Miles City's only brewery features specially crafted beers

Consistency is the key to making good beer and Miles City’s brewery has got that down with one of the top brewmasters in the world and a high-tech brewing system. 

Tilt Würks Brewhouse and Casino at 420 Pacific Ave. opened in August and is producing eight styles of beers. 

As breweries gain popularity, Denis Leidholt thought it was time Miles City had a brewery.

Through research and a friend of a friend of a friend, Leidholt hooked up with brewmaster Brian Watson of New Zealand. Not only is Watson an internationally known brewmaster but he also is the inventor of a brewing system called SmartBrew that is used in many countries. Tilt Würks has the second one installed in the U.S.

Watson has crafted eight brews for Tilt Würks: High Score Hefeweizen, Bang Back Blueberry Wheat, Replay IPA, Pinball Pilsner, Knocker Amber Ale, Slingshot Vanilla Porter, Drop Target Dunkleweizen and the newest, the Wizard’s Winter Ale. Some will be available yearround and others will be seasonal.

The Winter Ale is a heavier-bodied ale with espresso and vanilla. “When you talk beer and coffee, you are speaking my language,” Watson said.

The name of the business — Tilt Würks— as well as the names of the beers and the decor all reflect the many years Leidholt has spent working with pinball machines, starting in 1979. 

The German spelling of works (“würks,” which is pronounced “works”) comes more from the German influence in beer-making history than Leidholt’s German heritage. 

The Start

Leidholt began pursuing his dream of starting a brewery by buying the 1939 building, which was originally a farm implement dealership.

Over the years it had changed hands several times, including being a home for the Miles City Club and the Iron Horse Supper Club. 

While Leidholt owns the building, his wife, Rhonda VerBeck, owns the business, and Earl Howe and his wife Paula lease the brewery and brew the unique beers.

Howe said Leidholt has always wanted to start a brewery but federal law does not allow someone who sells liquor to brew it. The brewery has its own outside entrance, and there cannot be a door that adjoins them, though large windows allow the restaurant patrons to see the brewery. 

While Earl Howe, who is also a real estate appraiser, had dabbled with home brewing “a little bit” before, he said with a laugh that the real estate appraiser in him “conned me into it.”

Howe and Leidholt are cousins.

So Howe became the brewer, in addition to his regular job. 

“It’s a little more work than I originally thought,” but now it’s getting easier, he said.

He explained the system has good technical support and they can troubleshoot 80 percent of the problems from New Zealand. 

“I’ve got Brian on speed dial,” he said, a little amazed because of Watson’s outstanding reputation.

“This system is just amazing. It doesn’t run itself but it has a lot of checks and balances,” Howe said.

The Howes have made about 800 gallons of beer in the two months they have been brewing.  There are five brewing tanks and each holds 160 gallons. 

“I like making beer people like,” Howe said.


The Brewmaster

With his science degree in hand, Watson applied for a highly coveted trainee position with Heineken in 1990. There were three positions and 140,000 people got to the interview stage. Not only did Watson get one of the positions, he also got the most desirable one: the position in Auckland, New Zealand.

“I still don’t know how I got it,” he said.  

After spending three years at Heineken he left. 

“I decided I didn’t like the corporate life. I had to brew in a suit and tie. You can’t brew in a suit and tie,” he exclaimed.

When Watson left, he didn’t plan on being involved in brewing again, but in England he met Alastair Hook, who is considered to be the top brewer in the world, and Watson began to develop a passion for brewing. 

“We’re still mates,” he said of Hook.

Watson said beer is used for three reasons — to complement food, to contrast with the food, or to cleanse the palate.

Now Watson has won over 100 international beer awards. 

“Working with Watson allows Tilt Würks to procure the finest ingredients from around the world for our beers,” Leidholt said.

Watson judges four beer contests a year. The biggest is the World Beer Cup which has 350 judges and last year had 7,000 beers entered. 

They have the best judges in the world, Watson said.

He is the chief judge of the New Zealand International beer awards. 

“It’s good fun, going around the world drinking beer,” he said.

After tasting so many beers around the world, what is his favorite? 

“I’ll drink any beer — as long as it’s good. I like good beer,” he said. 

The strangest beer he’s tasted is probably a Salted Gose, a sour Belguim beer with a high content of salt.

“The more you drank, the thirster you got,” he laughed.

He sees many kinds of beers, but “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” he said of drinking some of the wild varieties.

He said people are experimenting a lot with herbs and spices besides hops.

Eventually, he invented the SmartBrew brewing system to blend cutting-age technology to a 5,000 year-old process.

