Houston's Beer King Unloads

Houston's craft beer king opens up on staying relevant, the Sam Adams controversy and a greedy new wave

Houston craft beer king opens up on staying relevant, Sam Adams furor

Brock Wagner Saint Arnold Brewing Company
Saint Arnold founder Brock Wagner sits down for his first full length CultureMap interview. Photo courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company

Brock Wagner has a lot on his mind. The founder of Saint Arnold Brewing Company appears to be at a transition point. He's spent 20 years building Saint Arnold into Houston's premier craft brewery, but, as he notes, "We also don’t believe that our being here for 20 years is particularly relevant to the craft beer drinker."

Just ask Jim Koch. The founder of the Boston Beer Company, which is famous for Sam Adams Boston Lager, found himself in the spotlight recently when Boston magazine profile portrayed him as "pissed off" about the way some craft beer drinks and craft beer bars have moved on from the company that launched the modern craft beer movement. Although Saint Arnold produces much less beer than the Boston Beer Company, it does occupy the preeminent place in the local beer scene. 

In addition, Saint Arnold has revealed plans to grow its physical plant in order to increase production capacity and add a beer garden.  

What does Wagner think is Saint Arnold's place in the Houston beer scene? What are the brewery's plans for the next five years? What aspect of some of the new breweries concerns Wagner? What's in the Saint Arnold fermenters now that people will be lining up for later this year?

Find the answers to these questions and much more in this exclusive CultureMap interview:

CultureMap: You just celebrated 20 years of business. Where do you see Saint Arnold’s position in the Houston beer scene?

Brock Wagner: Hopefully, people, when they think of craft beer in Houston, the first thing that comes to mind will be Saint Arnold. It’s been great to see all the new breweries opening over the past several years, and I think that it’s nice to have a community of brewers here now.

For a long time, being the only one here for so many years, there was a period of time when I was OK with that because we were kind of establishing ourselves in the market. Then there was a period where we felt like, gosh, we’ve been at this for awhile. It would be great to see some other people open to help attract more attention to craft beer, because the general awareness of craft beer wasn’t entering the populace’s consciousness.

That’s where I think we really kind of continued doing the pioneering work and trying to make people aware of what craft beer was.

I would say for about five years I was hoping we would be the only ones. Then I figured others would open, but it actually took 15 years for others to start opening. And there was a good reason for that, because the market was still so small. It was such a difficult business. We watched all the other craft breweries that opened in the area close while we can kept trudging along.

The other way that I see us today is our mindset is very much we’ve been here for 20 years. We do want to be the first craft beer that people think of here, but we also don’t believe that our being here for 20 years is particularly relevant to the craft beer drinker. What is important is, what are we doing today? How are we innovating? How relevant are our year round beers to people’s tastes and quality and all those important things?

To me, it’s a great thing to point out to people that we’ve been here for 20 years, but I don’t expect people to buy Saint Arnold because of that. I expect them to buy our beer because of what we’re doing today.

CM: Have you read the Jim Koch article in Boston Magazine?

BW: Yes (laughs)

CM: Do you have an opinion about it?

I’ve known Jim. I was on the board of the brewer’s association with him. There is no question he is a fierce competitor. He’s done a lot of good for the industry. As a person, I like him. I enjoy having a beer with him. He’s a good guy.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him kind of get pilloried in the press for his behavior. I can both understand his position and how he feels, but sometimes, because you feel that way doesn’t necessarily mean you want to let others know you feel that way. And how you present it and how you behave with accounts and how you talk to other people.

To some extent, when I read an article like that, I wonder, what is the level of veracity? How much did the reporter go in with an opinion, and they were looking to validate it?

CM: We would never do that.

BW: I’m glad to hear that. But, the market is what the market is. To wish that you didn’t have competitors or that they were doing something different — that’s just not realistic. We have to continue giving you a reason to buy our beer. He has to continue to give the customer a reason to buy Sam Adams.

 "Our customers don’t owe us anything else." 

Just because we helped develop a market, that’s great. We benefit from that. We have a certain position in this market because of that, but it doesn’t go any further than that. Our customers don’t owe us anything else.

CM: Do you worry that Saint Arnold might someday become not cool or not be on tap walls at craft beer bars?

