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Fort Worth brewery finds silver lining in snowstorm cloud

If you think launching your own microbrewery would be easy, consider Fort Worth's Rahr & Sons.

For years, the artisan brewer just south of downtown depended on a volunteer bottling crew to get by, an unheard-of practice in the industry, according to the Brewers Association. It has had a revolving door for head brewers, with six holding the title over seven years.
Securing shelf space in supermarkets and taps in bars meant an exhausting daily struggle, each victory bringing more hours making deliveries and stacking coolers until distributors were found. But even that proved no panacea.
At one juncture, bar owners complained that a distributor swapped out kegs of Rahr Ugly Pug Lager for those of a national brand, claiming that Ugly Pug wasn't available when it was.
That problem was solved, but financial security seemed a distant prospect for long stretches, with founders Fritz and Erin Rahr coming perilously close to losing their fledgling venture. At one point the microbrewery was down to one paid employee.
Fritz Rahr, a former railroad marketing specialist with brewing training, took over as brewmaster in addition to his other duties. A new infusion of capital saved the business, but the couple's personal finances were drained. Fritz Rahr uprooted his family to the Virgin Islands, where he ran a petroleum coke operation for 30 months to recoup his savings while a partner ran the brewery.
Back from the Caribbean in August 2009, Fritz Rahr resumed control, and by February 2010, he said, "we were beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Sales had gained traction, soaring 29 percent in 2009 from the year before. A deal was signed to brew a super-premium ale in 22-ounce bottles for a wine company. The brewery's Saturday tastings and tours were regularly packed. And Rahr's reputation beyond Fort Worth grew through remarkable feats at respected beer competitions, including the World Beer Cup, considered the Olympics of international brewing.

Disaster strikes
It was Feb. 12, 2010. A heavy build-up of snow collapsed sections of the roof of the brewery, a former Pepsi-Cola warehouse. It destroyed the bottling line, vital pipelines, a 30-by-40-foot cooler and 80,000 bottles. A large fermentation tank was damaged but reparable.
Much of the beer was saved. That kept bars and restaurants supplied after kegs were filled and trucked off to distributors. But retail stores had no six-packs, and brewing ceased until July. No bottled beer was shipped again until mid-August.
Fortunately, the company's business-interruption insurance covered overhead expenses, so Rahr avoided layoffs. Some of his workers made tongue-in-cheek videos for YouTube about how brewers Austin Jones and Jason Lyon killed time when kept from crafting lagers and ales.
But there were also more serious endeavors. The crew made the brewing process far more efficient, cutting down transfer time between tanks by hours. This allows more beer to be made in the initial, "hot" stages of the brewing process before fermentation. Such re-engineering would have been impossible while the brewery was operating, Fritz Rahr said.
On the marketing side, "we used the downtime to strategically realign our brands," said Rahr, who holds an MBA from TCU. The redesigned labels and six-packs use art by Colorado-based illustrator Erwin Sherman, formerly of Fort Worth, to give the line a crisp, cohesive and upscale look.
Rahr's brewing heritage, traced to 1847 in the U.S., remains emphasized. A seasonal ale still bears the image of the 19th-century sailing ship Storm Cloud that brought Rahr forebears from Germany.
The blonde lager label is now graced by a pinup-style rendering of Fritz Rahr's accomplished mother, Jodell Stirmlinger Rahr, a Juilliard-trained singer who was a Miss USA semifinalist in 1952. The new Oktoberfest label will depict his father, Frederick Rahr Sr., an executive in the family's malting business, dressed as Munich's mayor tapping the ceremonial beer barrel.
The antiquated bottling line has been replaced with a faster, far more efficient one. That makes it easier to switch between runs of 12-ounce longnecks and the new, lucrative 22-ounce "bomber" bottles. In addition, twist-off caps have been replaced with the old-fashioned pry-off variety, which, Rahr says, is more attuned to the craft beer experience.

Community support
The community rallied after the roof caved in. Restaurants like Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in the Stockyards and venues like Thistle Hill threw Rahr tastings after the roof collapse made on-site events impossible. Fort Worth singer-songwriter Brad Thompson performed a soulful lament to the brewery roof collapse. ("One day we'll turn it all back around ...")
Still, the kegged beer eventually ran dry a few weeks before shipments resumed. Fritz Rahr worried that the initial display of consumer loyalty might evaporate a few months after the reopening. The fear proved unfounded.
If anything, the disaster helped strengthen the city's relationship with its only microbrewery. Sales remained strong this winter. Rahr & Sons, it seemed, has roared back ever since. It proves, Fritz Rahr said, that the building disaster "had a silver lining."
Even with no production for five months, 2010 sales beat the previous year's, he said. A closely held partnership, Rahr & Sons declined to divulge figures.
When it released 9,000 22-ounce bottles of whiskey barrel-aged Winter Warmer ale in December, 95 percent were sold in a week, Fritz Rahr said.
"People were going into Central Market and buying whole cases," he marveled.
Rahr's recovery might also be benefiting from a boom in craft beers. More Americans are sampling the artisanal brews, although they still represent just 6.9 percent of overall consumption. But according to the Brewers Association, the craft industry group, the market segment increased 9 percent by volume during the first half of 2010 and 12 percent by retail dollars. In the same time, overall U.S. beer sales slipped 2.7 percent by volume.
To mark the roof collapse anniversary last week, Rahr & Sons created Snowmageddon, a limited release of what will be an annual special brew. This year, it will be 800 cases -- 9,600 22-ounce bottles -- of Imperial Oatmeal Stout.
On the business end, Rahr is finalizing new tie-ups with beer distributors in Austin, Temple-Killeen and San Marcos-New Braunfels. Those are in addition to networks that now cover Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Denton and Weatherford.
Volunteers no longer staff the bottling line, although they still operate the taps during tasting events. In March, four new, 100-barrel fermentation tanks will be installed.
And Fritz Rahr feels confident enough to add a new full-time employee to the brewing department, bringing overall employment to eight.
"Before, it was, 'How do we survive till next month?'
"Now," he said, "it's, 'What do we need to do for the next five, 10 years?'"

13 Feb. 2011

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