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KettleHouse Brewing

The Little Brewery That Cans

From, 11-10-08 of published article, Microbrew Montana: KettleHouse Brewing: The Little Brewery That Cans, Bill Schneider. This article is presented in agreement with All rights reserved, Copyright (© 2008)

KettleHouse Brewing owner Tim O'Leary

The new Orange Street location and owner Tim O'Leary.

Photo Courtesy of KettleHouse Brewing, by Bill Schneider.

When you go into the KettleHouse original taproom, which is tucked away on a hard-to-find side street in mid-town Missoula, you find something you see at most Montana microbreweries--

- a crowd of local folks enjoying good beer and good conversation in their adopted neighborhood pub where it's always "Hoppy Hour." But when you peak into the back room or decide to buy some tasty KettleHouse brew at the grocery store, you see something you don't see at or from any other Montana microbrewery, beer cans.

Because KettleHouse is the little Montana brewery that cans

I confess to emptying a few cans of beer in my life, but never a can of great tasting microbrew--until KettleHouse Brewing made it possible. Not just an ordinary 12-ounce can, but a pounder, 16 ounces of microbrew in environmentally sensitive aluminum with a glasslike, taste-preserving coating--and in sharp contrast with the 24-can suitcases pushed by the Bigs, it's sold only in singles or four-packs.

Even though I already knew the answer, I still asked owner Tim O'Leary what made KettleHouse different from other Montana microbreweries. "It's our attitude," he replied. "We're not afraid to try something new. The canning thing is a symptom of what makes us different."

In the not-so-different department: "We're passionate about what we do, and it shows in our beer."

And in the cans. "We can because aluminum is recyclable, opaque, and easily transportable," O'Leary writes on his website. "A food grade lining protects the beer flavor and our cans are made with approximately 80% recycled aluminum."

O'Leary started out thinking bottles and even bought a used bottling machine, but then changed his mind and decided to become the only Montana brewery to can beer. Most microbrewers shun cans because, image-wise, cans are associated with inferior product, he explained, and also, unlined cans used by megabrewers give beer a "tinny taste."

Cans are even better than glass bottles in some respects, contends O'Leary. No sunlight shines through glass to create a "skunky" aroma, and they're lighter, energy-efficient, and cool faster.

O'Leary, an avid paddler and former river guide, also thinks cans are better suited for river trips and hopes outfitters and guides will start buying his canned beer in bulk.

But less expensive? Well, perhaps not. Single pounders go for $1.79 and four-packs for $6.79. You do the math.

KettleHouse is one of the oldest breweries in Montana, started in 1995 before Montana law allowed taproom sales, "It was tough at first," O'Leary said, remembering the struggles of the early years. "We probably shouldn't be here. The taproom bill really helped."

O'Leary was one of the main instigators behind that 1999 law, and if you want to hear the long story of a grand compromise with tavern owners that made it possible, he's a good one to tell it. He was there at the bill-signing ceremony in Helena. As the ink was drying, he was on the phone to his staff in Missoula telling them to go ahead and sell what he believes could have been the first pint sold by any Montana brewery.

KettleHouse was also among the first breweries in the state to sell beer in growlers, years before the taproom law. "If it wasn't for growlers, we probably wouldn't be in business today."

Now, he's on track, to say the least. In his original location on Myrtle Street, KettleHouse probably has the most crammed, maxed-out production facility in the state, but O'Leary and his 13 employees still managed to crank out and sell about 4,000 barrels of craft brew annually out of it. Demand continued to far outstrips this production capability, so O'Leary made the big move.

In early 2009, he opened a second production facility open, called KettleHouse Northside, and now production has jumped up to 8,500 barrels annually, most of it brewed in the new northside location. As hard as the Myrtle Street taproom is to find, the new facility, perched right on top of the Orange Street Underpass, is among the most visible, easy-to-find locations in Missoula.

The KettleHouse was the first microbrewery in the state to can.

Photo Courtesy of KettleHouse Brewing, by Bill Schneider.

Currently, O'Leary is working extra long hours trying to get his second production facility open, which probably won't happen until next March or April. As hard as the Myrtle Street taproom is to find, the new facility, perched right on top of the Orange Street Underpass, will be among the most visible, easy-to-find locations in Missoula.

A signature beer? Not at the KettleHouse. "We let our customers decide what our flagship beers are. Right now, Cold Smoke (Scotch Ale) is what people seem to want."

He likes all his beers, "but I really like the high IBUs, which stands for Ideal Bitterness Units, such as Double Haul IPA, partly because it's taken me a while to do a double haul with my fly rod, and also a while accept and go with the strong IPAs."

He calls this the "Brewmaaster Effect"--beer fans starting out with the lighter, less hoppy beers and working up to the IPAs, usually the strongest and hoppiest of them all. And much different than what he calls ICMPDs, which is his beer-speak for Ice Cold Mass Produced Domestics, turned out by the big brewers.

Although not so different than other microbreweries, KettleHouse is run by outdoor people for outdoor people. You see and hear it everywhere--from the beer names to the classic bicycles hanging from the ceiling or parked outside, a keen interest in environmental and outdoor issues projected from the owners and embraced by the customers. O'Leary even devotes part of his website to warning about global warming and encourages us all to "search for cooler times."

Which we can find every afternoon at the KettleHouse taproom.

-Bill Schneider

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