BW: I hope not. We certainly work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen. A lot of it has to be what our attitude is. I think if our attitude was ‘Look, I brewed this amber ale. It’s a great beer. It was cutting edge in 1994. You owe it to me to have that on your tap wall.’ If that’s my attitude, I suspect we won’t be on some people’s tap walls.

But if I come in and say ‘Amber Ale is a great beer. We brewed it 20 years ago. It was cutting edge then. It is still an incredibly well-balanced, nice-drinking, great beer, and we have this beer and we have this beer and we’ll periodically do something like take Amber Ale and dry hop it with Mosaic and Cascade just so you can see kind of interesting experiments with how the hops affect the flavor of the beer.’ Then I think it’s much more likely that regular old Amber Ale will be sitting on that tap wall.

If it’s not on the tap wall, then I can’t pitch a hissy fit about it. I have to give that customer something else they want to put on that tap wall.

Markets change. There are market disruptions constantly. I suspect that we are going to see a market disruption in craft beer sometime in the next 10 years. I don’t know if it’s going to be two years from now or five years from now.

I don’t know where it’s going to come from. I don’t know if the big breweries will manage to do something that works in craft beer. If something happens where consumers’ tastes change. If you start to see the market flatten and behavior of the breweries change.

There’s so many different — disruption will happen. It’s just how and when. Are you prepared for it? Are you prepared to evolve? Because if you don’t evolve, you will become irrelevant.

CM: You’ve acquired some additional property. What physical changes do you anticipate making in the next three to five years?

BW: There’s a couple of things we need to be doing. One is, when we built this space, when we moved here, I thought it would take us 15 to 20 years before we reached our production capacity. Now we’ve been here for five years, and we have moved the final tanks into place that we can fit in here. We have no ability to expand capacity-wise beyond what we have already put in place, and, frankly, at conservative growth estimates that should hold us through most of 2016, unless we have some really unexpected, really strong growth.

 "The other big part that I’m very excited about, and I’m definitely looking forward to working on is creating a beer garden." 

At that point, we need to do something more. Part of the extra property is for production and expansion.

The other big part that I’m very excited about, and I’m definitely looking forward to working on is creating a beer garden.

CM: What will that look like?

BW: I couldn’t tell you yet, because I don’t know. I definitely have some design ideas in my head. Some of which I’m not ready to share with anybody, because we’re at such an early stage that I don’t know how it might morph and change. I would like to have an interior area where people can hang out and definitely have a nice outdoor space. I’d like to take advantage of our views of downtown that we have.

My ultimate goal is to create a beer garden that is an internationally known destination because of the architecture, how it draws you in, makes you want to be here. Of course, we want to have people enjoying great beer, too.

CM: That seems like the most important thing

BW: I would actually say it’s half. Our mission statement, which I wrote in 1993, was ‘Brew and sell the best beer in Texas and create an institution that Houston and the region is proud of.’ I’m actually equally passionate about both of those aspects of the mission.

I’m very passionate about the beer. If there’s any part of the business that I love to be involved in, wish I could still be more involved in than I am, it’s the brewing. I’m still very much a part of the process in our brewing side.

The other part, which I look at as creating community, I’m equally passionate about.

CM: Is that’s why you host all the events like the One Pot Showdown?

BW: Find ways to bring people together, create something. I want to create a tourist destination for Houston, and certainly there’s a business aspects of it. But it’s also to create that environment where people want to come to Houston, where there’s something really positive they remember and associate the city with.

I don’t mean to infer there’s nothing else positive, but it’s an additive element to make Houston a better place.

CM: Are there any breweries you visited who are inspiring the beer garden?

BW: There’s one I’d like to go visit. I know the guys but I’ve never actually visited, and that’s Troeg in Pennsylvania. I think Stone has done a good job with it. Certainly Dogfish Head and Sam’s expanding empire.

 "If I have any concerns in the industry it’s that I do see a difference in culture in some breweries opening today. That they are focused on business. They think this is a way to make money." 

I think there’s a high level of focus on community among brewers. I would say that’s especially true of craft breweries that opened around the time that we did.

If I have any concerns in the industry it’s that I do see a difference in culture in some breweries opening today. That they are focused on business. They think this is a way to make money, and they see an opportunity.

Whereas we opened and other breweries who opened around the same time, we all knew this was not a way to make money. We did it because we had to, because it was a calling. Because of that there was a strong sense of community between us. We all helped each other, visited each other, supported each other.

