COVER STORY Brewed for success — Briess Malt & Ingredients toasts steady growth in food and craft beer markets

Posted on Oct 4, 2011 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

 

Wisconsin’s second-largest brewer isn’t located in Milwaukee, Stevens Point or even Chippewa Falls. Rather, it’s in Chilton and the company, Briess Malt & Ingredients, supplies malt to the industry.

“It’s funny, I know. We’re a brewer, but don’t make beer,” says Gordon Lane, Briess’ president and chief operating officer.

While Briess does not sell beer (it does, on occasion mix up a test ale or two for customers in its lab), it does make more than 50 kinds of malt and ingredients for the food industry. Its customers create a wide variety of products, from bread and pet food to malted milkshakes and malted milk balls. The products Briess sells go to breweries and manufacturers of beverages and food across the country and around the globe.

 

At a time when some businesses are struggling, Briess continues to grow, with plans to double in size within the next five years. Innovative practices and a focus on sustainability drive the company’s success, Lane says.

“We have everything in place to grow. We are trying to not only grow our business with current customers, but also work on acquiring new customers,” he says. “We’ll invest in equipment for new products and look at ways to get new products into the pipeline.”

Privately-owned, Briess doesn’t share its sales figures, but with 80 percent of the 1,550 U.S. commercial brewers using malts made by the Chilton company, business is definitely good.

The company’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. In the past six months, Briess received a Manufacturer of the Year Award from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and a Best Friend of the Environment Award from WMC in the medium-size category.

 

More than malt

The company traces itshistory back to 1876 in Czechoslovakia when Ignatius Briess founded a company to make malt for area brewers. Descendants later moved the company to the United States and eventually to Chilton, which at one time was close to acres and acres of barley plants. While the center of the barley crop moved west and north, Briess stayed in Chilton, conducting business in a rustic, 1901 malt house in downtown Chilton and a state-of-the-art extracting plant built in Chilton’s business park in 2002.

Through the years, the company expanded its offerings, first by creating pre-ground specialty malts to meet the demand from microbrewers and craft brewers as that sector grew in the 1980s. In the 1990s, former owner Roger Briess responded to the demand from food manufacturers for all-natural ingredients by producing Insta Grains products, such as reduced cook-time grains and toasted grains. While barley is the No. 1 grain processed, Briess can handle any grain from rye and rice to wheat and tapioca. The company is also a licensed Grade A dairy that uses milk from local farmers for all of its malted milk products. Everything they make is certified organic and is also kosher. (For those who are gluten intolerant, the company also makes a line of products for that, too.) At the extracting plant, malt is processed to produce liquid and dried sweeteners that can go into a host of other food products.

While Briess has two distinct divisions – food ingredients and brewing and distillery ingredients – there is cross over, Lane says. “Extracts and flakes can be in both beer and food products,” he says, adding that the business split is almost 50-50, with just a little more for the brewery side.

Patrick Rowland, owner of Rowland’s Calumet Brewery in Chilton and founder of a local microbrewery festival, says Briess is a great partner for brewers.

“Briess is well known for its quality and consistency, but also being a ‘friend’ to brewers,” he says. “Their product is well respected in the industry. We’re lucky to be located in the same city as them.”

Rowland says Briess’ expertise goes beyond providing the right ingredients. “There’s a good relationship there. If we have a problem, they’re a good technical resource,” says Rowland, adding that then-CEO Roger Briess helped the family start its brewery back in the 1990s by providing technical expertise.

After 135 years, the company remains family owned – a rarity for a brewer of Briess’ size. Current owner and CEO Monica Briess, the widow of Roger Briess, who died in 2001, flies in from New York City regularly to meet in person with employees and stays in touch between those visits with conference calls and technology.

“When Monica Briess comes in, it’s not just to meet with management. She will go out and walk the floor in the plant and talk to the employees about what they’re doing; there is a real interest there,” Lane says. “That’s one thing that sets Briess apart – the people involved in all levels of the company all understand what’s going on – how the business and process works.”

For example, sales managers recently spent a week in the manufacturing facilities to see production firsthand and plant managers spent time with sales managers on the road to learn that side of the business.

Lane, who started brewing beer on his own in college, earned a degree in food science from the University of Wisconsin and later an MBA from the Keller Graduate School of Management in Milwaukee. “Understanding how the entire malting and extracting process works is essential. If we have a problem in the shop, I can go out there and see what’s going on and try to solve the problem. That’s a huge advantage for us,” he says.

Monica Briess ties the company’s success to its employees. “We have such a great team. They are very creative and innovative. We have very low turnover and I take that as a sign our employees enjoy what they do,” she says. “We try to keep the communication open and I think we’ve done a good job of doing that – listening to employees and their ideas.”

And those ideas are powerful. New ideas – whether it’s a new product or a new way of doing a process – are an essential component in the company’s success, Lane says. The company’s technical services team looks not only at current products and processes, but also at ways to improve on them and develop new products.

For example, rising cocoa powder prices prompted a member of the tech services team to think of alternatives. Since roasted barley can mimic some of cocoa powder’s characteristics, the possibility was raised that it could become a suitable partial replacement. After research and testing, Briess launched its CocoaPlus product.

“We actually found out it worked better than regular cocoa powder since it retains moisture a bit better, so if it’s used in a brownie mix, they turn out more moist. It’s also less expensive for our customers,” Lane says. “That’s the kind of thinking driving our growth – how can we apply what we already do to other markets and areas?”

Although overall economic conditions are less than ideal now, the craft brewery industry so far is weathering the storm. In 2010, the Brewers Association reported the industry grew 11 percent. And while Briess sells its products to everyone from Anheuser-Busch to the home brewer, it is especially strong among craft brewers.

“With a recession, people do cut back, but they still want something nice for themselves. They may decide to skip dining out, but they still want to enjoy a nice beer or wine at home,” Lane says. “It’s something they enjoy and can really savor.”

One challenge facing the business – and the rest of the food industry – is the uncertain nature of commodity prices. Since barley is a specialty crop that is often passed over by farmers for the more profitable wheat and corn, the supply isn’t as ample. Lane says barley prices have almost doubled in recent years.

With an ambitious plan for Briess to double in size within five years, Lane says a two-prong approach is necessary. “We not only need to see organic growth by increasing business with our current customers, we also need to reach out and find new customers and perhaps new products,” he says.

That’s a tall order, but one he and the rest of the Briess team are up to.

 

Green with briess

Long before it was trendy to be green, Briess was interested in finding ways to be more sustainable. Back then, the word wasn’t partof the business lexicon.

“The craft brewery industry is focused on being green, so it’s important to let our customers know we are doing all we can to be sustainable,” Lane says.

In 2005, the company participated in a U.S. Department of Energy program that audited energy use. The DOE program helped launch the company’s “Green With Briess” sustainability program. Since 2008, the changes made through the program – such as heat recovery, sourcing of raw materials locally and providing its by-products to a local megafarm to feed cattle – have reduced energy consumption and emissions the equivalent of 288 fewer car trips around the earth.

Last spring, the company received WMC’s Best Friend of the Environment Award. Next up for Briess is joining the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s Green Tier program. The company is working with a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay PhD candidate who is writing an environmental management plan for the company.

“It’s just a part of us. Briess was certified organic back in the 1990s,” says Monica Briess. “To us, it just feels right and fits in with what we do here. While earning awards is nice, it’s not why we do what we do.”