Red Star Yeast’s plant in southwest Cedar Rapids may fly somewhat under the radar in the Corridor’s burgeoning agricultural manufacturing sector, but with multiple plant expansions and a near-doubling of its workforce over a 17-year history, Red Star has established itself as a dominant player in the yeast industry. The company’s latest expansion was marked […]
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Red Star Yeast’s plant in southwest Cedar Rapids may fly somewhat under the radar in the Corridor’s burgeoning agricultural manufacturing sector, but with multiple plant expansions and a near-doubling of its workforce over a 17-year history, Red Star has established itself as a dominant player in the yeast industry.
The company’s latest expansion was marked March 31 with a ceremonial “ribbon-cutting,” originally slated as groundbreaking but moved inside a shipping and receiving building due to inclement weather, and held to mark the upcoming addition of a new yeast production vessel, harvesting machinery and other ancillary equipment.
It’s the fourth time Red Star has expanded its Cedar Rapids operations. The plant opened in 2005 with six yeast fermenters, and since then, Red Star – a joint venture of ADM and Lesaffre, a French-based yeast manufacturer with domestic operations based in Milwaukee – has expanded three times, adding new fermenters in 2010, 2011 and 2017. The latest expansion, which will bring the plant’s fermenter count to 10, should be completed by the end of the year, said plant manager George Parry.
The expansion has become necessary because the plant frequently operates at or near its capacity, Mr. Parry said.
“We make a fresh yeast product,” Mr. Parry noted. “That’s the majority of our volume. And we have to make (fresh yeast) to order. We do make an inactive dry yeast, which has an extended shelf life, but our fresh yeast is still living. It’s not inactivated or dried. So its shelf life is considerably shorter. And that limits us from taking opportunities to stock up when we do have volume capacity, because we can’t work too far ahead.”
As part of Red Star’s partnership with ADM, the factory uses a unique process to grow its cultured yeast products. All yeast is grown on a carbon-based substrate, and molasses is the substrate of choice for most yeast manufacturers. However, Mr. Parry said there are increasing issues with that process.
“As the sugar industry gets better at pulling sugar out of beet and cane pulp, what’s leftover for us as molasses to grow yeast on is of poorer and poorer quality,” he said. “What we wanted was a consistent substrate. When we paired up with ADM, we did some research to establish what we could do with corn syrup. Now we grow the vast majority of our yeast on 100% corn syrup. Even within our Red Star-Lesaffre group, we’re the only plant in the world that grows baker’s yeast on a corn substrate. You can grow some other types of yeast for different purposes on corn syrup, but to be able to perform in baking applications – because those are specific environments with specific requirements – we’re the only ones able to do that.”
Without getting overly technical, Mr. Parry said the process used to grow commercial yeast, which is used in both human and livestock nutrition markets, is very similar to the process used by ADM to create corn-based ethanol.
“They’re running a typical fermentation, using the yeast we provide them, plus the carbon substrate in the corn syrup, and in the absence of oxygen, it produces (carbon dioxide) and alcohol,” Mr. Parry said. “We’re doing the same process, except we’re introducing air, which limits the amount of ethanol produced. We want to produce more yeast and less alcohol to efficiently utilize that corn syrup carbon substrate. If we’re producing ethanol, we’re not producing yeast.”
Red Star Yeast has two commercial yeast production facilities in the United States – in Cedar Rapids and Headland, Alabama – but while declining to quantify yearly production quantities, calling that a “guarded secret,” Mr. Parry said the Cedar Rapids plant is the world’s largest fresh yeast manufacturing facility. It’s been said, in fact, that one out of every three industrial baked goods in the United States uses yeast from the Cedar Rapids Red Star plant.
“That’s probably true,” Mr. Parry said. “In the industry and even amongst our competitors, we have the lion’s share of the baking volume. So I think we have more than a third of the market share (in commercial applications).”
Since beginning production in 2005, Red Star has become a well-established presence in the Corridor, and part of that is due to its extensive operational diversification.
“If you look at the full site,” Mr. Parry said, “there’s Red Star. There’s a Lesaffre pilot laboratory. There’s Biospringer (a yeast extraction facility), which is a solely owned subsidiary. Then there’s the Lesaffre blending facility. We’re all on the same campus. So Lesaffre, combined with ADM, has invested a quarter of a billion dollars on this site (since its opening).”
Red Star’s employment has nearly doubled as well, growing from 86 employees in 2005 to 144 presently. When finished, the latest expansion could boost the workforce even more, Mr. Parry said.
All told, Red Star has established a firm foundation in the Corridor, and with round-the-clock production and a mature market base, its reputation has grown increasingly solid as well, said Mr. Parry, a three-decade industry veteran who moved to Cedar Rapids in 2005 as part of the plant’s original operations staff.
“We have branded ourselves much better over the years,” he said. “At the beginning, it was more about getting the facility built, getting people trained. Besides me and another handful of management staff, we were the only people who had worked in the yeast business before. Now we’re really getting out in the community. I think we’ve evolved now to where people know who we are.”