The Centennial Brewer
For centuries, the human race has been honing in on the art of fermenting and distilling grains in an effort to produce a beautiful liquid that can be enjoyed and appreciated by many. What many of us lack in heritage, we make up for in learning the craft from those before us. Not so with Fritz Rahr. Founder of Rahr & Sons Brewing Co., a legendary Texas craft brewery, Fritz comes from a long line of notable German brewers who emigrated to Wisconsin in 1847 to build one of the countries largest malt distributors, still going strong today.
But Fritz is much more than a product of extravagant genealogy. He is a titan in the craft beer industry before craft beer was cool. Larger than life and absurdly jovial, Fritz is a statement piece in any crowd, almost guaranteeing his rise in fame. Rahr & Sons Brewery is now one of the most recognized and respected names in Texas (and beyond) craft beer.
Oak & Eden had the grand opportunity to partner with Rahr & Sons Brewing in the spring of 2019 to collaborate on two whiskey expressions as bold as Fritz – The Ale Series. This interview was produced in conjunction with the release of these small batch gems.
Alrighty. I'm here with Fritz Rahr.
Drinking beer. Not a bad day. Alright, my friend, tell me a little bit about Rahr & Sons Brewery and how you began.
Sure, my name is Fritz Rahr Jr. I come from a long line of brewers and maltsters. My great, great grandfather came over from Germany in 1847 and he set up the very first lager brewery in the state of Wisconsin in that same year. There was not a good malt supply nearby, so they decided to also create their own malting facility, making barley malt and some other types of malts as well. They emigrated to the Manitowoc, WI area in 1847. During that time, there were a lot of other German and Scandinavian people coming into that part of the country. So other breweries popped up, and since they were kind of the first and had the malting operations, they expanded their malting operations and started selling malt to other breweries. Their secondary business kind of became almost like a primary business for them.
The name of the brewery when it first started was the Rahr Brewery or better known as the Eagle Brewery. My great, great grandfather William Mathias Rahr, had a small accident; he actually fell into a brew kettle and he died from his injuries. His three sons took over the operations around 1880 and changed the name of the company from the Rahr Brewery to the William Rahr & Sons Brewery after the three sons, William II, Reinhardt and Maximilian.
During that period, they continued making malt, selling malt to outside breweries and expanding their operations. During that time, my great, great grandfather's nephews came over from Germany, Carl and Heinrich, and they worked at the Manitowoc Brewery for a period of time before they left to open up their own breweries in Oshkosh and Green Bay.
So at the height of everything, we had three breweries plus three malting operations, the main one being in Manitowoc, along with two other operations in Milwaukee and Chicago. So by the turn of the century, we had a lot going on. They kind of saw the progressive movement and prohibition and all that coming down the pipe. So my immediate family, the Manitowoc Rahrs, got out of brewing altogether right after the St. Louis World's fair. They sold off all the brewery equipment, but continued making malt for beer. When prohibition hit, they were staged to continue with operations due to the sheer amount of grain handling equipment. So they went into grain handling during the prohibition era years. They called that operation CPRO Co., which stood for Cereal Products Company.
After prohibition was repealed, they went back into making malt for beer and they called it Rahr Malting Company. They've been in business now for 172 years.
And tell me how you got into brewing and how Rahr & Sons Brewery got started.
Being that I grew up in a beer family, a lot of our family vacations were to beer conventions across the whole globe, a lot of them held in parts of Europe. It was a lot of fun growing up in-and-around the beer culture. I went to school at TCU in Fort Worth, TX. I always wanted to go into the beer industry, but somehow I got sidetracked and railroaded into the railroad business, so to speak. I spent 12 great years working for the railroad. I guess if a guy had an opportunity to pick a few careers, I’ve been fortunate; I’ve gotten to play with trains and beer, just not at the same time.
After 12 years of the railroad business, I wanted to do something for myself. We were living in Houston at the time, and we were attending the Saint Arnold brewery tours quite often and we just decided, you know, we can do this. I have a brewer's degree from Siebel Institute, I’ve got the malting background, and gosh, if anybody could try to pull this off, maybe we could. We literally up and left the Houston area and moved up to Fort Worth to open up the brewery in 2004. In 2003 we started the planning, and within six months we went from planning capital raise to finishing out a brewery and brewing beer. So it went very, very quickly.
My parents thought I was crazy and they're probably right. I still think we're a little crazy, but it's been a lot of fun. We've definitely had our ups and downs. There were periods of time in the beginning where we almost shut the brewery down because of lack of capital, lack of sales. And to be perfectly honest, lack of experience on my part on how to run a brewery and how to run a business all by myself. We were in the thick of that struggle area, especially during those very first years. And then right around 2010, mother nature opened up the beer eyes to everybody and the craft beer movement really took off. Since then, we've just been in a constant growth, good strong conservative growth from year to year.
So you got into craft brewing before it was really a movement in the North Texas area. What was that like?
