Brewing a Better Industry: Rahr’s new tech center is putting beer ingredients to the test

Brew day at Rahr Malting's pilot brewery // Photo courtesy of Rahr Malting Company

Brew day at Rahr Malting’s pilot brewery // Photo courtesy of Rahr Malting Company

It’s early morning in the small brewhouse. A brewer doughs in a unique blend of malts for a variation on an American pale ale. Bright sunlight shines through a full wall of windows and into the brewery, cutting through a column of steam and illuminating the state-of-the-art stainless steel brew system. Outside, the morning glow reflects off the immense walls of a half-dozen towering malthouses, all built in the decades between 1937 and 2016, each processing malt nearly non-stop every day since they were brought online. Much of the grain used for this microbrew was malted in these malthouses, just yards from the tiny brewery. It’s safe to say this is some of the freshest malt a brewer could ever wish to work with.

But this is far from the typical brewery. It is not a taproom near the hip city centers of Minneapolis or St. Paul, nor a spacious brewpub in the suburbs. It’s the new pilot brewery at Rahr Malting Company in Shakopee, an important part of their recently expanded technical research center. The beers made here aren’t destined to win medals or Best of the Fest awards, or become elusive whales for beer traders to seek—though their quality is certainly high enough. Rather, they are meant to help Rahr better understand how their malts function in a real brewery setting, while pushing the company into new realms of flavor, efficiency, and quality control.

The man behind the brew kettle is Mike “Miz” Miziorko, RMC Tech Center head brewer and product development manager for Brewers Supply Group (BSG), Rahr’s distribution arm, which supplies malt, hops, and other ingredients for much of the U.S. craft brewing, winemaking, distilling, and homebrew industries. Miziorko’s 12 years in the brewing industry include stints at Rock Bottom Minneapolis, Summit Brewing Company, and Mankato Brewing, where he was the founding head brewer.

Mike Miziorko, the head brewer at Rahr Malting's pilot brewery // Photo courtesy of Rahr Malting Company

Mike Miziorko, the head brewer at Rahr Malting’s pilot brewery // Photo courtesy of Rahr Malting Co.

After Mankato, Miziorko went to work as the technical sales manager for Gusmer Enterprises, where he learned how to troubleshoot a wide range of different brewhouses and cellar equipment. He used this knowledge to piece together the ultimate pilot brewery for testing raw materials. The system that he brews on at Rahr is a three hectoliter (approximately two-and-a-half barrels), fully-automated, five-vessel research and development rig with all the extras—internal and external calandria, automated hop dosing, two-stage heat exchanger, inline dissolved oxygen measurement.

“I’m excited to be able to tell customers about a product based upon my actual experience of having used it in the brewery, and not just from the theoretical standpoint,” says Miziorko. With that goal in mind, he and the brewery staff are creating a set of standardized beer recipes that can be used as the basis for experimentation. From there, one or more ingredients can be changed at a time in the brewhouse to see what differences it may lead to in the color, taste, and aroma of the final beer.

Currently, they are honing recipes for a helles lager and a Kölsch—beers “where the characteristic of a new base malt should be easy to ascertain,” explains Miziorko. “Furthermore, the Kölsch requires less tank residency time than the helles, so the beer is ready for analysis a bit more quickly.” They are also working on a pale ale recipe, a more commonly brewed style among Rahr’s customers.

Mike Miziorko (R) stirs the mash during Rahr Malting's new pilot brewery // Photo courtesy of Rahr Malting Company

Mike Miziorko (R) stirs the mash during Rahr Malting’s new pilot brewery // Photo courtesy of Rahr Malting Co.

Miziorko will use these base beers to test not only malts—which Rahr has a long and intimate history with—but also hops from their processing facility in the Yakima Valley of Washington and yeast by way of their partner Fermentis.

The state-of-the-art pilot brewery and tech center are two major parts of last year’s large $68 million expansion project that made Rahr the largest single-site malting facility in the world. The expansion doubled the size of Rahr’s technical staff, a group that includes professionals with extensive backgrounds in malting, brewing, and hops. This team is responsible for the analysis side of the technical research center.

In that lab area, you’ll find Paul Kramer, a food scientist with 38 years of experience at Rahr, who is responsible for quality control at Rahr’s Technical Research Center. The facility’s assortment of instruments and software analyzes beer throughout the entire brewing process, collecting metrics such as yeast performance and health, bitterness, foam stability, turbidity, calories, and various brewing water chemistry.

[shareprints gallery_id=”71906″ gallery_type=”squares” gallery_position=”pos_center” gallery_width=”width_100″ image_size=”medium” image_padding=”4″ theme=”light” image_hover=”false” lightbox_type=”slide” titles=”true” captions=”true” descriptions=”true” comments=”true” sharing=”true”]Then there is the taste and mouthfeel of the different beer. “The art of flavor instrumentation meets the science of flavor with our continued development of our Technical Centers Sensory taste panel,” says Kramer. “This panel’s training includes classical beer flavor training along with raw material flavor evaluation. All of this talent and equipment are here to support our brewing research efforts. Flavor, functionality, beer stability, and raw material performance are all essential items to be evaluated.”

Beyond Rahr’s own malted barley, Miziorko says he’s eager to experiment with imported malts new to the scene. “One is made from a storied English ‘heritage’ barley variety,” he says, “and another is a continental variety that is grown in an unusual spot for barley cultivation. I’m excited to see—and more so taste—the beers that are yielded from these malts and from more unusual malts, both domestic and foreign, coming down the pike.”

Once kegged or bottled, much of this beer will never leave Rahr, the tech center, or the company Bierstube—a small beer hall and social space for employees. What beer does leave the brewery will be served at expos and at conferences like Craft Brewers Conference and Homebrew Con. This gives BSG reps a chance to present a beer crafted from their malts and hops directly to current and potential customers.

Because nothing sells a great malt better than a world-class pint of beer.