I think that is one of the aspects of the culture of craft brewing that is so appealing to people. I do see new breweries opening that’s part of the attraction to them, but I have also seen an alarming number that are doing it because it’s a business and they think they can make money.

CM: They probably are making money. Craft beer is very popular right now.

BW: It is. It absolutely is, and that’s what our country is based on, capitalism (laughs). But I do believe that for craft beer to be as relevant 20 years from now and 50 years from now, I think the key will be, can we maintain the community of brewers?

If we are successful at that, then I think craft brewing 20 years from now, 50 years from now will look very much like what it does today. If we’re not successful at maintaining that community of brewers, it will look completely different and more like any other business.

CM: Let me shift you to beer. What is in the fermenters right now that hasn’t been released yet are you particularly excited about?

BW: Well, there’s some DR13 that’s going into bourbon barrels . . . It won’t be the next Bishop’s Barrel, but it will be a future Bishop’s Barrel. Typically, they’re about a year in the barrels. It depends on the beer.

The next Icon is in the fermenters. I have not tasted the big brew yet. I tasted the test brew. It’s a rye IPA. It’s really good.   

CM: Have you been satisfied with the response to the Bishop’s Barrel series?

BW: Really, the Bishop’s Barrel is such a small amount of production. It has no effect on our overall business, but it’s fun for us. We love doing it. I love going up to the barrel room and tasting the barrels. When we’re ready to start blending, thinking about how we want to blend, what we’re going to do. It’s definitely been a lot of fun, and it’s certainly something we’d like to expand.

Probably the biggest frustration is finding, whenever you’re dealing with such a small quantity of beer and so many people want it is, how do you keep everybody happy? That’s the biggest issue.

CM: That’s the same problem with the Divine series. It’s hard to get it to everyone who wants it.

BW: I think most people who want Divine are able to get it. Our brewery is bigger, so the batches are bigger that we do of it than they were when we were at the old place, but it sells out even faster today. Hopefully, everybody is able to get some and try some.

I found a few years ago when everybody was standing in line at Spec’s and I went out to say hi and kind of to apologize for people having to stand in line to get it. What I discovered was that everyone was happy to stand in line and enjoyed it. It was another form of community. They were all sitting there talking to each other about beer and about each other. For them, it was being part of an event. It actually added to the experience.

That was not my plan when we came up with the Divines. My initial goal was to have it so it would sell out in 10 days to two weeks was my goal.

CM: But now it sells out in 48 hours?

BW: More places it sells out in two to three hours of when they put it on the floor. I didn’t hear many places that had it the day following the delivery. I’m sure there were some, but I didn’t hear about it.

CM: The last thing I want to ask you about is on the legislative side. Do you have anything you’re pushing for during the current session of the Texas Legislature?

BW: We do. One of the obvious ones is we got on-premise sales last session. We’d love to get off-premise sales. That’s something that would really benefit craft breweries in Texas. There’s some little clean up items, more technical in nature that need to get passed. Mistakes in how the brewpub bill was written that doesn’t effect us at all. That’s probably the biggest thing.

We have a lot of people involved now in legislative activities. For a bunch of years in the past, it was just me or just me and Brad Farbstein at Real Ale. We were pretty much on our own up there. Scott Metzger when he got very involved in Freetail a couple of sessions ago. Now there’s a pretty large number of people involved. I’m not taking quite the lead in being up in Austin this session.

CM: Does it help get the legislature’s attention that this movement is bigger and more of an economic force?

BW: Absolutely. There are craft breweries in so many more districts than there used to be. They still tend to be concentrated. If you look at the State of Texas and you start mapping where craft breweries are, there are big clusters. There’s a lot of districts that still don’t have craft breweries, but there’s no question that it is easier. We are taken much more seriously. We’re much more organized. We’re much more relevant to the legislature than we were a few years ago.

A few years ago I’d be standing up there jumping and shouting. People would say yes, I agree with what you’re saying, but I’m not spending any of my political capital on this issue. Now there’s a lot more going on, so people are a little bit more engaged and will to not just listen to us but maybe actually get behind a bill. A few years ago (State Rep.) Jessica Farrar was about the only person who would promote our agenda.

CM: Do you think we’ll see off premise sales?

BW: We’ll have to see.

CM: I think that’s everything. Thank you. 

BW: You’re welcome.