It was interesting. When we started, we had a business plan and as they say, it always looks great on paper, and it did. It was a great business plan. But our demographics, we couldn't have been further off. We were thinking our audience would be middle-aged males, 30 to 45, making a higher-than-average income. We weren't even close. In reality, our demographics are 21 year olds to 99+ year olds, and it's everybody. It's every ethnicity, every religion, every race. The one thing they have all in common, which is what makes craft beer so great, is that they all want to be a part of something. They all want to be a part of something local. They want all be a part of something that's unique and something they can wrap their arms around. They can come in and claim ownership and say, “This is my brewery. This is in my town, this is in my neighborhood, this is in my state.” There's a huge sense of community.
So, you are now clearly now a household name in craft beer. What do you attribute that success to?
Well, two things. One is the obvious, my family's business is heavily involved in the beer industry, and heavily involved in the craft beer industry. So, a good portion of a lot of breweries use Rahr malt. So, we've got that name recognition, whether it's good, bad, or indifferent. The second thing is we've spent a lot of money and time on our lab to make sure that the products we're putting out are exactly what we want. That's really shown over the last five to eight years with the amount of awards we've been winning at competitions like the Great American Beer Festival, World Beer Cup, Los Angeles International Beer Festival, the San Diego, Euro Beer Star over in Germany, the Brussels World Beer Challenge over there as well. We've done incredibly well. Our beer travels very, very well and we're winning medals left and right in all of our categories.
Your impressive awards cabinet in the tasting room would properly echo that. So, you guys have done expressions with whiskey barrel aged beer, but this is the first time you've gotten to collaborate on a whiskey that's got your beer infused into it. What is that like for you?
We've done a lot of barrel aged beers, as you pointed out, which is really something that we create. We're in the driver’s seat on that. It's reversed on this project. We're really here to support Oak & Eden, collaborating an incredibly unique flavor, and helping create something that fits their ideas of what they want to do. It's terribly exciting because we've never done something like this before. It's a lot of fun for our brewers and production staff to get involved with something like this because it is completely different, and it changes things up for them as well. Beer and whiskey go hand-in-hand.
It sure does. Let’s talk a little bit about the two products. We've got Dadgum IPA and Iron Thistle Scottish Ale. Can you share a little bit more about each of those products?
Dadgum is a traditional west coast American IPA. It's a product that we spent over a year designing because, if we were going to do an IPA, I've personally got some things I like and dislike about IPAs. Being a curmudgeony old guy, I'm kind of past that period of my life where I want an IPA just to blow the back of my head off in hops. I can drink a bottle or half bottle of those really hop-forward beers, but what I really like about a good hoppy beer is the aroma and the flavor to be well-balanced. Don't get me wrong, I like the bitterness, too. I just don't want it to be the very first thing that hits you, where you have to have to take a sip of water after every drink because it sucks all the moisture out of your mouth. And I want to have more than just one IPA. So, we designed an IPA that still had wonderful bittering components to it, but really accentuated the flavor and the aroma of the character of the hop. So, we went through rigorous testings for over a year putting our beta projects up against what we consider some of the best IPAs in the country at the time in that category until Dadgum was one or two on everybody's score card. We went through eight test batches over the year period, and finally came up with what we wanted. It's an awesome IPA. People dig it. We’re really proud of it.
So, that's our IPA. The Iron Thistle, man it's just a great scotch ale. It's a scotch heavy, incredibly malt-forward beer. Very low hop characteristics. It has some slight bittering components when it comes to some of the dark malts that we use, which add just a hint of stringency to that malty dark fruit component of that beer, which balances it nicely. It’s got just a little bit higher alcohol by volume as well, so it tends to hold up over and exceptionally long period of time. Since we started making it in 2008, it’s been a hit in the marketplace every year. We can never seem to make enough of it.
I was really happy on how both of these styles of beer complemented Oak & Eden whiskey. They incorporate a very special flavor component to the whiskey that you'll notice in the end. It’s an outstanding whiskey.
We think so, too. It’s been a blast working with you guys. Is there anything in the works at Rahr that we can have the insider scoop on?
Yeah, we're working on a new beer. It's under wraps. We'll probably announce it and debut it at our anniversary party here in November. It's kind of a...retro idea. Something that will take Rahr back to the beginning. It's going to be fun. Can't tell you exactly what style it is, but we've got that going. We've got some new packaging coming out. We just came out with the Adios Pantalones and Dadgum IPA in 19.2 ounce cans that are single serve products in the market. We've got a new variety pack that just came out. We're doing our summer of blonde promotion and program again this summer. That's where I get to put an illustration of my mom on the beer can again and sell her, using her history and her heritage to sell a great product. How many kids can say they've got their mom on a beer can?
We’re always changing things up. Always doing things differently. That seems to be the model in the beer industry. You've got to change it up a little bit just to keep it interesting and keep the people engaged and making it fun, because ultimately beer is fun, or at least it should be.