No need to convince Chris Herr that those who built six grain silos eight decades ago on the RiverWorks property did an incredible job.
Their work has been an adventure to untangle as a new construction crew reshapes the towering structures into a craft brewing operation.
“Every hole in every wall that needs to be cut is going through 8 inches of Rebar-reinforced, hardened concrete. Every time they hit one of those steel rods, they need to change the blade,” said Herr, chief brewer at the Pearl Street Grill & Brewery sphere of operations, which includes the Pan-American Grill & Brewery downtown and the sprawling RiverWorks project on Kelly Island, hard by the Old First Ward.
The silos – each draped with a vinyl Labatt brewing logo – stand along the Buffalo River as workers put the finishing touches on a project that started late last winter and is expected to wrap up in the next several weeks.
“We hope to be brewing by the end of the January at the latest and have beer ready by early spring," Herr said.
RiverWorks will continue to sell other brews from around the world – including those from Labatt – but also will offer eight of its own beers on tap.
They will include Train Wreck – a German-style amber ale available in the other two brewery restaurants – but otherwise, as is the case at Pearl Street and Pan-Am, unique stylings. The riverside restaurant will offer five of its own year-round standards and three rotating seasonals. Herr has been working on the recipes.
“Believe it or not, that’s the easy part,” he said. “We always want to brew things that people are going to want to drink but we also understand that the recipes are going to change with what’s popular.
“We know we’re going to have a light beer. We know we’re going to have a hoppy beer. We know we’re going to have a dark beer. We know we’re going to have an amber ale. … Between our three locations, we’re going to have 30 different beers pouring. As a brewer, it’s pretty exciting because it means I get to make whatever the hell I want to make.”
Herr, along with RiverWorks developers Doug Swift, an architect, and Pearl Street group founder and owner Earl Ketry – hoped to make beer flow by this past summer. The renovation challenges pushed back the date.
The contractors needed to blaze largely unchartered waters. The developers know of no similar project and the closest an internet search turned up was the new Bang Brewing Co. outside St. Paul Minn. which built a one-story silo to brew beer and a hotel built atop a former brewery grain silo in Frankfurt, Germany.
It was tough to cut through the walls but also quite a task to squeeze beer-making equipment into a series of slender, 10-story cylinders designed and built for a different use.
Herr called that process "the world’s biggest game of Tetris.”
Stainless steel brewhouse equipment, fermenting and storage tanks had to be moved into the silo structure at ground level, hoisted by chains up about 16 feet to the second-floor brewing operation, laid on their sides, slipped into their silo spaces and propped up.
Floors and drains had to be poured and new stairways built, Herr said, “and ironically, we had to buy a grain silo for our base malt.”
“It’s quite a bit of work.”
[RELATED STORY: A Q&A with RiverWorks founder Earl Ketry]
Work was a lot easier alongside the silos on the beer garden – tucked into decades-old construction remains – which took shape earlier this year and includes wire tables, Adirondack chairs and a water feature. Planters will be added next spring.
Windows have been cut in silo numbers 5 and 6, closest to the river, to quench the thirsts of beer garden patrons when the weather improves. There’s also talk of adding a stairway to the top of Silo 6 for a Zipline attraction.
The silo six pack, as it has been called in recent years, was designed by E.A. Baxter Engineering and built in 1936 at a cost of $50,000. It was part of a larger complex of silos run during and after World War II by the Cooperative Grange League Federation and for many years had the letters GLF painted on its sides, according to an online government history of what is known as the former GLF/Wheeler Elevator site.
Herr said the brewery will cost up to $3 million to complete.
The brewery operation sits mostly on two levels in silos 1 and 2: ground level, which is about 6 feet below parking lot grade; and a second-floor level roughly even in height with the second floor of the RiverWorks restaurant complex next door. At some point, the owners also plan to squeeze a small distillery into a silo space, as well.
“We have a higher production capacity but a lower serving capacity than Pearl Street,” Herr said during a recent tour at the brewery-in-the making, “but we’ll also be offering fewer products here than we have at Pearl. At Pearl Street, we’re offering 16 draft lines. Here we’re offering eight.
“Despite that, we have twice the pumps in our pump room here to keep the beer flowing because of the volume and scope of this project.”
Annual total production will be about 2,000 barrels, which is more than 60,000 gallons or nearly a half million pints.
[RELATED STORY: Chris Herr talks about the health benefits of beer]
This is how the beer-making process – which generally will take two to three weeks – will work:
Specialty grains will come in at ground level, then be augured up to a second-floor utility space where they will get cracked in a mill. Then they will move into the brewhouse in Silo 2, where they will go into a grist case, then get mixed with hot water in a mash tun. The brewers will drain off the liquid and pump it into a kettle, where they will boil it and add hops.
Then they will chill the hot liquid batch in heat exchangers into fermentation temperature – 50 to 75 degrees – and move it into one of eight fermentation tanks in Silo 1. Yeast will be added to metabolize the sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol. After some fermenting, food-grade glycol antifreeze will flow through jackets on the outside of the fermenting tanks, dropping the interior tank temperature to 37 degrees to condition and clarify the beer.
After that, the beer will go into one of 12 serving tanks, also called brite tanks, on the ground floor of Silos 1 and 2. Here, it will be kept cold and carbonated. It will then be pumped into and through the distribution center to bars throughout RiverWorks.
Eight manifolds and a series of 96 pumps will push beer to 21 RiverWorks tap towers and 168 taps. A pair of chiller lines will run alongside the beer lines to keep the beer cold.
The pumping system “was my baby,” Herr said. “A system like this simply does not exist anywhere else in the world. There’s going to be about 9 gallons of beer sitting in any given beer line just to get it to the tap towers.”
RiverWorks will need a full-time line cleaner to keep the beer lines clean and running fresh.
Three brewers, including Herr, split duties making beer at Pearl Street and Pan-Am. The chief brewer looks to hire two more as RiverWorks ramps up.
They know they’ll have a lot of work on their hands. RiverWorks managers have told Herr the space went through as many as 100 cases of beer a day during busy summer and fall weeks.
“We’re all a little dumbfounded that Pearl Street could open a restaurant that’s busier than Pearl Street but here it is,” Herr said.
"Once we get everything in place, it’s going to be a mad rush to get everything running. I’ll be a busy man after that.”