5 Questions with Bunkhouse Brewery Owner Andy Stohlmann
There are currently well over 7,000 breweries in the U.S., each of them have a unique story to tell. Bunkhouse Brewery in Bozeman, Montana is a unique nano-brewery located steps away from the campus of Montana State University and the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Bunkhouse is what many would consider a neighborhood brewery. They only distribute to a couple accounts and heavily rely on taproom foot traffic and sales. These types of breweries have been hit hard during the COVID pandemic and have had to get creative and adjust on the fly. Fortunately, Bunkhouse is producing as much beer as ever and is still focusing on the community aspect of the brewery.
What’s the meaning behind the Bunkhouse name?
If we think back to early Montana history, the Bunkhouse was the place ranch and farmhands gathered at the end of the day to eat and sleep. It was also where they gathered socially–drank, played cards, talked–everything we hope that our friends do today in our Bunkhouse.
Being steps away from the campus of Montana State University, have you been able to use that proximity to help the students (of legal drinking age) learn about craft beer or do they just come to drink?
This is so hard to answer succinctly because it touches on the very core of who we are. Foremost, I would not say that undergrads are our primary customer. The busier the campus, the busier we seem to be but it feels like the majority of our customers are beyond undergrad. We feel very fortunate that we have had the opportunity to build relationships with many facets of the university–multitudes of campus organizations, fraternities, departmental faculty & staff, coaches and teams and many more. Whether we are hosting a pint night for the Voice Center or hosting your retirement party, we are honored to be part of your celebration and of our community as a whole. Being a part of our community on a multitude of levels is a piece of “Bunkhouse:” it’s a piece of the fabric of our soul if you will.
That said, this also speaks to our core is because I think everybody that comes in has the opportunity to learn something. Our goal is to create a beer you love. Practically speaking, that means I may have to convenience you to try a beer style you may not have tried or worse, tried and didn’t like previously. This means we have to create something infinitely interesting and completely approachable… that’s a tall order. The regulars that come to trust us try every beer we make. Maybe they love it maybe they don’t. We mark it down as a win, when you come in and try something that you maybe would not have tried somewhere else. We talk about this as expanding your understanding of a style. This is where the learning happens. If your understanding of a style grows, we are that much closer to helping you understand the things about a beer you do love so that you can make better choices about what and where you want to drink.
Bunkhouse has one of the more cozy and intimate taprooms and brewing spaces I’ve seen, but you’re constantly coming out with a variety of new beers. How are you guys able to maximize efficiency and produce so many beers in a limited space?
Truly that is the bonus of being so small. Early on we realized that making good beer is a “given.” You either make good beer or you don’t open a brewery in Bozeman. How do you differentiate beyond that? You use the one gift you have as a little place–we can make anything. We aren’t making a tremendous investment that could break the company if we produce a “fail.” (side note: We see making beer as a tremendous investment of love and time and creativity.) We aren’t forced to repeat the same thing over and over–the more you distribute a beer the more important it becomes to do the same thing repeatedly. This is why I can count on one hand the beers we have produced more than a single time, save the three we do try to have consistently. We sometimes get flak for not repeating a popular beer but the trade-off is “what if the next one we produce is even more amazing?” Why limit yourself?
With most of your sales happening in the taproom, how have you been able to navigate through the restrictions that COVID-19 has caused and continue to produce beer? What lessons have you learned through this process?
That is a great question and the only true answer is that our regulars are absolutely amazing! We only exist because they are ordering delivery, they are coming in consistently, they are telling their friends about us… it’s really the customer that has pulled us through all the covid restrictions.
We are considering some changes to the business model but nothing that we are quite ready to unveil at this time. I can say that we believe that we need to expand our canning operations to some degree so that we can keep beer moving despite of restrictions. We want to keep it very “Bunkhouse,” so that makes it even more difficult. Hopefully, we will be able to make some more definite announcements soon.
Looking at your weekly specials and events, it’s easy to see this is a brewery focused on the community. What does this community mean to you?
I spent several years living in a small village in Germany. The center of town was the brewery (and the bakery). Everything happened at the brewery and everybody gathered there. When we talk about community at the Bunkhouse, I see the german brewery that was the focal point of town every evening. I understand that Bozeman is many times larger than the village in which I lived, but I do hope that we can fulfill that role for some of the community. Hopefully, our desire to be part of the community is evident in our policies, our practices and really everything that we do.