Change a-brewin': Straub Brewery walks fine line between traditions, changes
Bottle house supervisor Dave Weinzierl inspects beer for imperfections at Straub Brewery.
Brewmaster Raymond "Goona" Frank checks for impurities in the beer.
Tommy Jon's in downtown St. Mary's serves Straub beer on tap.
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ST. MARYS, Pa.-- Most mornings, Ray "Goona" Frank has his corn flakes early -- at 4 a.m. and in 1,000-pound portions.
Mr. Frank mixes the flaked corn with 4,000 pounds of malted barley and mountain spring water to make wort, the syrupy sweet liquid that is the beginning of Straub beer. It's pretty much the same process Straub Brewery has been using to make its beers for 140 years.
Tucked away in a residential neighborhood -- Mr. Frank lives less than a football field from his third-floor brewing station -- Straub is walking a fine line between preserving the traditions that have kept it going since 1872 and making the changes necessary to survive in an industry buffeted by globalization and the emergence of strong, regional craft beers that have muscled in on brewing's Big Three.
The problems of two once-thriving Western Pennsylvania brands -- Iron City and Rolling Rock -- are indicative of the challenges confronting regional brewers. Iron City, once Pittsburgh's dominant brew, suffered through two bankruptcies and is mounting a comeback under the ownership of a New York private equity fund. Rolling Rock's regional appeal went flat after Anheuser-Busch purchased the brand for $82 million in 2006 and moved production to New Jersey.
Straub is also dealing with the same issues that prevent most family-owned enterprises from surviving more than two or three generations. President and CEO Bill Brock -- great, great-grandson of Peter Straub, the German immigrant who started the brewery -- represents the fifth generation of family ownership and management.
"We're sleepy Straub. We've woken up a little bit," says Mr. Brock, 46, a low-key, type A personality who is an avid fly fisherman.
"We're not big beer. We're not Budweiser, Miller or Coors. But we're not craft beer," he says. "We kind of stand all alone in the middle."
Although Mr. Brock grew up in the beer business, most of his post-college work has been as an economic research consultant. He spent five years in Juneau, Alaska, working on commercial fishing, mining, tourism and other ventures. Then came a decade at a Central Pennsylvania nonprofit that specializes in workforce development and related economic development issues.
He left that job in 2008 when president Dan Straub retired from the brewery. Mr. Straub had been after Mr. Brock to take the position for several years, but he resisted. Mr. Brock changed his mind, largely because he felt an obligation to preserve the family legacy or, as he says, to "take care of the gift that's been given to us."
"You feel an incredible responsibility," Mr. Brock says. "Not only are we allowed to do the right thing, we're required to do the right thing."
Mr. Brock hired the Siebel Institute, a Chicago brewing academy and consulting firm founded the same year as Straub, to review the operations. He also sought the expertise of former Boston Beer sales executive Michele Burchfield, who heads an Aspinwall beer industry consulting firm.
He brought in fellow fly fisherman Vince Assetta, a former classmate from St. Vincent's College. Mr. Assetta, 47, worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers before taking accounting positions at J&L Specialty Steel, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel and Esmark. Mr. Assetta, who was introduced to Straub on a spring break visit to St. Marys in 1987, was named vice president and officer of the company last year, the first nonfamily member to rise so high in management.
"These young men, they just have all these ideas. That's what I love about them," says Patty Brock, 75, Mr. Brock's mother and the retired school teacher who has been chairman of Straub's board since the mid-1990s.
"[Vince] and Bill will sit down and talk, and they talk and they talk and out of this comes a vision," she says. "What we really needed to do is capture the young people. I think I heard Bill say, 'They don't want to drink their grandfather's beer.' "
Their vision was rolled out this spring when Straub's three beers were renamed.
Straub Premium and its light beer version became Straub American Lager and American Light Lager while Peter Straub Special Dark became Straub American Amber Lager. Mr. Brock said the new names more accurately reflect what types of beer they are, an identity he expects will help in a market crowded by dozens of styles of beer and hundreds of brands.
Acknowledging the explosion of craft beers that has bruised the industry's Big Three, Straub is planning limited brews of seasonal craft beers that could appear as early as this year.
"We think it's become an imperative to offer them," Mr. Assetta says.
To double its annual sales of about 42,000 barrels -- by comparison, Anheuser-Busch ships about 98 million barrels a year -- Straub for the first time hired four salespersons to boost sales in targeted markets, which include Pittsburgh, State College and Philadelphia.
Early one recent Friday morning, Mr. Assetta led a tour for two of the 20-something saleswomen; a representative of Vecenie Distributing of Millvale, Straub's distributor in Allegheny and Beaver counties; and two college interns being trained as "beer ambassadors" who will conduct tastings at beer shops and taverns.
Their education began at 4 a.m. at Mr. Frank's mash tub, where they were walked through the brewing process from start to finish over the next five hours, followed by a 9 a.m. tasting of Straub's three brews and about a half dozen experimental beers that could eventually be bottled.
Armed with coffee, they watched Mr. Frank grind and dump malted barley and corn flakes into the mash tub, where the resulting mix is combined with spring water that is gradually heated to 170 degrees Fahrenheit.
Over the next two and a half hours, starch in the grains is converted to sugar by enzymes in the barley. That produces spent grain that is sold to farmers as feed and the liquid wort. Given the chance to sample the wort around 6 a.m., it is easy for them to imagine pouring the sweet syrup on pancakes. (Mr. Assetta says he gives some of the wort to neighbors to baste ham.)
The wort and hops are combined in a brew kettle, where they are boiled for another two hours, then cooled to 58 degrees. The next stop is fermenting tanks, where liquid yeast is added and, over seven days, consumes the sugar in the wort, producing beer. The beer is aged at 38 degrees for two weeks, then filtered twice and packaged in bottles or kegs.
Much of the work is still done manually by the brewery's 32 employees.
"It's nice to be one of the few remaining handcrafted breweries," Mr. Assetta says.
That is one of many small-town touches Mr. Brock is trying to preserve. Mr. Assetta says Straub is the last brewery in the nation to sell beer in bottles that customers can return for a deposit -- $1.50 per case. Another tradition is Straub's Eternal Tap, a station where brewery visitors can sample free beer as long as they promise to wash their glass.
"You don't want to lose your authenticity," Mr. Brock says. "It's hard to reinvent a 140-year-old company. ... We needed to change, and I think the family knew we had to change. A lot of family members did not want to take the challenge on."
The changes come at a time when the beer market is stagnant. Shipments totalled 210.2 million barrels last year, according to research firm Beer Marketer's Insights. That compares to shipments of 209.2 million barrels in 2002 and is down 4 percent from a peak of 218.9 million barrels in 2008.
Straub has a cult following among Pennsylvanians living in other states as well as among people who learned about the beer from a Straub drinker or someone with a connection to St. Marys.
"You've got to get that young demographic," Mr. Brock says. "What we really need to do is get people to try it."
Early indications indicate they are, he says.
"Slow, steady, incremental growth -- that's what Vince and I want," Mr. Brock adds. "We're not trying to be a million-barrel brewery."
First Published June 24, 2012 12:00 am