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Saint Arnold, And Texas Craft Brewing Industry, Mark Twentieth Anniversary

The state’s oldest craft brewer shipped its first keg June 9, 1994.

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The tank farm, where Saint Arnold brews its beer. Several of the tanks are named after other patron saints of brewing (Sixtus, Ursula) — others, not (Tweedledum, Tweedledee).

This century-old building in Houston’s Fifth Ward used to serve as a food service warehouse for HISD. Today, the main floor is lined with row upon row of giant, conical tanks.

“What are we listening to here?”

“You are listening to the noise of beer brewing, I guess.”

It’s a symphony that runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Lennie Ambrose, Saint Arnold’s marketing and events manager, gives a breakdown of the orchestra.

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The raw product: malted barley, stored in Saint Arnold’s malt room.

“You’ve got bubbling from fermentation,” Ambrose says. “You’ve got the centrifuge working. And then of course, too, the sound of construction going on.”

The brewery is upgrading to increase its capacity to 240 thousand barrels a year, more than double its current production.

The craft beer craze came to Texas relatively late. President Carter deregulated the American beer market in the late 1970s. That led to a revival first of home brewing, then of small, independent breweries. But when Brock Wagner launched Saint Arnold — shipping his first keg of ale on June 9, 1994 — the local market still heavily favored the big labels.

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Saint Arnold’s grain silos, painted by Houston graffiti artist Gonzo 247. A truck operated by Saint Arnold’s distributor, Silver Eagle, sits at the loading dock to the lower right.

“If you asked people, ‘What kind of beer do you drink?’ it was Bud, Miller, or Coors, and the laws in Texas made it really challenging to change people’s perception of what craft beer was,” Wagner says.

A company that could afford a major TV ad campaign could easily sell beer all over Texas. But startups lack that kind of capital, and state law made it hard for brewers to use more affordable marketing techniques. Then about ten years ago, Wagner says, there was a generational shift.

“The people coming of age, their view of what beer was changed,” Wagner says. “What we noticed is that if you asked, ‘What kind of beer do you drink?’ it became, ‘What style do you drink?’ Pale ales, IPAs [India Pale ales], Hefeweizens — their view of beer was a wide spectrum of flavors.”

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The barrel room, where beer is aged and flavored in casks originally used for rum, wine, or in this case, bourbon.

Saint Arnold’s sales started to grow by 20% a year. And the company’s breakout helped open the doors for other local craft breweries – companies like Karbach in Houston, Southern Star in Conroe, and No Label in Katy. Today, Texas hosts seventy-five craft breweries, with more than a dozen in the Houston area alone.

A 2012 study prepared by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild puts the industry’s economic impact on the state at more than $600 million per year. The trade group says that’s likely to increase nearly tenfold by 2020. That’s thanks in part to reforms passed by the Texas legislature last year, loosening the state’s restrictions on marketing and distribution for small brewers.

Scott Metzger, founder of San Antonio-based Freetail Brewing, recently addressed the House Economic & Small Business Development Committee on behalf of the Brewers Guild. He says more reforms are needed to help Texas brewers to compete with those in other states.

“Just to make it clear, if the breweries of Texas were regulated by the laws of California, we would be worth more,” Metzger testified.

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The bottling line. Here, beer is poured into bottles, labeled, and packed for shipment. This particular shipment is a run of Santo.

For now, Saint Arnold seems to be doing fine. It’s expanded sales not only across Texas, but also into Louisiana and Florida. But Brock Wagner says turning his brewery into another Sam Adams doesn’t interest him.

“I get approached by distributors every week from around the country,” Wagner says, “and we tell them, ‘No, we just really want to keep focusing on our home state and home city.’”

More than two-thirds of Saint Arnold’s sales are still right here in Houston.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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