MANITOWOC – We all know beer drinkin’ is one of Wisconsin’s favorite pastimes, but at the bottom of those frosty mugs is a proud tradition that goes back more than 100 years and starts with a seed.

For those of you who don’t know, malt is often called the “heart of beer.” Malted barley, or malt, is the basic ingredient used in the production of beer, providing complex carbohydrates and sugars necessary for fermentation, as well as lending flavor and color that are uniquely characteristic of beer.

A sizeable plant, now owned by Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., tucked next to Lake Michigan in downtown Manitowoc, has been producing malts since the 1800s. You may recognize the place by the silos painted to mimic giant Budweiser beer bottles that face the city’s downtown. Although Anheuser-Busch, which bought the site in the 1960s, no longer owns the site, Briess officials say they have no plans to remove the paintings.

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Briess become a company in 1876 in Czechoslovakia, and bought the Manitowoc site in 2014, which has been malting since 1878.

“There have been various versions of murals over the years,” said Ryan O’Toole, president and CEO of Briess, which has its headquarters in Chilton. “There’s been a bottle and two cans, and had at one time been three bottles. We have maintained the bottles because it is so iconic. It had been three bottles. But there’s no reason for us to take it down. They are such a downtown landmark.”

Those silos, as well as others on the 22,000-acre site, are filled with millions and millions of bushels of barley to be eventually made into malt, a multi-day process in which barley is steeped, germinated and dried in giant malt houses.

Manitowoc is one of three Wisconsin malting sites owned by Briess, which also owns a site in Wyoming. Briess, as a company, also manufactures food ingredients and pet food ingredients for the U.S. and international markets, including flour and flaked cereal products, glucose syrups, dry malt extracts, as well as ready-to-eat products.

For proprietary reasons, O’Toole wouldn't share the food companies Briess works with. The products likely are found in many of the foods we and our pets eat, he said, and are listed as “malt extract” or something similar on product labels.

But the beer malt piece of the operation has been on the rise in recent years.

O’Toole noted there are 6,200 breweries in the U.S. with about one or two opening each day.

“Over the past decade, the specialty breweries have grown by a few thousand,” he said. “Really since the 1980s, but the largest resurgence has been in the past 10 to 12 years.”

There’s some movement away from darker or heavier types of beer, he said, as consumers move to lighter beers with lower alcohol content.

But small brewers enjoy putting their unique spins on their particular styles of beer, he said. Briess has the flexibility to work with brewers and provide what they are looking for.

“Brewers really want to be able to put their own spin on things,” O’Toole said.

Their malts are used at Manitowoc’s own Petskull Brewing, as well as Stillmank and Titletown breweries in Green Bay, Stone Arch Brewpub in Appleton, Three Sheeps in Sheboygan and New Glarus.

The trend toward natural, organic and gluten-free foods is also important for the company.

Briess has been all-natural since the beginning, O’Toole said. The company was certified organic in the 1990s, well before it became trendy, he said.

“The consumer wants products that have been created in a healthy way,” O’Toole said. “Not only for the consumer, but also for the land it was created on. And as for pets, these days people want to feed and nurture their pets as part of the family in a way maybe they didn’t do 20 or 30 years ago.”

But for Manitowoc, it is the strong tradition of Germans and history that has made the location for malting ideal.

“When you think back to Milwaukee being the beer capital, growing your barley here and converting it to malt made a lot of sense,” O’Toole said. “Over time, other crops like corn and soybeans began to compete and a lot of the barley growing has moved out West. But the capacity and expertise here in Manitowoc continues to be a great asset for us.”

It continues to be an asset for the city as well, as the company is undergoing a $17 million expansion to include updates and a roaster. Manitowoc employs 23 of Briess’s 260 workers, but the company could hire 10 to 12 more once the expansion is complete. The facility runs 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Sanitation in the process makes much of the work labor-intensive, O’Toole said.

The site currently has one malt house in operation, but it has five malt houses total that could become operational as the malting business grows, O’Toole said.

Manitowoc was selected as the site for the company’s eighth roaster after more than a year of study and discussion, he said.

“Manitowoc is a great community with great employees,” O’Toole said. “(The city) offers a long history of malting. That fits well with the Briess malting tradition, and helps keep us in step with the malting and craft brewing industry.”

Adding a roaster in Manitowoc means Briess will have roasters at all three Wisconsin plants, adding capability and flexibility for the company.

As business changes and grows, O’Toole said it’s more fascinating than people might expect.

“The most enjoyable part is just the challenges,” he said. “On the malting side, it’s a natural process, we’re taking that seed, and basically growing it or germinating it, getting it to convert, and then using that little sugars to create beer, it’s just a unique process, that keeps it interesting. On the food side, understanding the product we are currently making and the products we are looking to make and how food manufacturers use them is really interesting.

"It's good to walk down the aisle at a supermarket or a convenience store and see all the products that are made using Briess products,” O’Toole said. “And it’s good to see the employees and the ownership they take in the products that we make.”

This story is part of the Making Manitowoc series of stories that highlight the people, places and things that make the Manitowoc region one of a kind. If you know of an interesting person, place or thing made in Manitowoc County that you think could be featured, contact Patti Zarling at, by phone at 920-686-2152 or on Twitter at @PGPattiZarling.


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