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Sept. 6, 2018
This story appears in the fall 2018 edition of the Northwest Alumni Magazine. To access more stories and view the magazine in its entirety online, click here.
Steve Holle has a saying when he talks with people about his love for beer: “Beer should be enjoyed like life – in big gulps.”
The great-grandson of German immigrants, Holle developed his interest in their native language and beer while growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. In 2013, after a 30-plus year career in banking and commercial real estate investment, he took a gulp and turned his passion for German-style beer into a second career, launching Kansas City Bier Co. Since beginning its distribution operation in 2014, the company has grown into the largest locally owned brewery in Kansas City with distribution to more than 50 counties in eastern Kansas and western Missouri.
Holle, who earned degrees from Northwest Missouri State University in 1980 and 1981, founded KC Bier – which uses the German spelling of beer – with a mission to brew authentic German-style beer and serve it with the flavor, character and freshness experienced in Germany. The company uses only German-imported malt and hops, combined with old-world, traditional German brewing techniques.
“I can honestly say, with all sincerity, I love to drink the beer that we make,” he said. “I think our beers are as high-quality and authentic as anything you’ll get in Germany. I knew people would like this beer if we could do it well enough.”
While attending Northwest, Holle figured he’d follow his father’s career path in finance or accounting. He majored in international marketing but retained his other interest with a second major in German.
During the fall of 1978, he studied abroad in Hamburg, Germany, an experience that solidified his lifelong passion for the language and culture. The program blended classroom studies with a job placement that put Holle to work at a health insurance company.
The experience, which Holle calls one of the best decisions he’s made, helped him become accomplished in speaking the language he uses every day with his customers, clients and business partners.
“A second language opens up a whole new world of to explore, and it helped me greatly with the brewing project that we undertook here, just being able to read German textbooks and deal with some of our suppliers,” Holle said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree and Master of Business Administration at Northwest, Holle began his career at the Federal Reserve Bank and then moved into commercial banking and real estate. He earned a master’s degree in real estate investment analysis and appraisal from the University of Wisconsin in 1988 and went to work for Northwestern Mutual Life Real Estate Investment in Dallas.
Holle never lost touch with his German heritage, though, and started home-brewing during the 1990s with the idea of owning a brewery someday. “From that point forward I started working toward that goal,” he said.
He toured dozens of breweries in Munich and took classes at Doemens Brewing Academy. He earned the Diploma Brewer designation from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London. He wrote articles about beer to help him establish credibility in the industry. His 2003 book, “A Handbook of Basic Brewing Calculations” is still sold by the Master Brewers Association. He co-wrote “The Beer Steward Handbook,” a guide to help retailers and beer enthusiasts learn how to serve a quality glass of beer.
“Writing about beer and brewing was a path to get me involved in the industry, gain access to people that could help in putting together a brewery plan and gain a little bit of credibility because I knew I was going to have to raise money and sell this concept,” he said.
After retiring in 2013, Holle returned to Kansas City to establish KC Bier, and the company brewed its first batch of beer that December. It opened its tasting room in February 2014 and distributed its first keg for wholesale market the next month. The brewery began its bottling operation in 2016 and today the bottling line produces between 16,000 and 17,000 bottles a day.
Although wholesale distribution represents 95 percent of its total sales, KC Bier’s Bierhalle and outdoor Biergarten bring the flavor of traditional Germany to Kansas City’s Waldo neighborhood. The venues help reinforce the KC Bier brand, but more importantly to Holle the brewery’s retail operations are modeled after the relaxed neighborhood ambiance of a German Bierstube that builds relationships among patrons of all ages and backgrounds. The Biergarten offers kid-friendly activities and hosts a “Yappy Hour” that invites patrons to bring their dogs, and the Bierhalle experienced an uptick in patrons during the summer’s World Cup games.
Dunkel, a brown Munich-style lager, is the company’s best seller. In addition to authentic beer, a small menu features German pretzels, cheeses and sausages.
“In Germany, in general, beer is more of a social thing,” Holle said. “There’s not so much of a stigma attached to beer drinking or a perception that beer is only for men who go into dark, smoky bars and drink beer and shoot shots. It’s looked at more like wholesome fun that families enjoy with friends and neighbors of all ages. On a pleasant Saturday afternoon, we may have over a dozen children playing in the Biergarten where parents can still keep a watchful eye while enjoying a beer with other adults.”
Recently, Holle also brought his brand of beer at Northwest. Last year, through a sponsorship with the Bearcat Radio Network, he brought KC Bier to the Bearcat Tailgate Zone in conjunction with Northwest’s Homecoming football game.
“We’ve been fortunate we’ve had growth,” Holle said while discussing the competitive beer industry. “Whether it’s at Northwest with the University or the fact that I used to go drink beer at Kelly's Westport Inn when I was younger, and now they’re selling our beer. It’s really gratifying to be at places that you have a strong emotional attachment and see people enjoying our beer.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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