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Southern Star

My craft beer options runneth over

2015 could be a very fine year.

My personal beer map

Several local brewery construction projects headed for completion in 2015 are designed to draw in visitors as well as ship beer out the door.

The neighborhood-centric Town In City Brewing Co. in the Heights could open in February, co-owner Justin Engle said earlier this week, as workers poured and leveled concrete for sidewalks and a driveway entrance into the startup brewery at 1125 W. Cavalcade.

In addition to selling beer to other retailers, Town In City will open each Wednesday through Sunday for customers to buy beer that they can drink in its 700-square-foot taproom or 1,400-square-foot outdoor beer garden. Food trucks will be invited on-site, and there will be a dedicated secure bicycle parking area.

Engle said the goal is to create a neighborhood gathering spot like many of the breweries he enjoyed visiting when he lived in Colorado. He’d prefer a steady daily business to a more crowded once-a-week tour.

Engle and partner Steven Macalello bought a vacant lot on Cavalcade, between Main and Airline, and built a brewhouse with initial capacity of 2,300 barrels of beer a year. Watching over the final concrete pour was a major step for a project that began more than 3½ years ago.

“I’m ecstatic,” Engle said.

Meanwhile, Brash Brewing, at 510 W. Crosstimbers in Independence Heights, also could begin producing beer in February. Owner Ben Fullelove said the brewery plans to install glycol lines for chilling next week and get a final city inspection soon after. It’s licensed as a brewpub, though Fullelove said it won’t be open to the public right away.

“We are almost done,” he said in an email.

Although its beers have been brewed under contract in Massachusetts since 2012, Brash has strong Houston roots. Fullelove founded craft beer hot spot Petrol Station, and he hired Vince Mandeville, formerly of Saint Arnold, as head brewer for the local operation.

[…]

Last spring, Karbach broke ground on a $15 million project that will do more than just boost capacity.

The project, facing Dacoma on a 1.2-acre tract adjacent to the current brewery at 2032 Karbach, includes not only a new 19,000-square-foot, two-story brewery but also a public tap room and kitchen that will be open daily, plus space upstairs that will be available for special events.

Spokesman David Graham said Karbach hopes to open the space around the end of the first quarter.

I’ve highlighted these three breweries, plus Buffalo Bayou Brewing, on the embedded map. All are within about ten minutes of my house, with Buffalo Bayou and Town In City both being within biking distance. City Acres up on 59 North isn’t too far away either. I’m thinking I need to plan a few weekend beer tastings once the weather gets warm and all these places are open. Sounds like a good reason to get out of the house and hang out with some friends. For all that could be better in the world today, we do live in prosperous times.

Craft versus crafty

Just because that beer you’re drinking has a quirky name and a whimsical label on the bottle doesn’t mean it came from a microbrewery.

In a biting opening salvo, a trade group for the nation’s craft brewers on Thursday accused Anheuser-Busch InBev and other major manufacturers of “deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers.”

“We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking,” the Colorado-based Brewers Association said.

The group singled out Blue Moon and the Shock Top line. Those popular beers are owned and produced by, respectively, SABMiller, the same company that makes Miller Lite, and AB-InBev, the Belgium-based purveyor of the ubiquitous Budweiser and Bud Lite.

“You would not know that from looking at the labels,” said Julia Herz, craft beer director for the Brewers Association, which represents such locally owned breweries as Saint Arnold, Southern Star, No Label and Karbach.

There’s more information from the Brewers Association here and here. I don’t think it’s asking a lot to clearly state on the label that thus-and-such beer is a product of whichever brewery. A lot of people are choosy about which businesses they support and which they don’t. More generally, I favor customers getting full information about the products they buy. How can you make an informed choice if you don’t have all the relevant information? Beer, TX has more.

Beer is still a job creator

We really owe a debt of gratitude to beer, in particular to microbrewers.

Saint Arnold Brewing Co., the city’s oldest craft, has 43 employees and is in the midst of hiring at least three more, founder Brock Wagner said. That is about double the staff before production shifted to a new brewery with more capacity 2½ years ago.

“We’ve been able to turn it into a place where you can have a career,” Wagner said, noting such benefits as fully paid health care, a generous 401(k)-match program and paid vacations.

The employment growth is actually greater considering that several volunteers who used to help set up Saturday tours at the original brewery were given paid part-time positions to handle the weekday and Saturday tours at the new place.

Karbach Brewing, which marked its one-year anniversary Sept. 1, already has tripled its staff, from the original seven.

“Obviously, our growth was higher than anticipated,” marketing chief David Graham said.

An ongoing boom in craft-beer sales is boosting hiring nationwide.

In a speech during last month’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper noted this statistic from the Colorado Brewers Guild: While craft beer accounts for less than 5 percent of beer produced in that state, the 150 craft breweries there provide 64 percent of the brewing jobs.

That’s because major breweries, like Houston’s Anheuser-Busch plant, produce millions of barrels annually, compared with the Saint Arnolds and Karbachs in the tens of thousands of barrels. The difference in scale enables the big players to utilize a lot of cost-saving efficiencies.

In contrast, said Dave Fougeron, founder of Conroe-based Southern Star Brewing, “We do things backward and slow.”

