Tuesday, November 24, 2009

BEER WARS: IRON CITY STRIKES BACK WITH MOVE TO FORMER ROLLING ROCK FACILITY

PITTSBURGH: THRU THE LENS OF GARY GAYDA


#44 "PALLET QUANTITY"
LEFT: Stacks of Iron City Beer sit waiting their turn to be shipped from the staging area at the City Brewing Co. in Latrobe, PA.


#45 "THE GREAT WALL"
BELOW RIGHT: Pallet after palletload of empty Iron City bottles waits to be filled. On the day we visited, a new canning line was being installed. 

Editor's Note-- 

As our regular readers know, Tuesday is the day for our weekly feature "Pittsburgh:Thru the Lens of Gary Gayda". Today's version is going to be a whopper too as we are among the first media to tour City Brewing Co., the new home of Iron City Beer. So sit back, grab a cold "Ahrn" and enjoy this week's installment! As always these photos are available by emailing Gary Gayda directly at GMGayda @yahoo.com. Indicate the picture name and number as well as the size that you are interested in and Gary will get back with you. Gary Gayda took over 400 shots during our tour. Below are more of our favorites.


Being older than a good percentage of the people who read "Pittsburgh's Black and Gold" sometimes affords me a better insight when I'm composing a story such as this one. Unless you were born in the 50's at the latest, you wouldn't have experienced the days when Iron City proclaimed itself, "Pittsburgh's number one beer"...and it was! Who could ever forget gravely-voiced Bob Prince or his partner, "The Possum" Jim Woods selling Iron City during Pittsburgh Pirates radio and tv broadcasts?

While Iron City still sells a fair number of cases, it unfortunately is not anywhere near where it had been in the 60's and 70's nor is it selling enough product to be sufficiently profitable now. This is because of incursion into what had been its' domain by national brands such as Coors, Budweiser and Miller Brewing.


Iron City's official barrel production was not revealed during a recent visit to their new (to them) facility in Latrobe. However, even to a virtual novice such as myself of "all things beer-making", it became very obvious that the former Pittsburgh Brewing Company had made a radical change. This change in course could potentially save it from what would have been certain extinction in the not too distant future had it maintained its' original path. 

The "City Brewing Company" is a contract producer, brewing beers for several other brands in addition to Iron City. Brands such as Stoney's and some line extensions of the Pabst company are also produced there now. While Iron City no longer has direct ownership of a brewery, per se, they still have longtime brewmaster Mike Carota on hand to supervise the brewing of their brands at City Brewing. 

Carota, is a very accomodating sort and, as you would expect, a most-knowledgable person when it comes to beer. He is credited with developing I.C. Light as well as working on the original Sam Adams recipe. He prefers though to talk about Iron City rather than discuss his own personal accomplishments. On this tour which lasted over two hours, he would cut no corners in showing "P.B. & G." literally every square inch of the facilty which I estimate at being at least 300,000 square feet in size.


#46 "BREWER TO BLOGGER"
LEFT: Brewmaster Mike Carota (left) finds out what a real blogger looks like.

While the move to Latrobe was understandably quite unpopular with the former Pittsburgh Brewing Company's brewery workers and many Pittsburghers, adding Iron City to the stable of brands already being produced at City Brewing Co. will help that new company grow and become even more stabilized. But the world of beer has a deep, dark underbelly, as I would soon learn, and one that most beer drinkers are completely unaware exists. It doesn't come in a "Lite" version either.

Before our tour started, I had a chance to speak with a veteran union worker named "Bernie" (who didn't want to give out his last name). Bernie, who has worked in this plant for 27 years, spoke with great sorrow over the loss of the "Rolling Rock" brand there. "We had built that brand up so strong that we were bottling every single day. Now they're trying to make it in New Jersey. Can you imagine making Rolling Rock with New Jersey river water? It's no wonder that they're producing about a fourth of what we used to brew just a couple years ago. There's guys from this brewery that haven't worked a day in the last three years since they moved production to New Jersey." When I asked Bernie about the chances of Rolling Rock ever coming back to Latrobe, he sighed and commented, "You'd need $40 million just for the name, so it's highly unlikely."

