More fish friendly: Trout Slayer to be renamed Dancing Trout, but recipe to remain same

2007-06-06T00:00:00Z More fish friendly: Trout Slayer to be renamed Dancing Trout, but recipe to remain sameBy TYLER CHRISTENSEN of the Missoulian

All day long, Bayern Brewing owner and brewmaster Juergen Knoeller runs back and forth between stations on the packaging line, removing empties, smoothing labels and straightening bottles.

He's been dashing around like this for two decades now, he noted. On Aug. 1, Bayern Brewing will mark its official 20-year anniversary, and in anticipation of that day, the Missoula brewery will begin phasing out its popular Trout Slayer brand.

But fear not, Slayer fans: The beer itself isn't going anywhere. Only the name and label are being replaced.

Trout Slayer was a leased name, and it wasn't Knoeller's "cup of tea" anyway, he said, explaining that his environmental philosophies lean more toward trout habitat preservation than wholesale fish slaughter.

After a brainstorming session with colleagues, Knoeller decided that Dancing Trout Ale better captured the spirit he wanted to convey. His friend, artist Monte Dolack, rendered the Dancing Trout name into a new label showing an angler waltzing with a partner-size trout.

Dancing, Knoeller explained, is a form of celebration, and therefore an apt way for the brewery to celebrate both its anniversary and the folks who've supported it all these years.

And the trout?

"Fishermen and breweries have one thing in common: the need for good, clean water," he said with a shrug.

That's why a portion of the new brand's proceeds will go to Montana Trout Unlimited, which works to keep the state's waters free of trout-killing pollutants, he added.

The beer formerly known as Trout Slayer has been one of Bayern's best-selling varieties, Knoeller said, but his brewery is no "one-trick pony." Several of its beers are top sellers, and the local craft beer business as a whole is growing steadily.

Nationally, the microbrew market first boomed in the 1980s, he said, and then surged again through the early to mid-'90s. It was somewhat stagnant for a few years in the new millennium, but now appears to be expanding again.

"It's just solid, steady growth lately," Knoeller said.

In fact, the nation's craft beer industry grew nearly 12 percent by volume in 2006, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, which also reported that the craft beer sector is the fastest-growing part of the overall beer market. Craft beer industry sales now reach $4.7 billion a year - still a tiny percentage of the total $94 billion beer industry.

However, many beer-loving entrepreneurs have been opening their own breweries to meet the rise in demand, and the Brewers Association now counts 1,389 craft breweries operating nationwide. Montana is home to 23 of these, including a new craft brewery in Victor that's still in the planning stages.

Knoeller has been brewing beer since he was just 16 years old. He spent eight years training for a Master Brewer diploma in Germany before opening his own brewery in Missoula in 1987.

Back then, Trout Slayer was known, simply, as Light Wheat Ale. It didn't get its current name until 2002.

It's important for craft brewers to use distinctive names to help set their products apart from the competition, said Big Sky Brewing co-founder Bjorn Nabozney.

But it's also important for breweries to choose names that reflect their style, he added.

"It's a very slow process for us," Nabozney explained. "We take upward of two years before any new introduction."

That said, Big Sky's Moose Drool Brown Ale was given its unique moniker after a rather informal process, he recalled.

"First, I called my mom," Nabozney said. "My mom used to do some pretty neat book covers for my brother and I when we were in grade school."

Nabozney's mom was initially enchanted by name of the Moose Breath Saloon in Billings, and drew up an image for he and his partners to ponder.

"Who would drink something called Moose Breath?" Nabozney said. "Ew."

They sat around looking at it, he remembers, until one partner remarked in an offhand way that they might as well call the beer Moose Drool. They laughed, but the name stuck, and now it's the company's top-selling beer, accounting for 70 percent of its total sales.

Over the years, Big Sky has added to its list of unique names. Powder Hound, for instance, was named for Nabozney's brother's dog. Summer Honey was named after a pink truck that used to tool around Missoula in the early '90s. It's a long story.

"My mom still does all of our artwork," he added.

Beer names with personal meanings are rampant in Montana, but labels with outdoorsy themes top the list.

That's likely because Montana, and western Montana in particular, is a great place to recreate, Nabozney said. A number of Big Sky Brewing workers are former river guides, he pointed out. Many of them kayak or fish or hunt in their free time.

"We're a very outdoorsy brewery, and that just sort of manifested itself into our image," he said.

KettleHouse Brewing Co. takes that theme one step further by pouring its craft beers into containers its consumers can actually take to the rivers.

Montana law prohibits glass containers on the state's rivers, said KettleHouse co-owner Tim O'Leary. But his brewery offers two kinds of craft beer in a can, with a third on the way.

KettleHouse is currently the only Missoula brewery putting its brew in aluminum pop-top cans. Big Sky offered aluminum bottles for a limited time, but was forced to stop due to the rising cost of materials.

One of O'Leary's goals, he said, is to encourage consumers to recycle. While aluminum cans are energy-intensive to produce, they are easier to recycle than glass. They are lighter, too, which helps save fuel when shipping them across the country.

"I'm full steam ahead on cans as an alternative," O'Leary said.

The cans have proven tremendously popular, he said. At the same time, his draft beer business went up 60 percent last year alone.

"I planned for an increase in production for canning, but I didn't plan for that 60 percent increase in draft sales," he said, laughing. "The cool thing about Missoula and Missoula people is they support local breweries."

There's enough local support, he believes, to justify a second KettleHouse location in town.

While the KettleHouse will continue operating at its Myrtle Street headquarters, O'Leary is also working on expanding into a building on Missoula's north side, he confirmed, adding that he hopes to open the second brewery by next summer.

Meanwhile, he's looking at ramping up production to more than 5,000 barrels a year within the next five years, he said, and that's a conservative estimate.

Missoula's breweries, he said, are at full production - and they still can't keep up with demand.

"Craft beers," O'Leary said, "are on a roll."

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