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No Label

Coronavirus and beer

Houston’s craft breweries are adjusting to life with closed taprooms and beer-to-go sales.

The team at Saint Arnold Brewing sat down to taste some test beers one Wednesday morning, as its members do when they work on new releases. But their meeting didn’t happen in the usual conference room. Instead, the 10 staffers each sat at a separate table in the brewery’s 10,000-square-foot taproom, with ample social distance between them.

There was another difference from normal times, of course: The vast taproom, typically bustling with people, had not seen a single customer inside since the coronavirus-related stay-at-home order. Across Houston, craft brewers have shut off their taps and closed their beer halls, gardens and patios. But they want Houstonians to know that they’re still brewing.

“Our production side is operating at full strength,” says Brock Wagner, founder and brewer of Saint Arnold.

The team has stopped kegging, but has shifted to canning and bottling more beer than usual in order to ramp up to-go sales, something they had never really focused on before, being a destination brewery. They have also seen an uptick in grocery and liquor store sales as more people hunker down at home.

“Everybody’s consumption of alcohol has probably gone up a little bit,” says Wagner. “I know that mine has.”

These new sources of revenue aren’t even close to making up for the loss of business usually generated from Saint Arnold’s taproom being open, their bar and restaurant orders, and other big buyers such as the Minute Maid stadium. But every little helps, a sentiment many local brewers echo. As taprooms — a major source of revenue for these businesses — lay empty, to-go and off-premise sales, even if a drop in the bucket, have become crucial to the survival of the industry.

Brody Chapman, founder and CEO of Spindletap Brewery, says big stores like H-E-B, Kroger and Spec’s have moved a lot of inventory, which has helped local breweries immensely. He’s also been amazed at how many loyal customers have been supporting their business by taking advantage of Spindletap’s new curbside and drive-through beer sales.

“Without the local support, honestly, we would be dead in the water,” he says.

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There are also efforts to lobby state and local governments for relief, spearheaded by the Texas Brewers Guild. While Gov. Greg Abbott issued a temporary waiver last month relaxing liquor laws for bars and restaurants, breweries are still not able to offer services like direct-to-consumer delivery.

“When breweries are fighting for their lives, it would be nice to have more opportunities to get product out to people,” says Chapman. However, he says that a Houston-based start-up called HopDrop, a craft beer delivery service, has been instrumental to propping up local breweries during this time.

The craft brewing boom in Houston, with its lively on-premises social scene and great dining options, has truly been one of the best things to happen in my thirty-plus years in this town. These guys are huge supporters of school and charitable/non-profit fundraisers as well, which we’re going to need a lot more of in the coming months. There are many good reasons to stock up on your favorite brews at this time, which you can do via curbside pickup at the breweries – It’s Not Hou It’s Me has a handy guide to what’s available – or at the grocery store. As with so many other things, let’s make sure this part of our lives is still there when we get to have a life again.

Oh, and for sure let’s remind the Legislature again that the existing laws we have regarding beer distribution were ridiculous in the best of times and super anti-business in the worst. Let’s hope that our archaic and bizarre beer laws are among the things we learned we could do just fine without when this crisis is over.

(Turns out I was a little skeptical of home beer delivery in general and HopDrop in particular when it first came out. Shows how much I know.)

Craft versus crafty

Just because that beer you’re drinking has a quirky name and a whimsical label on the bottle doesn’t mean it came from a microbrewery.

In a biting opening salvo, a trade group for the nation’s craft brewers on Thursday accused Anheuser-Busch InBev and other major manufacturers of “deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers.”

“We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking,” the Colorado-based Brewers Association said.

The group singled out Blue Moon and the Shock Top line. Those popular beers are owned and produced by, respectively, SABMiller, the same company that makes Miller Lite, and AB-InBev, the Belgium-based purveyor of the ubiquitous Budweiser and Bud Lite.

“You would not know that from looking at the labels,” said Julia Herz, craft beer director for the Brewers Association, which represents such locally owned breweries as Saint Arnold, Southern Star, No Label and Karbach.

There’s more information from the Brewers Association here and here. I don’t think it’s asking a lot to clearly state on the label that thus-and-such beer is a product of whichever brewery. A lot of people are choosy about which businesses they support and which they don’t. More generally, I favor customers getting full information about the products they buy. How can you make an informed choice if you don’t have all the relevant information? Beer, TX has more.

Another microbrewer comes to town

The beer scene in Houston keeps getting better.

Eric Warner was at the well-regarded Flying Dog Brewery in Colorado for a decade, as brewmaster and then as chief executive. While there, the brewery came out with such beers as Snake Dog IPA, Double Dog double pale ale, Gonzo Imperial Porter and Dogtoberfest Märzen.

By the time Flying Dog moved production to Maryland and Warner left the company in 2008, Flying Dog was a national brand with annual production of 50,000 barrels, up from 10,000 when he started.

Now the 47-year-old is bringing his talent, a quarter-century’s brewing experience and his interest in startups to Houston.

Karbach Brewing Co. has brewing equipment on site, in a warehouse under renovation in the same U.S. 290/Loop 610 West part of town where Saint Arnold started.

Warner said the company will have more than $1 million invested in the brewery by the time it begins operations in late July or August.

The Karbach beers will be on draft around town two months after that.

Packaging — in 12-ounce cans, meant to fit the lifestyle of active Texans – should follow shortly.

“Hopefully, people can take a couple of six-packs of Karbach beer to the Thanksgiving table,” Warner said one recent morning, while making a test batch of “Weisse Versa” wheat beer that will be among three year-round offerings.

That’s now three new microbreweries in the Houston area in the last year, plus the forthcoming Freetail brewpub. Not too shabby. I wish them all well. Beer, TX has more.

And then there were three microbreweries

Meet Mike Brian Royo, the owner of what will soon be the third microbrewery in the Houston area, No Label Brewing Co.

Royo, 32, and his wife, Jennifer, and his parents, Gilberto and Melanie, have leased space in an old warehouse in Katy and are expecting their federal license to arrive within a couple of months. In the meantime, he said, he’s shopping for a 15-barrel brewhouse and some fermenting tanks to replace the “glorified homebrew system” he’s relying on as he fine-tunes No Label’s initial lineup.

No Label plans to start with a hefeweizen, El Hefe!, and either Pale Horse pale ale or Ridgeback Ale, an American amber with a distinct chocolate finish.

“I lean toward the maltier beers,” Royo said.

He said he’ll also put out a lighter blonde ale, Silo, before moving into the higher-alcohol stuff, IPAs and stouts, for example.

Royo’s dad is a native of Panama, where he met his wife, whose family was stationed there. He’s also a geologist who’s always had a taste for good beer, Brian said. The family eventually settled in Katy, where Brian went to junior high and high school before heading to Texas A&M to study construction science.

After transferring to the University of Houston, he discovered the Flying Saucer, visited the Saint Arnold brewery and started making beer as a hobby.

“Next thing you know, I’m spending all my extra money on homebrewing supplies,” he said.

Brock Wagner, the owner of Saint Arnold’s, always used to joke when he gave the brewery tours that “this is what happens when your home-brewing hobby gets out of hand”. Now you know what he means. No Label joins them and Conroe’s Southern Star in the craft beer-making business. I wish them the best, and look forward to sampling their wares some day.

UPDATE: Correction made per comments.