When I asked about the former Iron City workers, Bernie explained that, "They're from our union too. After all of our people get called back to work then they'll start calling those workers back next. We still have men out of work here."

The amazing part of this impromptu interview showed the true depth of Bernie's knowledge of the beer industry. He began rifling off the names of companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Inbev, even citing the cutthroat tactics of multinational companies in Brazil for the demise of Rolling Rock in Latrobe. "Governor Rendell called Augie Busch and begged him to come to Latrobe and see the operation that we had here. Busch told him, 'I'm too busy for that'. Why did our company have to be sold out from under us? Greed. The three guys who did this (moved the operation to New Jersey) have all since lost their jobs. But that doesn't help us any though."

While the fate and probable ruination of a popular brand such as Rolling Rock may have already been sealed, the future in Latrobe now stands with another local brand making its' home there. If the former Latrobe Brewing Co. employees can use their brewing capabilities to produce Iron City using its' original recipe while utilizing all of the efficiencies present in their modern-day plant, my bet is that Iron City and its' associated brands will be making a major comeback...and soon.

Just to give you an idea of how Iron City was totally missing-out on modern day efficiencies in Pittsburgh, we were shown a major-sized piece of equipment that takes in empty kegs, sterilzes them using several steps and loads them back onto pallets. This process takes one man to operate, compared to 11 men at the former PBC plant. This is not because the Pittsburgh workers themselves were inefficient, but rather, because they lacked the proper equipment... equipment that Pittsburgh Brewing had neither the money to afford it or the space to accomodate it.




#47 "HEY MOE, HEY LARRY"
LEFT: Forklift operator Jay Wano moves kegs of Iron. We tried to convince him to "spill" some kegs for the camera, sort of like "The Three Stooges" but alas, he wasn't biting.

                                        #48 "KEGGER"
While union workers may argue that this equipment represents jobs that were lost, the fact of the matter is that these greater costs of production were doing nothing to help Iron City be profitable so that it could modernize and compete. Taking the drastic step of moving production to a contract manufacturer may strike some as being one step closer to extinction, but that comment would never be made by anyone who had just taken this tour. I would estimate that the cost to develop a plant such as this would be at least $60 million plus the building. The amount of piping, pumps, storage tanks, refrigeration lines, bottling equipment etc. is simply mind-blowing. Iron City has bypassed all of that cost by having City Brewing be their manufacturer. At the same time, I would be greatly surprised to learn that the cost of manufacturing Iron City had also not dropped precipitously. The economies of scale, after all, are everywhere.

                 #49 "SECRET INGREDIENT"

ABOVE: A worker adds molten steel, the secret ingredient, to Iron City Beer. No, not really. In this shot a worker is cutting out some old equipment to make room for another canning line to be installed in the very near future.  

On the day of our tour, there was no canning or bottling going on as they were busy installing a new canning line. This line is expected to be operational December 8th with the first canned product from Latrobe hitting stores by late December. Currently, Iron City's canning is taking place in LaCrosse, Wisconsin although all of the bottling is being done in Latrobe.
                                                                                                            #50 "BEER 101"

Our tourguide, Brewmaster Mike Carota first took us to the brewhouse where the massive caudrons held the simmering brew. There were various stages along the way including the Lauter Tub, Kettle cooker, the Mash tub and the Hot Wort tank. Each boiling cauldron represents another stage in the complicated process of brewing beer. If you never saw a "witch's brew" before, you would swear that this was it. The aroma was unmistakably "brewery". I had spent a couple high school years going to class across the street from the old "Duquesne Brewey" on the South Side, so I knew the unmistakable aroma of cooking hops as soon as I first smelled it...sort of like an odd combination of broccoli and brussel sprouts

#51 "STARTER"                #52 "CAULDRON"



                                      #54 "TEAKETTLE"
#53 "A MESS OF PIPES"


TOP RIGHT: Editor gets beer lesson, keeps asking, "So when's the taste test?" MIDDLE LEFT: A new batch of Iron City is started. MIDDLE RIGHT: Steamy cauldron posed all kinds of problems for our photographer. CENTER: Just a small part of the maze of pipes that makes up the filering area. LOWER RIGHT: Mammoth tea kettle used to cook Iron City's raw ingredients. 


