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Minnesota will soon be home to one of the biggest malters in the world

Do these colors look familiar? The roast of a barley affects a beer's color.

Do these colors look familiar? The roast of a barley affects a beer's color.

For the latter quarter of the 20th century Minnesota wasn’t a beer haven. Big names like Hamm’s, Schmidt, and Stroh’s had moved out, and the small-scale craft resurgence was only just beginning.

But as breweries moved out of state, one company kept Minnesota at the fore of brewing in the United States. Rahr Malting Co. has been providing beer ingredients from Shakopee since just after Prohibition ended. And its current expansion will make it the largest single-site malting facility in North America —maybe the world.

Malt is a form of roasted barley used primarily for brewing beer. While barley is mostly grown in Canada today, Minnesota was once a major grower — so much so that Rahr, founded in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1847, opened a second plant here in 1935. Rahr eventually left Mantiwoc but kept its Shakopee facility.

And it still operates today, even though barley is a tiny blip in modern Minnesota agriculture. In the current beer scene, malt is the less cool sibling to hops.

“Hops get much more attention than barley/malt, but the age-old saying is that malt is the heart and soul of beer,” notes Willie Rahr, a fifth generation employee and CEO of the company. Rahr has been quietly supplying 75 percent of US and Canadian breweries with that key ingredient. While they provide other ingredients as well, President Ron Johnson estimates that Rahr malts are in roughly 25 percent of U.S. beer overall. Minnesota has about 110 breweries at present. Rahr supplies 95 of them.

Rahr can’t name all their clients publicly, but they supply malt to big breweries and tiny start-ups alike, including Summit, Schell’s, Surly, Bent Paddle, Steel Toe, Indeed, LTD among 3,500 other customers. 

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“We are important suppliers to the largest breweries in North America,” Willie Rahr says, “and [we] also supply products to most of the craft brewers in the U.S. and Canada.”

Anyone who frequents local taprooms has seen piled malt sacks with a stenciled “BSG” logo, short for Brewer’s Supply Group. BSG is a subsidiary of Rahr and works specifically with smaller craft breweries.

With a $68 million expansion underway and a new 112,000 square foot malthouse in progress, the facility will become the largest single processing center in North America sometime next year. The main initiative is to increase capacity, as demand for malt is rising, but also to provide more flexibility for working with the growing craft beer demands of newer and diverse ingredients.

"It is designed to provide a high degree of recipe flexibility to help us serve a broad range of customers," Willie Rahr says.

Although Minnesota doesn’t grow much barley anymore, the state is still an ideal location because of its centralized geography. The growing scene of 110-plus breweries in the state is a reflection of a deeper-rooted industry that showcases how grain and glass are connected.