KC Bier Co. founder Steve Holle reflects on a year in beer and looks ahead to year two

Steve Holle wants a Helles. It’s his favorite KC Bier Co. brew. And it’s what he wants to drink a year to the day since he opened his German-style brewery’s taproom, at 310 West 79th Street.

As he tells me this, Holle and his KC Bier Co. are on the verge of a weeklong celebration to mark a year that saw the opening of a taproom and a biergarten, as well as an impressive ramping-up of distribution throughout the metro and in Lawrence. The company also picked up a pair of silver medals at the Great International Beer Festival & Cider Competition.

But there were also times over the past year when nothing seemed to be going right.

“There was a point right before we opened where it seemed like something new went terribly wrong,” Holle says. “But everything kind of worked out in the end. Yeah, I think it went pretty well.”

Year two seems to be headed in the right direction as well. KC Bier Co.’s beer is in more than 250 bars and restaurants, and Holle expects the brewery’s 30-barrel brewhouse to double last year’s production of 1,500 barrels — and keep doubling each year after that.

“We just got two new tanks, so yeah, I think we’ll probably push out in sort of an expanding circle,” he says. The targets he has in mind include Topeka, Springfield, Columbia and Warrensburg — but probably nothing yet beyond the two-state region.

“The big thing for us to expand our sales will be to get packaged beer in grocery stores and liquor stores,” Holle says. “I think when we do that, we’ll bump our sales up quite a bit.”

Holle laughs when I ask him how soon his packaging will be ready.

“I’m laughing because somebody asks me that every day,” he says. “Hopefully the end of the year. I have proposals for different packaging lines, and I’m just trying to find time to really go through them. It’s a major investment, and it’s a complicated piece of equipment. There’s a lot of things that go into it. Not only do you have to buy the equipment. You have to finance it, you have to get all of your label approvals — all that fun stuff.”

Another question he hears a lot: cans or bottles?

“Cans are kind of the hip, new thing,” Holle says. “There’s a lot of marketing advantages with the package in terms of putting decorations on the cans. And certainly it’s greener because you can recycle it. The cans are lighter, easier to transport, and they take up less space. But my concern is about the quality of the beer in the package and the shelf life.

“Although small-can technology has gotten better, I still think bottling affords a higher quality fill on a smaller system, particularly in the amount of dissolved oxygen that gets picked up in the bottle during the filling process. I still think a small bottling line does a better job of reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen. Beer is like bread. You want to keep as much oxygen out of the package as possible.”

He can afford a little time to make up his mind. Distributors have secured serious space around town for his tap handles, giving his beer strong exposure.

“So far, we’ve been successful at getting a tap marker on at a particular location, and they’re reordering beer,” Holle says. “That’s what I’d like to focus on: Making good beer and then when we secure an account, maintaining the tap handle space or the shelf space once we start packaging.”

Though KC Bier’s focus is on traditional German styles with three core brews — Helles, Dunkel and Hefeweizen — the brewery is set to release three American interpretations of German styles in 2015. The first, Doppel Alt, a dry-hopped amber ale, is already available in the taproom. Also coming are Der Bauer, a German spin on farmhouse ales that’s due in June, and Wunder Pils, an imperial Pilsner slated for July.

The core beers are still the sales leaders. The approachable, malty Dunkel is KC Bier Co.’s best-seller “by far,” Holle says. “I do have hopes that it’s one of those beers that people look for whenever they go out,” he adds. “I hope it becomes a standard beer like a Bud Light or a Boulevard Wheat.”

It’s not too hard to picture that. Dunkel may be relatively new to KC, but it’s already a mainstay at Joe’s Kansas City and Jack Stack, among other big-name local restaurants.

“It’s kind of neat that you can drink your beer at a restaurant that you’ve always liked to eat at,” Holle says. “We’ve got a few more places on that list that we need to work on.”

He laughs, and then he gets himself that Helles.

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