The Badass Beer Advent Calendar: December 12th—Rahr Winter Warmer
Staying in Texas for today's beer, let's head north to Fort Worth and the brewery of Rahr & Sons, a company founded in 2004 with a 160-year history.
The Rahr family were brewing beer before Lincoln was president, but not in Texas: in Wisconsin, where William and Natalie Rahr had recently arrived from Germany. The soil in that part of the world is very good for growing barley that's suitable for turning into malt and William soon had his own malting house as well as the brewery. After growing the business and shipping his malted barley far and wide, William sadly died after falling into a brew kettle where he suffered horrible burns. Not a pleasant way to go. The name of the company was changed to Rahr's Sons and continued to grow. Today, Rahr Malting is the biggest supplier of malted barley in the US.
Let's talk briefly about malt and the important role it plays in the manufacture of our favourite beverage. Barley is little more than a specialised grass. Its main purpose in life is to make more barley and, like most other plants, it does that by producing seeds. Those are the starting point for beer, amongst other things including (but not limited to) whisk(e)y, malted milk and various sweet treats. After being harvested the barley is first dried and stored for a month or two before being steeped in water to begin germination. At this point chemical changes begin converting the starches within each grain (which would become flour if the grain was simply dried and milled) into various kinds of sugar which, if the seed was allowed to grow, would become food for the young plant, in much the same way the yolk of an egg nourishes a young bird or lizard during its very early life.
When the grains begin to sprout, they're spread over the floor of the malting room in a layer up to a foot deep where they're heated from below and turned regularly to prevent mould and to stop the entire floor becoming a tangled mess of rootlets. Before the seeds begin to produce anything more than a root, the process is halted by heating them to kill the plant and then they're roasted to a paler or darker hue, just like coffee beans. The general rule of thumb for stopping the growth is when the rootlet is the same length as the grain. In one particular part of the world--Bamberg, Germany--the malt is kilned in a very smoky atmosphere (from using beechwood in the fires below the malting floor) which is taken up by the malt and then imparted to the brew, resulting in the region's famous rauchbier (smoked lager) which is to beer what those smoky Islay whiskies such as Ardbeg and Laphroaig are to Scotch.
The current Rahr brewery was opened in 2004 by William's great-great-grandson, also called William (aka Fritz). Like the first brewery, this one had a setback, although of a somewhat less tragic nature. In February 2010 following a heavy fall of snow in north Texas, the roof of the brewery collapsed under the weight, putting it out of action for several months while the mess was cleared up and the facility rebuilt. To commemorate the event Rahr decided to brew a new seasonal beer called Snowmageddon, released each February and changing in style from year to year. The first was an imperial oatmeal stout, and very tasty it was too.
The brewery has recently expanded its distribution and Rahr beers are a lot easier to get hold of around the Lone Star State than they used to be, including both the Winter Warmer and Snowmageddon. Another of their seasonal beers, Gravel Road, was on tap in several bars around Austin a few months ago. It's an altbier, perhaps showing Rahr's German roots. Let's look forward to being able to get the full range of Rahr beers all over Texas soon.