The craft beer craze is hopping its way into Southeast Texas. Events popping up like the Art of Beer exhibition at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, and beer tastings at Del Papa Industries and Winestyles, all in Beaumont, seem to show an interest among a rising number of folks in the area in exploring something different when it comes to a cold brew.
“(Beer) has a strong human element to it … the culture of beer has really taken off in Texas,” says Brandon East, co-founder of Texasbrews.org and craft beer advocate. “Craft beer is a state of mind. There is a level of alchemy built into it. When somebody is crafting something, there is artistry and heavy science behind it. That is what spurs the American ingenuity and the excitement of brewing, something that can truly be unique.”
“Brewing beer is an art,” says Corey Nelson, owner and brewer at Cornell Brewing in Bevil Oaks.
Beer as a work of art might sound contradictive or even laughable. But to some in Southeast Texas, the crafting of beer is serious business.
Nelson, who brews his beer for distribution in kegs for sale at local bars such as Major League Grill and Madison’s on Dowlen and has been brewing for 16 years, says not just anybody can buy a kit from a brew store, mix ingredients together and come up with the greatest beer ever made.
“You’re laying down layers of hops,” Nelson said. “You’re laying down bitterness. You’re laying down aromas in your beer. These are all added at separate times. You’ve got to know the times. … You’ve got to know when to add your hops … what grains to add. It’s just not going and picking up a kit or reading a book. You’ve got to get together recipes and figure out which ones you like. You have to tweak recipes and know how to tweak them. You’ve got to get in there and just start brewing.”
Craft brewers are small, independent and traditional, according to the American Brewers Association. Total annual production for craft brewers consists of 6 million barrels of beer or less. The Brewers Association further defines craft brewers as microbreweries, each with annual production of less than 15,000 U.S. barrels. There are 1,759 breweries in the United States; of this number, only 43 are not defined as craft brewers.
According to Texasbrews.org, as compared to the rest of the country, Texas is a latecomer to the craft beer movement. With a few notable exceptions – Shiner has been producing beer for more than a century now, and Saint Arnold bloomed along with the craft beer movement in 1994 – many smaller breweries didn’t survive.
“A lot of brewpubs (an establishment selling beer brewed on the premises and often including a restaurant) opened in Houston during the micro boom of the ’90s and failed— Houston Brewery, Village Brewery, Bank Draft, plus a couple in Galveston, Clear Lake and other surrounding areas,” said Ronnie Crocker, author of “Houston Beer.”
One example closer to home was the failed experiment by the Handlebar and Grill in Beaumont to attempt to brew and sell their own beer. The owner during the early ’90s attempted to brew and sell his own beer at the location that is now Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, but the idea failed miserably, according to Terry Humphrey, former manager of the bar at the time.
“The last few years that I was there the owner bought a microbrewery and had it installed,” Humphrey said. “There was a lot of interest in it at first, but the sales fell off because the brewmaster wasn’t into it. He made a few batches of beer, but some of them didn’t come out right — they tasted funny. Instead of spending the time to make the beer come out right, (the owner) was just interested in selling the beer. He didn’t want to put the hours into making good beer. Within six months of buying (the mircrobrewery) and operating it, it was closed down.”
With stories of failure such as these, what inspires small-time brewers and beer evangelists like the Yeast Priests of Beaumont to continue to push for a craft beer movement and pursue their dream of one day selling the beer that they home brew?
“Starting out, originally, (we) wanted to start a craft beer movement in Beaumont and get out the idea that there are other beers that you can try besides Budweiser and Miller Lite,” said Mike O’Pry, co-founder of the Yeast Priests. “We’re starting to see that movement.”
And when consumers choose beers brewed and bottled in Texas, their money stays in Texas.
Jude Messina, owner of Debbs Liquor in Beaumont, has noticed one Texas craft beer in particular leaping off the shelves.
“The Divine Reserve 12 from Saint Arnold was released today (Tuesday, July 31). … It is usually released about once a year. We got our allocation today, and it’s almost gone already,” Messina said.