DME produces the SmartBrew equipment and is the world’s biggest brewing equipment maker.

“The hardest thing to do in beer is to make a consistent product. That’s the secret,” Watson said.

Watson has set up breweries in North America, China, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia. 

He said that England and Germany are very traditional when it comes to making beer while America is “on the cutting edge.”

“It’s great to see the growth in American crafters,” he said.

There are two breweries opening a day in the U.S.

“It’s just a great time for beer,” Watson said.

He said he is amazed that Montana has 70 breweries. 

“New Zealand has 4 million people and has 70 breweries,” he said.

“People are developing their palates more and not just drinking to get drunk,” he said.

He has designed a world-class wort — the mixture of processed grains that become beer after fermentation — called Watson Select, using the world’s finest barley, hops and ingredients in yeast.

In addition to using the finest ingredients, the wort has proven to be consistent in its quality.

It is shipped from Germany and New Zealand to Miles City to be used in Tilt Würks’ beers.

Leidholt said that through Watson, “We’ve got all this experience and buying power.”


Locally Brewed Beer

Leidholt  and Watson went back and forth, consulting on what kind of beers to provide at Tilt Würks. 

Watson knows what goes well at breweries across the world and Leidholt, also the owner of the Cellar Casino, knows the local market.

“The styles we picked for this place are world-renowned beers,” Watson said.

Pilsner is the most popular beer in the world, he said. For brewing trends, the IPAs have been very popular and now fruit beers, sour beers and hybrid beers are growing in popularity. 

Dunkleweizen and Hefeweizen are popular styles of German beer and use German yeast.

After choosing the styles, the two decided how to make them unique to this area. 

Local beer enthusiasts like the Blueberry Wheat two to one over the Hefeweizen, the next most popular beer at Tilt Würks.

Leidholt said the Blueberry Wheat is “a big hit and probably is becoming one of our flagship beers.”

Usually Amber Ale is “too hoppy,” according to Watson, so Tilt Würks’ Amber Ale “is a really approachable beer. It has a tropical fruit aroma and is not too hoppy.”

He said the water gives it its own unique flavor. “Beer is 95 percent water,” Watson said.

Using the Watson Select wort, Howe starts the fermentation process with local water and adding some ingredients of his own.

Leidholt said over the next 12 months they will be trying different beers to see what people like. 


The Building

The building was completely gutted to achieve the final floor plan and layout, VerBeck said.

She said they were amazed when, during construction, they discovered an untouched tongue-and-groove pine ceiling with steel girders above two drop ceilings, which resulted in a wide-open industrial look preferred for a brewhouse and sports bar atmosphere. 

They had planned to create such a feature and were amazed when they found it was part of the original building, and still was in great shape.

An outdoor patio with a gas fire pit was added to the north side of the building with seating for 36 and a 55-inch all weather TV.

There is also a private party room for up to 50 people. 

The decor has classic pinball machine back glass spanning over four decades, starting in the 1960s. The back glass from 25 pinball machines are illuminated and suspended above the bar. Seven more back glass pieces are illuminated around the business.

The bar top features assorted pinball  parts, drop targets, flippers, thumper bumpers and more under the glass top.

The building features 16 big screen TVs plus a 10-foot high-definition projection TV with a high tech sound system, on which customers can watch games or classic music videos.

“Numerous people have commented about how much they enjoyed these videos,” VerBeck said.

Also available is HearTV which is a downloadable free app on a smart phone or tablet. It will enable users to listen to a specific TV’s audio over their phone via Tilt Würks’ private network.

“Another interesting feature is the Op Tik beer dispensing taps manufactured in Australia. The taps develop frozen columns of ice and display the individual beers on top in a glass cylinder in the style of old-fashioned gas pumps. This is the first installation in the U.S. for these taps and will be a showcase for future U.S. customers,” Leidholt said.

The kitchen was completely remodeled with new equipment, VerBeck said.


The Menu

VerBeck explained the menu is considered “gastro-pub” food (upper-end sports bar food) and was developed in conjunction with European-certified chef Michael Callaghan, who also had worked with Walker’s Grill in Billings. 

He was an executive chef at a restaurant in Philadelphia, when it was recognized as a top 10 restaurant in the nation by Food & Wine, Bon Appetite and Gourmet magazines. 

Now he is a restaurant consultant for Food Services of America.

Tilt Würks’ menu features a wide variety of items such as fresh Angus hamburgers, beef gorgonzola nachos, Scotch eggs, fresh house-made fries and Tilted (Poutini) fries. 

Beef tenderloin tips, marinated and deep fried, is currently the most popular item, VerBeck said.