Sunday, August 8, 2010

Rahr & Sons and the Road Back

On February 12th, 2010, Fort Worth’s Rahr & Sons Brewery became the stuff of Texas legend by being the sole brewery in the history of the Lone Star State ever to be destroyed by a blizzard. Such events may be commonplace in northern climes but a record-setting 12.5-inch snowfall in just 24 hours is unheard of in North Texas, and unlikely to be repeated in our lifetimes.

The weight of the precipitation collapsed the roof of the brewery from stem to stern, busting a water main and plumbing and filling the warehouse operation just south of downtown with water a foot deep. Brewing and bottling equipment was ruined or partially crushed, and in some places the fermentors were the only structures holding up what remained of the snow-capped roof.

From an operational standpoint, the brewery was an almost total loss: Some equipment could be salvaged but it would be months before anything could be brewed again. Fortunately, insurance covered large portions of the damages, which meant that Rahr & Sons would definitely be brewing again at some future date. The only obstacle at this point was time.

But it was time put to surprisingly good and productive use. Coors Distributing arrived immediately and took what bottled product was left on-site for immediate sale. A few batches of beer remained in the unpowered conditioning tanks for weeks before they could be accessed and kegged, with the good fortune of mild weather keeping them fresh (and the unintended extra lagering time produced what was probably their best batch ever).

Fritz Rahr may have been a man without a brewery but he and his bunch were far from idle. Without the very popular Saturday tours and tastings every week, the Rahr brewing team moved out into the city of Fort Worth and the greater Metroplex, holding special events and tastings almost weekly as they kept the company name alive despite having no new beer. Even as bottles became more difficult to find on retail shelves, a series of sly viral videos featuring indolent brewers trying to amuse themselves attracted some minor national attention for this non-brewing brewery.

But as of this past June, Rahr & Sons became an actual working brewery once again. A new roof was installed and the entire facility replumbed, taking advantage of this reboot to reorganize some lines and equipment that were otherwise placed for expansion’s convenience. A new brew kettle and subsequent arrangement now cuts a 12- or 18-hour brewing cycle down to about six hours. A new bottling line will allow both 12-ounce and 22-ounce bottles, and the annoying and unreliable screw-caps are now history.

A new cold room has been added, including a temperature-controlled area specifically for barrel-aging beers. A new bar has been installed, making more space available for the inevitable crowds of fans who will soon fill this brewery on weekends. Even the bottle labels have been updated and standardized, with a modern and uniform style for all the beers produced.

Having his brewery destroyed may yet be the best thing to ever happen for Rahr & Sons, as it allowed them to tweak, subtly improve and redesign what had previously grown organically and haphazardly. With added capacity and more control over the brewing process, look for Rahr beers to significantly improve in quality. An entire barrel-aging program of beers is planned, some to be bottled and others exclusively local.

Rahr & Sons has finally turned the big corner, and anxiously awaits the city-issued certificate of occupancy before resuming their ever-popular Saturday tours. A business pairing with a contract brewing opportunity out-of-state will see the production of an entire line of sub-products under the Ass Kisser Ales label. And with their current setup and operations, they are poised to be a close contender for the second-largest craft brewery in the state behind Saint Arnold.