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Bayern Brewery owner Jurgen Knoller just took his title of “chief cook and bottle-washer” to a whole new level.

With the help of a crane, a forklift and a semitrailer, Knoller loaded a 14-metric-ton bottle-washing machine into his Montana Street headquarters on Thursday. The $250,000 machine can clean and sterilize 8,000 bottles an hour.

But don’t call Knoller a “recycler.” He hates the term. It implies taking something like a bottle and making a lower-value product from it, such as road gravel aggregate. He wants to wring the full value out of each bottle he fills, by filling it again and again.

“To tell the truth, this is the smallest machine I’ve ever worked with,” Knoller said as the D&G Crane Service crew bull-winched the machine out of its shipping container. Breweries where he’d trained in Germany had washers that could clean 50,000 bottles an hour. This one was custom-built by Seitz Werke a 70-year-old company from Bad Kreuznach, Germany, that provides washers all over the world.

“There are not two machines the same size,” Seitz machinist Frank Nowacat said as Bayern’s machine cleared its steel shipping container by inches. “We build the machines according to the building. This was an easy one.”

Nowacat and colleague Viktor Hochstatter have been around the world installing and maintaining their company’s machines, but this was their first time coming to the United States. That’s because bottle-washing nearly died out a couple decades ago as big brewers and grocery chains decided they didn’t want to deal with the return-side of the cycle.

But European breweries reuse their bottles more than 30 times, in a place where landfill garbage disposal has grown limited and expensive. Reusing the bottle also slashes the brewery’s production costs. Knoller said shipping a semi-load of dirty bottles from Bozeman is less than half as expensive as ordering the same volume of unused bottles from a New York glass foundry.

Shipping this machine was an eye-opening ride for Pacer Cartage trucker Russell McDonald. He said he rarely gets to see what’s inside the big steel containers he hauls.

“This one really slowed me down on the hills and passes,” McDonald said of the drive from Seattle to Missoula. “But that’s the coolest machine I’ve ever delivered.”

Once inside Bayern’s brewery warehouse, the machine will strip the label and return to service any brown-glass, 12-ounce, standard-cap glass bottle, including those from other breweries. No chipped, screw-topped, or etched bottles need apply. The machine electronically tests each bottle for durability. Any that fail get crushed and ejected.

“If the integrity is there, I can use it,” Knoller said. “I hope I get to help other microbreweries and bottlers, too.”

To wash the bottles, Bayern must first get them back. To that end, the brewery has started an “ecoleague” of partner stores who offer a $3 waxed-cardboard "ecopack" box for customers to buy Bayern beers. Each bottle returned to the Montana Street brewery in the 24-slot box earns a 5-cent refund.

Participating stores include Gilly’s Gas, the Good Food Store, Grizzly Grocery, Orange Street Food Farm, Pattee Creek Market and Worden’s Market. The stores only sell the beer and ecopacks. They don’t take back bottles or pay refunds – only the brewery does.

Knoller said half the wholesale price of many grocery store items goes to packaging. So rather than have store clerks flatten thousands of pounds of cardboard, they can fill the reusable ecopacks. A Seattle packager designed the boxes to withstand the rigors of the fresh-fish trade. They also collapse for compact transport.

“This is not a dishwasher in a restaurant,” Knoller said. “We’re setting a trend, not following one.”

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