with Brock Wagner
Saint Arnold Brewing Co., Houston, TX
What do you hope your fans will take away from your Moveable Yeast project?
The primary goal of the series was to demonstrate to beer lovers―who may not be as familiar with yeast as, say, homebrewers would be―how large an effect yeast has on the flavor of beer. People talk about malt and hops a lot, but yeast is kind of forgotten.
That’s what started my whole thought process. We had some extra wort from a batch of Lawnmower several years ago. We’d filled up one of our yeast propagation units, and we had some hefeweizen yeast, so we just tossed it in with the Lawnmower wort for no other reason than we didn’t want to put the wort down the drain. We let it ferment out and tasted it, and went “Wow, that’s really good.” We jokingly called it Weedwacker at the brewery.
Skip forward a few years. I think it was after a conversation about hefeweizen with somebody who didn’t understand that it was the yeast, not the wheat, that was making all that clove and banana flavor. I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to do a series that takes our regular beers and ferments them with different yeast? That way, you could have a side-by-side tasting. The reaction has been great. In fact, Weedwacker will probably come back this year as a permanent beer.
Which has been the most dramatic or the most satisfying example?
Weedwacker has been the most popular one. But my personal favorite so far [is Farmer Brown’s Ale]. We took our brown ale, and pitched it with a saison yeast. It had that nice spicy earthiness and dryness that the saison yeast gives to a beer. Something that I found interesting is that our brown ale has a little bit of a chocolaty note to it, but when it fermented with the saison yeast, that was completely absent.
Most people would have attributed the chocolate note to the malt.
Right. And certainly the malt did contribute the chocolate, but it was really the malt with our house yeast strain that gave that round, chocolaty flavor. When we switched the yeast, suddenly that malt note disappeared. I actually found it to be a delicious beer.
Saison is not a style I always turn to, because I find the yeast dryness lacks a bit of balance. The rich brown ale wort contributed some maltiness that works really well with that yeast.
Are these beers draft only, or can people get paired bottles to taste at home?
They’re only on draft. It’s possible that we’ll re-visit some of them, but it may be the others are just a one-time deal.
It’s a cool experiment. You’ve given people a very pleasurable way to learn about these differences.
I found at some places people would set it up so they could do side-by-side, but honestly, most of the time people were just trying a single pint at a time―which was why it was important that the beers were quite tasty unto themselves. I’ve been quite pleased with the results, just because of the conversations this initiated.
I read that, in taking up brewing, you’re returning to a family tradition.
I would say that we have a long family tradition of alcohol! I don’t know of any actual brewers before myself, but if you go back four greats, my great-great-great-great grandfather was an alcohol merchant in the Alsace region of France/Germany (whoever happened to own it at that particular time). Then my great-great-great grandfather left Alsace and in 1862, I believe, he opened a bar in San Francisco. Originally, it was called Wagner’s Beer Hall. Now it’s called The Saloon. Today, it’s the oldest existing bar in San Francisco.
Is it a good beer bar?
I wouldn’t call it a beer bar. I’d call it more of a dive. If you go there during the day, you’ll have more teeth in your mouth than the entire rest of the bar. But in the evening, it’s a pretty hopping place, with great bands.
We thought it had burned in the fire after the big earthquake. But one of my aunts did some research, and found old family pictures. The street names had changed―it was DuPont Street; now it’s Grant Street. She went to that corner, checked the pictures and went “I’ll be damned. It’s the same building.”
It turns out that there had been a brothel upstairs from the bar. When the fire broke out, all the fireman took off to save the brothel, and thus the bar was saved. There’s even a door to the brothel in the bar. I’ve tried to connect our family to the brothel, but it seems that happened after the bar passed out of family hands. I like the story just the same.
Like many people who open microbreweries, you were a homebrewer who had another career first.
Yes, I was an investment banker―mergers and acquisitions and corporate finance―for about seven years after college.
Does that background make you different in the brewing world?
It doesn’t so much make me different, as it makes me the same as so many people who got into this business in the 80s and 90s: we came from doing something interesting, but said “Screw it. I want to do something I’m really passionate about.”
Coming out of finance helped me understand how companies work. Opening a brewery in Houston in 1994, you needed to be on your game from both the brewing and business sides, because the market was not there yet in Texas. We had to watch our pennies and not make any financial mistakes, or we never would have made it.
You had to bring your audience along with you, if that was the state of craft brewing in Texas at the time.
Yeah, there were 37 craft beer lovers in Houston when we opened, and I knew them all personally. It’s really interesting to see how the market’s changed between then and now. In 1994, people in their mid-twenties looked at beer as Bud Light/Miller Lite/Coors Light. They had near-religious discussions about which one you were drinking. Craft beer wasn’t on the radar. Today, people in their mid-twenties see beer as this wide variety of flavors and styles. It’s not that they don’t drink light beer―unfortunately they still do―but that’s not the only thing that exists in their world.
I don’t know how much as to do with what we’ve done―I like to think we’ve contributed―but craft beer has been around now for most of these people’s existence, so on some level it starts to sink in. People want flavor in their food, they want local, and they want to buy the products from companies that are involved in their communities.
You seem to be engaged with your customers. Besides the Moveable Yeast project, I see you are also involved in cask ale, which is also an educational effort at this stage.
We’ve been doing cask ale now since 1996. We introduced it primarily because I wanted to drink it. I went to The Ginger Man in Houston, one of the oldest craft beer bars, and said to the manager “Hey, wouldn’t you like to pour some cask ale?” They agreed, and they did the whole thing right, with a beer engine and a special cabinet so you could have one cask resting while you poured from another. I drank my fair share of it. We were the only ones doing cask ale for about ten years, and now that’s really taking off in Texas.
I remember the first time I had cask ale, which was when I was visiting microbreweries around the country before we opened Saint Arnold. It was at Bert Grant’s brewpub in Yakima. I tried it and went “Wow, this is really good.”
So you didn’t think “warm, flat beer.”
Not at all. It’s a funny thing about our beers, when they warm up, they’ll open up and taste even better. I actually did a beer dinner a couple of weeks ago where we used our spring bock twice with the meal: at a fairly cool temperature (40-45 degrees) with one of the main courses, and then for dessert, they served figs wrapped in bacon with the spring bock, but we let it warm up to about 60 degrees. All the sweetness came out, and it was a beautiful pairing.
Do you actually get into the brewhouse anymore?
I don’t push the buttons or turn the valves anymore, but I’m very much involved in beer development, tasting the batches and helping to adjust recipes. I still walk the tanks a couple of times a week, since this is probably my favorite part of the business. I’m not doing it as much as I once was, but it’s not as if the brewery has become a black box that beer comes out of.
What do you do when you’re not in the middle of beer?
Well, I used to ski every winter, but this is the first time I’ve skied in 18 years―coincidentally, that’s when I started working on opening a brewery! It’s taken this long to get to the point when I can take a vacation again.