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Holler Brewing

Beer to go is here

Hooray!

The highly anticipated beer-to-go legislation officially [went] into effect Sunday, and local breweries [celebrated] the occasion by offering up cans, growlers and crowlers of beer for visitors to bring home — a simple act that has been illegal in the state of Texas until now.

“We still don’t really believe it,” said John Holler, who along with his wife Kathryn, owns Holler Brewing in Houston’s Sawyer Yards district. “Without this, our beer would never be in a can, because at our size, it just wouldn’t make sense to sell cans unless we could sell them directly to the consumer.”

John Holler has been a key part of the push to help Texas become the 50th state in the nation to allow beer-to-go sales, joining the board of the Craft Brewers Guild. While Texas craft brewers spent more than a decade advocating for beer to go, it wasn’t until the run-up to this 86th Legislature that the movement reached is full force with the formation of the guild, a political action committee.

[…]

For some of the city’s larger breweries, the novelty of being able to sip their beer from cans isn’t quite as potent as it is for Holler, where beers have always been available exclusively from the tap.

At Southern Star Brewing in Conroe, brewers will celebrate by releasing some of their specialty beers, like a tequila-aged Trippel and others in can and growler-fills.

It’s been too long since I’ve visited some of these places. Time to start planning some Saturday outings, now that the heat should begin dissipating a bit. We wanted this for a long time, now let’s make it count.

Is the craft brewing business in a slowdown?

Item one.

Alluring as those wide-open skies and rugged vistas may be, the hardscrabble life in West Texas can be unforgiving. And so it was last year for the region’s popular and award-winning craft brewer, Big Bend Brewing Co., despite a planned expansion to San Antonio that might have turned its luck around.

In December, the 6-year-old brewery surrendered to multiple challenges and announced it was shutting down Big Bend Brewing’s hometown operations and taproom in Alpine and abandoning the move to San Antonio.

“We had high aspirations and lofty goals, and we did everything we could to achieve them,” read the Dec. 21 Facebook post announcing the closure. “We remain hopeful and are working hard to make the stoppage temporary. The goal is to come back better than ever. We are no stranger to adversity – forging a craft beer brand in the rugged frontier of West Texas is no easy task.”

[…]

“The main trend is if you’re a local brewery doing small-batch beers, with an old-school small brewpub and restaurant model – those that are still popping up – if they are well-enough financed, they seem to be doing OK as local or hyperlocal places,” said Travis Poling, co-author of San Antonio Beer: Alamo City History by the Pint.

“But the time of the large regional breweries seems to have kind of come and gone,” Poling added. “Everybody wants to be the next Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams, but … the barrier to entry is a lot higher because there’s a lot more competition not just from larger regional brewers, but also the regional breweries bought up by Anheuser-Busch, Coors, and others.”

The Brewers Association reports there are 6,372 breweries in the nation, and of the $111 billion overall beer market, craft beer accounts for $26 billion, up 5 percent in 2017. Texas ranks ninth in the country for most craft brewers with 251 total breweries, or 1.3 per capita. The industry had a $4.5 million impact on the state’s economy in 2016.

In March, Brewers Association Chief Economist Bart Watson wrote, “Compared to many parts of the U.S. economy, craft’s 5% growth rate [in 2017] is quite strong. That said, it’s probably not as strong as many breweries expected as they built their business plan.”

“It’s a difficult time to invest in craft beer,” [Mahala Guevara, vice president of operations for Big Bend Brewing] said. “There’s been an enormous number of breweries opening in the last five years, and we’ve seen a lot of high-profile closures and reductions-in-force and layoffs. Five years ago, the market was going wild, everyone was making money, experiencing tremendous growth. Now there’s depressed investment in craft beer, so even though people are interested, everyone wants to wait out the business cycle.”

I don’t think the cash flow problems of one brewer in a rural part of the state is representative, but I’m keeping an open mind. Item two:

“I think people think Houston is getting saturated, because they haven’t been to a big beer city,” Platypus Brewing’s head brewer Kerry Embertson told me last week during an interview. “Like, Houston’s beer scene is relatively new. Yes. There are the St. Arnold and Southern Stars that have been around forever. But there’s a bunch of people like us that have been around three years or less. There’s plenty of room to make good beer, and customers will come to your place. Especially as spread out as this city is.”

John Holler, who co-owns Holler Brewing along with his wife Kathryn, just a couple blocks from Platypus echoed his colleague’s thoughts.

“I think Houston can definitely accommodate more breweries,” Holler said, during that same interview for an upcoming story. (Sorry! No spoilers!) “The key is, you know, we can accommodate probably 20 or 30 more Platypuses or Hollers. But not 20 or 30 more Saint Arnold.”

This story was based in part on a recent NYT story on the slowdown in growth of the craft brewing industry, and noted the switch from beer to cider at Town in City Brewery. As far as Houston goes, I think John Holler is exactly right. There’s still plenty of room here for small breweries that mostly serve the neighborhoods they’re in and a few bars and restaurants in town. Very few, if any, of those places are going to grow up to be Saint Arnold, or Karbach. Nothing wrong with that, and no reason to panic. Just a bit of perspective.

The year in beer

It was pretty good overall for Texas craft brewers, especially in Houston.

Texas craft brewers will close the books on 2017 having made more beer, opened more breweries and garnered more national recognition for the state than ever.

Looking ahead to 2018, Houston appears positioned to keep the party going. Commercial real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield recently identified Harris County as second in the nation for number of breweries in planning.

Many of these newcomers are likely to be small, inviting people to walk or bicycle from nearby homes or workplaces. But at least two established local companies recently announced major expansions that should continue the trend of making breweries bona fide tourist destinations.

Such developments have craft industry leaders upbeat about the future, though they are still seething over a law change enacted last spring that they believe has hurt the value of breweries and penalizes those seeking to grow significantly.

The law now forces breweries that reach a certain size to sell and buy back their own beer before they can offer it in their taprooms, cutting into profit margins. Because the size restriction includes production totals of parent companies, brewers fear it could deter future acquisitions – not just by global giants but from other craft breweries as well.

Charles Vallhonrat, executive director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, this week called the measure “nonsensical” and pledged to continue efforts to “modernize” the alcoholic beverage code.

Regardless, for the most part and in spite of a historic flood that knocked much of the Texas Gulf Coast onto its heels, it was a year of rewards and resilience for local brewers.

The trend these days is for the breweries to focus on taproom sales aimed at neighborhood customers. I’ve had a hard time keeping up with all the new construction, but I know there are more options near where I live now, and more are coming. One of those expansions mentioned above will be pretty close to my home, more of a bike ride than a walk but exactly the sort of thing that would be appealing on a warm day. Saint Arnold is building a beer garden in the space next door to their facility, which ought to be awesome. Maybe one day we’ll get our Legislature to fix the idiot anti-consumer beer laws we have in this state, but until then it’s on us to support these vibrant job (and beer) creators.