The largest single-site malt producer in the world is in our own backyard.
By Jake Lewis
—which one of these do you hear the most about? Though not necessarily neglected, malt is not a widely discussed ingredient among most craft beer enthusiasts. Usually, people talk about the hop variety, or the crazy yeast that they use, but without malt, beer is … well, it’s not beer. Great malt is crucial to making great beer, and at Rahr Malting Company in Shakopee, malt is what they do.
The Rahr family has been in business since 1847, when the family started making beer in Wisconsin. Shortly after opening the first lager brewery in the state, the family began making their own malt. The Rahr family became the supplier of malt not only to themselves, but also to other breweries in the Midwest. Unfortunately, prohibition ended the brewing side of the business in the Midwest, but Rahr persevered as a malting company.
In 1935 Rahr’s first malt house was built in Shakopee, Minnesota. Today, there are a total of five malt houses, all continuously updated with the best technology in the business. Rahr Malting Company now produces over 24 million bushels (370,000 metric tons) of malt and is the largest operating privately owned malt facility in the world.
Rahr Malting Company is an awesome site to see. As highway 101 comes around the bend in Shakopee, the trees give way to the towering facility, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Rahr campus is nearly seven city blocks long and two blocks wide. The company has its own water treatment plant, where it puts water back into the Minnesota River cleaner than the river water. It has its own power plant where it provides all of its own thermal energy needs through 100% renewable sources, most of which they provide themselves.
What you see in Shakopee is not all of it either. The Rahr Taft Elevator in North Dakota is an additional facility capable of handling over four million bushels of malt, and is the home of their own trucking operation, Rahr Direct. They also have a production site in Alix, Alberta Canada. Of course they should want to be able to sell breweries everything they need to brew beer—and they can. They have a subsidiary called the Brewers Supply Group to (BSG) do just that.
(BSG) is the one stop shop for brewing ingredients. Everything that a brewery could need is available through BSG, including malt from not only Rahr, but from a number of malt houses from around the globe. They even provide homebrewing supplies to homebrew shops like Northern Brewer and Midwest Supplies.
Chris German, the BSG’s Midwest Sales Manager, works with the breweries to supply them with all of the materials needed for brewing. It’s the unique organization of the BSG and Rahr that enables German to go above and beyond for these breweries. German goes on to say that they get calls all of the time from breweries looking for a unique malt, and he has the privilege of steering them in the right direction to best suit their needs. He usually doesn’t have to look far either—just out his window towards the malt houses.
Jesse Theis, Rahr’s Chief Operating Officer, has been with the company since the 1980s. He has worked with the big boys, primarily Anheuser-Busch and Miller, from the beginning, and with the craft beer movement, things have changed at Rahr. “This is the most fun thing that has happened in my career,” says Theis. “It all starts with the barley,” he says, starting to describe the process for creating a unique malt for a brewery. When the correct variety of barley is selected based on its properties, the malting process can be tweaked during its three stages (steeping, germination, and kilning) creating a unique malt fitting the profile desired by the brewery.
Rahr has perfected the blend of art and science that is producing malt. Each of their malt houses is unique, giving them a number of facilities with specific capabilities. This variety of production areas enables them to create product that can be fine-tuned to the needs of an individual brewery. Even when the big boys have had to make changes to their malts, they call Rahr to consult on how to handle them.
The amazing part is that Rahr Malting and the BSG are based in our own backyard. Shakopee is only about 30 miles from the Twin Cities, and they are the biggest malt producers in the world. Whether it is just a few particular malts for special brews or the entire malt bill for a brewery’s full line of products, they supply their nearly 2,000 customers with what they need to make great beer. According to the Brewer’s Association, at the end of 2011 there were a total of 1,989 breweries in the United States. That means that Rahr Malting and BSG supply nearly every single brewery in the country in some form or fashion. If you’re drinking beer, you’re probably drinking some Rahr malt.
Rahr Malting Company is still growing. Currently, there is talk of creating a planned unit development for the facility in Shakopee, which would create more jobs in the area as well as give the company an opportunity to streamline current and future expansions.
When asked how Rahr has been so successful in the malt business, Theis said, “We do one thing. We’re focused on it, and we’re passionate about it… that’s why we compete well.” There are many other malt producers in the world, but there are none that do quality and quantity like Rahr Malting Company does. And who knew they were located right in our own backyard?