashworth, after graduating from University of Montana with a communications degree, he did not have a specific idea on a career choice but wanted to get into the craft beer business. Visits to many breweries throughout the country with his best friend gave him the knowledge to impress a distributor to hire him for a job. After half a dozen years working for Summit Beverage, “the opportunity presented itself to me to come to KettleHouse Brewing Company as a Sales Rep,” he said.

Both possessed a passion for beer and made efforts to learn all they could about them. Nelson accumulated his beer making knowledge with hands-on experience at KettleHouse. He said of the people they employed at the brewery, “We will hire anyone who just loves craft beer, and is passionate about it, but they don’t have to have schooling, they don’t have to have gone to Siebel or anything.” (The Siebel Institute, for the last 140 years have on the culture, equipment, methods and styles of beer through lectures and demonstrations.)

Double Haul IPA is KettleHouse Brewing Company's full bodied, hoppy Pale Ale made with Montana barley and Northwest grown cascade hops. As the first Montana brewery to package it in cans, it can be enjoyed anywhere.
Credit Stella Fong

Beer is basically water, yeast, hops and grains according to Nelson. “You have to have good equipment and the biggest thing is cleaning, making sure everything is very sanitary.” “A craft beer involves using local grains and higher end ingredients,” he said. With the beers, “We are taking our time with it and trying to give the customer a better beer product.”

Cold Smoke, a Scotch Ale, is the beer that put KettleHouse on the map. The mot popular beer in their portfolio exhibits caramel and toffee flavors with low IBUs or alcohol content and ABVs, bitterness level. Nelson jokingly referred to Cold Smoke as the “gateway drug to craft beer.” Usually once customers are turned onto Cold Smoke, they venture to other beers on the KettleHouse’s menu.

Ashworth said of Cold Smoke, “It’s like its own rock star. It’s its own celebrity. It has its own following.”

The canning of the beer has allowed for portability not only for distribution to most of Montana and some into Washington states, but lets consumers pack a beer for a hike or take to a gathering more readily. For the producer, the challenge is making a more consistent beer in larger volume.

The second best selling beer is the Hellgate® Honey Hefeweizen. It is what Nelson termed a the beer with its low alcohol content and absence of bitterness, “sessionable”- a beer that can be enjoyed over a long drinking session.  The beer made with an American wheat ale yeast results in flavorings of banana and clove. Finally, the locally sourced knapweed honey supplies one of the key ingredients to their popular concoction.

One of the more challenging beers that Nelson make are the brews aged in whiskey barrels. Personally he does not like whiskey but the market demands this beer so he makes it and relies on his staff to help critique the results.

Sours are one of his favorite beers to create. With three production facilities, he uses the opportunity to experiment with brews. Since bacteria is used to create the concoction, its mere presence could be a beer spoiler, so needs to be contained with care. Basically fruit, yeast and bacteria create a sour.

The IPA is a growing beer style. Traditionally there was the English style IPA with good caramel malts and touches of bitterness. Now, there is bitterness, “juicy” flavors, and herbaceous notes. It is the beer that exudes the most personality and diversity with no one IPA being exactly the same. These days to eliminate the bitterness the hops impart, oils are extracted to supply characteristic flavors such as citrus, peach, mango or floral notes.

Lately, hazies, IPAs that have not been filtered are popular. They create an opaque beer that looks supper fizzy and can be creamy orange or yellow in color. The color and haze make the beer look more like a glass of juice, explaining why it has taken on the other nickname of “juicy.”

KettleHouse has three facilities these days with two taprooms and a production facility in Bonner, Montana on the Blackfoot River. Near the facility on by the river, KettleHouse in collaboration with Nick Checota and Logjam Presents offers an amphitheater for artists and concertgoers to enjoy music in a natural environment.

From “U-Brew” to taproom to canned beer to concert venue, KettleHouse Brewing Company keeps a clear path in changing the craft beer scene in Montana.