#55 "MR. HOPS"

LEFT: Brewery worker Carl Bauer adds hops


Mike explained that Iron City starts out by reprocessing the municipal water that feeds the City Water plant. While Rolling Rock may have been brewed with "mountain spring water," it was the same water that was also used municipally. What must be done before anything else happens is to have the water re-filtered to remove any trace chemicals or chlorine from it.

"Iron City's original recipe is a mixture of malt, corn, hops water and yeast," added Carota. It takes us around a month to brew a batch of Iron City, slightly longer for I.C. Light."

#56 "COMIN' ROUND THE MOUNTAIN"

ABOVE: A fresh case of IC Light makes its' way around the plant.

I asked about a former product, "IC Golden Lager" and why they no longer manufactured it. I was surprised to learn that..."We made that product using a special variety of golden hops. The problem was that they were very prone to insect infestation in the fields, so the farmers quit growing them. It became so difficult to find a dependable supply that we had to discontinue it."

#57 "BOTTLES-EYE-VIEW"

ABOVE: "Bottle's-eye-view of track that carries bottles throughout the plant.

We saw how hops are shipped to brewers today. The hops have been milled with the non-essential parts removed. The hops are then pelletized and vacuum sealed for freshness. The result is that the brewery has less waste material to dispose of while at the same time having a product stored on hand that is sealed for freshness. As you can just imagine, this product development has been a great help to breweries the world over.

When asked if there were any new products in the works at Iron City, Carota smiled a wry smile, as all good brewmasters would and said, "Yes, but you'll have to ask (Brewery President) Tim Hickman about it."

Another fascinating area was the filtering room where diatomaceous earth is used to further remove any solids that may have made it past prior filterings.
In discussing the brewing of Iron City with an industry insider, I further learned that the word on the street is that the brew is much improved from the original version because of the additional filtering. "They can make better beer in Latrobe because they have the up-to-date equipment there. You were virtually talking the stone age at the original plant in Pittsburgh. Only the Egyptians had older equipment."

#58 "CAROUSEL"

Whether it be the bottle line, new canning line, the kegging equipment or filtration area, Iron City and IC Light should begin winning many new fans because they've managed to take a beer that's 145 years old and not change it, but change the way it's made. That's not meant as a knock at any of the workers who lost their jobs in Pittsburgh because, let's face it, they could only work with what they had.

#59 "CAROUSEL II"

But it will certainly be most interesting to see if the new Iron City Brewing Company will move through this time of great change and emerge a viable company for the future. I'm betting that it will, because there's too much skill, too much equipment and too big of a facility in Latrobe for it to do anything but grow again. Wouldn't it be great if all of those Pittsburgh and Latrobe workers got their jobs back? There's only one way for that to happen: "When you're really ready to pour it on, pour on the Iron." Pittsburghers have to supporrt their local brewery and local workers.

Finally, after touring the lab where they test the beer for alcohol content, extract level, color and bitterness it was time for Gary Gayda and I to get down to business. Our mission: Check all of the bottles in this case of IC Light for the proper taste, color, etc.. I must say that after 24 bottles, everything looked great, tasted great, felt great, smelled great. In fact, now I truly know why they've always called "Iron City Beer, the Beer Drinkers Beer".


#60 "BEER CHART"
ABOVE: The evaluation chart used by experienced taste-testers.
.
#61 "WELL-INTENTIONED TASTE-TESTING"

ABOVE: After a grueling tour, "The Lone Ranger" and "Tonto" dive into a case of IC Light with predictable results in the "Taste-testing room" a euphemism if there ever was one.. BELOW: Gary Gayda (Right) won't be taking any more photos on this day (any usable ones, anyway). (Left) A random blogger is close behind him.

#62 "TASTE-TESTING RUN AMOK"
 

SPECIAL THANKS TO IRON CITY BEER'S SHELBY COLE FOR ARRANGING OUR VISIT AND TO BREWMASTER MIKE CAROTA FOR GENEROUSLY SHARING HIS TIME WITH US!!! DON'T WORRY ABOUT US STEALING ANY COMPANY SECRETS. THIS STUFF'S SO COMPLICATED WE"D NEVER BE ABLE TO FIGURE IT OUT!!