Getting Crafty With Hops and Barley in Houston

Home to the oldest craft-beer brewery in Texas, the Bayou City shows a love for suds

It’s a good time to be a beer drinker in the United States. Although Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors remain as the largest distributors, microbreweries and craft breweries across the country saw incredible growth, with a 15-percent increase by volume to 13.2 million barrels sold in 2012. And Houston’s own breweries are right in the thick of this so-called renaissance.

Some Texas and Louisiana residents already know about St. Arnold’s Brewing Co., Texas’ oldest craft brewery, boiling and bubbling barley-and-hops-concoctions in an old frozen-food warehouse on Lyons Avenue. On any given weekend, its tasting room is riddled with imbibers—some seated with pizza boxes and board games at reserved indoor picnic tables, some stretched out on blankets on the floor, some lounging in foldout chairs—with a souvenir glass in-hand filled with one of several varieties St. Arnold’s has on tap that day.

Tours are usually given by the owner and founder, Brock Wagner—a laidback guy with obvious German/Eastern French heritage—who is just as excited about his beer as the day he opened the brewery back in 1994. He proclaims on the outset of his tour, St. Arnold’s is about two things: brewing the best beer in Texas, and creating an institution the Houston region is proud of. With a projected growth of 20 percent next year and hitting the 50,000-barrel mark last year, it’s safe to say St. Arnold’s is seeing its very own renaissance.

The best way to experience any local brewery is by tour. Wagner started his tours the first weekend the brewery was open. “The first Saturday we were open we had, like, 10 people, and I hoped some day we’d get it to 20 people, and 50 people was pie-in-the-sky stuff,” he says.

Now, more than 17 years later, the tasting room is hopping with beer drinkers, and tours are almost always at capacity. “I felt like it was the best marketing tool we had. To tell people what the beer was, what they were tasting, and they can see us and meet us and see our passion for the beer. … To this day I still think it’s the single most important marketing tool,” Wagner says.

Other newer breweries around town have followed suit. Karbach Brewing Co., which opened in 2011 to much fanfare, offers tastings and tours Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays. Brewmaster Eric Warner says, “To be honest with you, we kind of looked at the success that St. Arnold’s was having there. For a small start-up, sampling is always a great way to market from the get-go.”

So what’s this all mean for Houston visitors? It means a more personal experience. Visitors get to train their palates, chat with brewery owners and brewmasters who are more than eager to educate, and get a taste for what a given community is all about. One gets a very personal sense of the vibe, the people, the flavor of a city.

Labor of Love

Lawnmower and Amber varieties

On the surface, it may seem like the trend began in 2007 amongst the beer elitists sick of the watered-down, mass-marketed sludge. But it is merely a resurgence (albeit a long-lasting one). One could argue the trend began among avid home brewers in 1979, when president Jimmy Carter’s administration deregulated a tightly controlled beer market. Then by the early to mid-’90s, we saw what Wagner calls a “mini-boom,” when craft and microbreweries soared, and it’s also when he and other beer-nuts like Eric Warner, from Karbach, decided to jump in head-first into the deep end. They’ve never left.

“I got a German degree and then I realized I didn’t want to be a German teacher, so I went to brewing school in Germany and got my degree as a brewmeister in 1990, and I’ve been involved in the craft-brewing industry ever since,” says Warner, who, along with industry peers Ken Goodman and Chuck Robertson, opened Karbach in 2011, offering everything from IPAs, saisons and lagers to wheat beer, seasonals and experimental options, all with punny names like “Weisse Versa Wheat,” “Pontificator” and “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out.”

The love Warner and other brewers like him have for the craft, so to speak, runs deep and is the defining difference between wanting to drink a beer from the local guy and drinking something else. “Beer is kind of part art, part science. Like most people I kind of have an analytical side and an artistic side, and it’s a great way to play into both,” Warner says.

St. Arnold’s inception started with Wagner, who comes from a long line of beer enthusiasts, including an ancestor from Alsace who opened a beer hall in San Francisco in the mid-1800s after immigrating. After spending his initial years out of college working in investment banking and home-brewing on the side, Wagner took the plunge and opened St. Arnold’s in 1994 with his friend, Kevin Bartol. The brewery has eight continual, year-round options ranging from IPAs to amber ales to light varieties. It also offers six seasonal brews (the Pumpkinator sells out quickly), and four special, limited-time series brews.

Over the years Wagner has noticed a few telling changes. “When we opened, our customer was typically 30 years old to 60 years old. Nobody in their 20s drank craft beer. Then around 2000 we started noticing on the tour, because I’d be the one carding everyone walking through the door, seeing people in their 20s. And by 2004-2005, people started showing up on their 21st birthday,” he says.

The trend—which by now, based on sales and the sheer number of breweries opening every year, can be considered a mainstay—leaked into restaurants and pubs, who were adopting the local-food movement at the same time. Local food combined with local beer just made sense. “It was so frustrating to me, especially a white-tablecloth restaurant. They spend all this time on their wine list, and then they get to beer and have Bud, Miller, Coors and Heineken …,” Wagner says. “Now those same places have incredible selections of beer. In fact, sometimes they go the other way and they’ll have only the most esoteric, 9-10-11 percent alcohol beers.”

Houston enjoys an embarrassment of riches on both counts—some of the best diversified cuisine in the country married beautifully with community-based brews. It’s apparent the city’s residents want to share the wealth. “We care about quality, we care about community, the connection to our customer. And I don’t have a great desire to take over the world,” says Wagner.

Houston just wants visitors to eat, drink and be merry.

Houston Craft-Beer Slide Show

(All Photos ©Katya Horner)

Michelle Parsons
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