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Karbach’s new brewery

As we know, Houston has a lot of craft breweries, with the venerable Saint Arnold being the biggest, oldest, and best known. With the forthcoming opening of their new facility, I’d say Karbach is making a strong case to be next in the pecking order.

Karbach, founded four years ago by a pair of longtime distributors/importers who brought resources as well as experience to the enterprise, stands out even in an industry where rapid growth is the status quo and where production volume soared in double digits again last year.

In 2013, Karbach was cited in a New Yorker analysis as the second-fastest growing craft brewery in the U.S. and 2014 was a scorcher as well. Crews worked around the clock to brew 32,600 barrels of Hopadillo, Weisse Versa and other beers, and the only thing that kept them from making more was capacity.

The size of the new brewery, which faces Dacoma, around the corner from the original facility at 2032 Karbach, just outside Loop 610 in northwest Houston, addresses the immediate needs and leaves room to add on later. [Brewmaster Eric] Warner said the new equipment and automation upgrades also should improve quality and virtually eliminate inconsistencies between batches.

He and his team are already making beer there and plan to open the brewery to the public on or about May 15, slightly behind the originally announced first-quarter target date.

The facility goes live as the industry continues an enviable upward trajectory. In 2014, craft sales rocketed ahead 18 percent even as overall beer production rose a mere half-percent, the industry trade group reported at this month’s Craft Brewers Conference. A record 3,418 breweries are now in operation, figures compiled by the Brewers Association show, and 2,051 more were in the planning stages as of Dec. 31.

Across greater Houston, 29 brewery and brewpub licenses are on file with the state and most of those operations are up and running. In addition, strong brands from other states continue to expand into Texas.

Warner, who came to Houston in 2011 with a nationally recognized résumé in craft brewing, sounded nothing but confident about Karbach’s growth plans in this environment.

“Craft is here to stay,” he said. “I have no doubt about that. Craft is growing and will continue to take share.”

The primary challenge ahead will be to maintain shelf space at stores and tap handles in bars and restaurants, Warner said. In that regard, he thinks high-quality local brands will have a distinct advantage. He said Karbach plans to expand to the Dallas area this year but has no out-of-state plans until at least 2017.

“There are 30 million people in Texas,” Warner said. “A lot of beer drinkers.”

Another potential challenge, he added, would be if global giants such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, which last year made 13 million barrels of beer at its Houston plant alone, stop “dabbling” in craft beer styles and begin competing seriously with the Karbachs and Saint Arnolds.

Again, Warner sounded confident about the future, describing his company’s success in less than four year as “surreal.” He readily acknowledges the advantages Karbach has over many of the young breweries that are starting with far less capital.

I like Karbach, though Saint Arnold is still my favorite locally. I do need to take a tour of their new facility, which is one of several near where I live. As far as the macrobrewery threat is concerned, I just don’t see the AB-InBevs of the world seriously competing in that space. It’s not who they are, and I don’t see the type of person who drinks craft beer being lured to a craft beer-style product they might market. I think it’s more likely the big boys might try to buy up a bunch of craft brewers, like Microsoft or Google acquiring startups. I don’t know why they haven’t been doing that all along, to be honest. Be that as it may, congrats to Karbach on the new digs, and best of luck with the restaurant venture.

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