Fougeron and other supporters say this laborious process results in better-tasting beers and more diversity for consumers.

In other words, the big breweries rely on automation, while the microbreweries rely on people. That’s a formula for more jobs, many of which are for skilled people. This story refers to a study of the economic impact of microbreweries, which could be a lot if the Legislature would finally do something about those archaic restrictions on selling beer. The microbrewers have a strategy, and they’ve done a good job getting their story told in the media. It’s got to happen one of these days, doesn’t it?

Another microbrewer comes to town

The beer scene in Houston keeps getting better.

Eric Warner was at the well-regarded Flying Dog Brewery in Colorado for a decade, as brewmaster and then as chief executive. While there, the brewery came out with such beers as Snake Dog IPA, Double Dog double pale ale, Gonzo Imperial Porter and Dogtoberfest Märzen.

By the time Flying Dog moved production to Maryland and Warner left the company in 2008, Flying Dog was a national brand with annual production of 50,000 barrels, up from 10,000 when he started.

Now the 47-year-old is bringing his talent, a quarter-century’s brewing experience and his interest in startups to Houston.

Karbach Brewing Co. has brewing equipment on site, in a warehouse under renovation in the same U.S. 290/Loop 610 West part of town where Saint Arnold started.

Warner said the company will have more than $1 million invested in the brewery by the time it begins operations in late July or August.

The Karbach beers will be on draft around town two months after that.

Packaging — in 12-ounce cans, meant to fit the lifestyle of active Texans – should follow shortly.

“Hopefully, people can take a couple of six-packs of Karbach beer to the Thanksgiving table,” Warner said one recent morning, while making a test batch of “Weisse Versa” wheat beer that will be among three year-round offerings.

That’s now three new microbreweries in the Houston area in the last year, plus the forthcoming Freetail brewpub. Not too shabby. I wish them all well. Beer, TX has more.

And then there were three microbreweries

Meet Mike Brian Royo, the owner of what will soon be the third microbrewery in the Houston area, No Label Brewing Co.

Royo, 32, and his wife, Jennifer, and his parents, Gilberto and Melanie, have leased space in an old warehouse in Katy and are expecting their federal license to arrive within a couple of months. In the meantime, he said, he’s shopping for a 15-barrel brewhouse and some fermenting tanks to replace the “glorified homebrew system” he’s relying on as he fine-tunes No Label’s initial lineup.

No Label plans to start with a hefeweizen, El Hefe!, and either Pale Horse pale ale or Ridgeback Ale, an American amber with a distinct chocolate finish.

“I lean toward the maltier beers,” Royo said.

He said he’ll also put out a lighter blonde ale, Silo, before moving into the higher-alcohol stuff, IPAs and stouts, for example.

Royo’s dad is a native of Panama, where he met his wife, whose family was stationed there. He’s also a geologist who’s always had a taste for good beer, Brian said. The family eventually settled in Katy, where Brian went to junior high and high school before heading to Texas A&M to study construction science.

After transferring to the University of Houston, he discovered the Flying Saucer, visited the Saint Arnold brewery and started making beer as a hobby.

“Next thing you know, I’m spending all my extra money on homebrewing supplies,” he said.

Brock Wagner, the owner of Saint Arnold’s, always used to joke when he gave the brewery tours that “this is what happens when your home-brewing hobby gets out of hand”. Now you know what he means. No Label joins them and Conroe’s Southern Star in the craft beer-making business. I wish them the best, and look forward to sampling their wares some day.

UPDATE: Correction made per comments.

They’re brewing up in Conroe

I’m glad to hear that there’s another microbrewery in the area, and I’ll be keeping my eyes open for Southern Star beer the next time I’m someplace that might have a broad enough selection to include it. One item to note:

[Co-founder Dave] Fougeron also would like to see small breweries become local gathering spots. He and [Brian] Hutchins open their business to the public on Saturdays, offering free tours and handing out samples while Jeff Smith and Steve Sumner of the Outlaw Kookers keep the barbecue pits stoked outside. Fougeron said the tours create “a genuine feeling of community.”

“There should be thousands of breweries in America,” he said. “We’re Americans. We drink beer.”

Brock Wagner, the head of Saint Arnold, agreed that his former employee is both passionate and knowledgeable about his favorite subject. Also, he might be in business at just the right time.

Southern Star is only the second craft brewery in the Houston area, and it’s one of just a handful statewide. Yet there is something of a building boom going on, particularly in the Austin area, where four already are open and several others are at least in the planning stages.

Wagner, who runs the oldest and largest craft brewery in the state, sees plenty of room for growth. In Houston, he said, craft beer makes up less than 3 percent of sales.

“Long term,” he said, “I think we should all be working toward making craft beer about 10 percent of the market down here. That will take us all working together.”

Hopefully, one thing they’ll all be working together on is to improve the state of beer in Texas by trying once again to pass a bill that would allow microbreweries to sell their beer on premises. They made some progress in a second attempt at it in 2009 but ran into the usual resistance from the beer distributors’ lobby. Having one more microbrewer in Texas won’t make that much difference, but every little bit helps.