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.