O’Pry from the Yeast Priests highly recommends the beer, which is bottled in Houston.
“Every year it’s exciting to see what will come next in the Divine Reserve series,” O’Pry said. “DR12 is different than their previous barley wine styles and especially a change from the Pumpkinator. Make sure to let this one warm up to get the full flavor. I highly recommend buying at least a six pack; drink two now, two in the fall or winter and two at least a year from now.”
In addition to encouraging a craft beer movement in Southeast Texas, the Yeast Priests also are pushing for more access to that craft beer and want stores in the area to start carrying growlers.
“(Growlers) are 64-ounce big bottles, in which you can go to a store that sells beer and wine only, and they’ll fill it up for you to take it to go,” O’Pry said. “You can share it with your friends, and you aren’t subjected to buying a six pack. It’s usually cheaper because there are no bottling fees. It’s like getting beer on tap.”
These guys aren’t simply promoting more access to beer in the area; they are brewing it in their garage, as well.
“We use an all-grain method called mini mash brewing (involving base malts that must be mashed to convert the starches to sugars) and extract the sugar out of grain so we can create mash,” O’Pry said.
The Yeast Priests use basic home brewing equipment they either built or purchased and usually produce around 5 gallons of beer per brewing.
“With a few hundred dollars, you can get started,” said Randy Edwards, co-founder of the group.
But getting started as a manufacturer of beer isn’t as simple, and the Yeast Priests know that in pursuing their dream of selling beer, they might meet some obstacles along the way.
“I think it’s every home brewer’s aspiration to make it to that next level,” said O’Pry. He realizes, however, that the money and the legal paperwork will be barriers to overcome.
There’s a lot of risk involved in the transition from backyard brewing to commercial brewing, according to Brandon East of Texasbrews.org. “Some brewers put their whole life savings into it,” he said. “Equipment is not cheap and neither are ingredients. Startup costs can run as high as $200,000.”
John and Tammy McKissack, owners of Texas Big Beer Brewery in Buna, said the move from home brewing to commercial wasn’t an easy one.
“The three tank kettles cost $750 each, our three plastic fermenters were $500 each, and the bright tank was on sale for $2,600,” John said. This doesn’t count the pumps and hoses.
John priced a stainless steel bottler for $8,600 before deciding to make his own from wood instead for around $180. The McKissacks said it took them two years to get to the manufacturing level, and 14 months of that time involved the licensing process. After dealing with the federal level, they then had to deal with the state and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) and labeling laws.
“In Texas, it was against the law to have the word beer (on a label) if it had more than 4 percent alcohol by weight,” John said. “So we couldn’t even put the name of our brewery, Texas Big Beer Brewery (on the label). So we did a DBA (Doing Business As) with a spelling of beer as ‘bier,’ but about the time we submitted our application, the federal court said that it was unconstitutional to do that. The federal judge said, ‘You can’t say that they can’t call a beer a beer. That’s like saying you have a dairy cow and you can’t call it dairy. You can only call something dairy that comes from a four-legged bird.’”
In addition to birdbrain labeling laws, Texas Big Beer has had to deal with problems from Mother Nature and the water district in Buna.
“We’re having issues. … When it rains, the Water District adds chemicals to the water, which gives our beer an off flavor,” John said. “I had to dump two fermenters full and we had guys pouring out bottles.”
The McKissacks lost 12 barrels of beer.
To make sure the problem doesn’t happen again, John decided to make his own water with a reverse osmosis water filtration system.
“We’re adding all of our salts, calcium, magnesium and gypsum,” John said. “We’re making the water.”
The McKissacks said they can create water at their brewery matching specifications from water found anywhere in the world.
“I’ve got profiles from London, Germany, Belgium, where different beers are made, he said.” “This will give some of our beers a London style and will make it rich and malty.”
“I’m not going to sell it if it’s not perfect,” said John McKissack, who is also known as Johnny Max not only because of his last name, but also because he likes to brew big, extreme beer and push it to the max.
“Texas Big Beer is producing these high octane bombers (large bottles, usually 22 U.S. fluid ounces), while also trying to make the beer accessible,” East said.
Although Texas Big Beer is just getting started, East said he hopes local breweries like Texas Big Beer and Cornell Brewing will prosper.
“It’s hard to find a good line between doing something for the masses and trying to make a beer that people can really appreciate when transitioning from macrobeers (such as Budweiser) into craft beers,” he said.
East said Cornell Brewing has a different approach than Texas Big Beer when attempting to appeal to beer drinkers in Southeast Texas.
“(Cornell) is trying to (brew) something that has a thread of uniqueness but also is a good beer to transition into craft beer.”
Sites like Texasbrews.org might help get the word out about craft beer brewed in Texas.
“We wanted to create something that is fun, educates, and has good video content,” East said. “It’s just a barebones craft beer advocacy site.”
Another method of advocating craft beer in Southeast Texas is through beer tastings, similar to wine tastings. Rodney Norrell, brand development manager for craft beer at Del Papa, chooses the beer tasting lineup each month at an event put together by the Pint Jockeys, a group of craft beer lovers and Del Papa employees whose Web site, pintjockeys.com, caters to fellow beer aficionados.
“I get input and suggestions, but I’m the one that picks the brands,” said Norrell, a Pint Jockeys member.
On the July 19 beer tasting, two of the beers used humorous sexual innuendo in their names — Rahr to Thee’s Pecker Wrecker and Chatoe Rogue’s OREgasmic Ale, which is, appropriately, produced in the state of Oregon.
“Sometimes we might have a little joke, I guess, but mainly I base (the lineup) on what’s new and what’s interesting,” Norrell said. “If we pick up a new brewer, I’ll do all their beers and nothing else, for example, or if there is a new seasonal or limited release that comes out, I’ll try to include that to give people a chance to taste it.”
The last tasting turned out around 80 beer lovers, and the next testing set for Aug. 16 beginning at 5:30 p.m. will likely feature a Saint Arnold limited Divine Reserve. The tasting is on the third Thursday of every month and is open to the public.
The next craft beer tasting at Winestyles, located at 4008 Dowlen Road, is set for Aug. 15.
“There are usually about five different beers that we taste,” said Kandy Daniel, owner of Winestyles.”
When choosing the beers for the tasting events, Daniel said she considers several factors.
“It depends on what’s new and what’s available,” she said. “Whenever there is (beer) available that is local, I always include that. Texas Big Beer has been in my tasting before, and Johnny Max has attended my events.”
It costs $6 to taste, but if you are a Winestyles Beer Club member, the tasting is free. The club membership fee is $34.99 a month and includes a 5 percent discount on any beer you buy from the store and a box of seven or eight beers, usually limited editions, with tasting notes offering written testimony about the aroma, taste identification, acidity, structure, texture and balance of the beer.
Evidence that craft beer is growing in popularity throughout Southeast Texas can be seen through the success of the Art of Beer event hosted by the Art Museum of Southeast Texas. According to Lynn Castle, executive director of the museum, when the event first launched in 2006, there were 50 people in attendance — last year there were 600.
“Part of the appeal is the number of different beers we serve … over 60 different types,” Castle said. “But we also have really great food. … People get to try gourmet chocolates. There are German sausage with mustards that you can try. It’s just a really good time.”
Castle said the event was originally created was to attract a younger audience and garner interest in the museum, and has been successful in doing so. The Art of Beer takes place on Oct. 4 at 6 p.m., and there will also be live entertainment. In addition, the Yeast Priests will be in attendance to demonstrate to the public how to brew beer.
East says Southeast Texans should attend the event, let loose and try something new. Tickets are $60.
“Craft beer is not intimidating,” East says. “Stepping outside your comfort zone, especially with beer, can be truly enlightening and empowering. Life is way too short to be complacent and not try new things. There is a great craft beer for everyone – be it hoppy, sour, sweet, light, crisp, roasty, floral or citrusy. I encourage Southeast Texans to go forth, explore, and have fun. Cheers!”