On this particular journey, the drive makes me even more delirious than usual – at the end of it, delicious beer awaits. The occasion is the groundbreaking for Jester King Craft Brewery, an aspiring entrant into Austin's small microbrewing industry.
I pull into a bucolic ranch setting, where recognizable faces in Austin's beer-geek scene crowd around kegs while others wander down a hill – under the watchful gaze of some cattle – to admire a building foundation under construction.
I came out here to get a few quotes from the Jester King guys for an article spotlighting four or five new breweries currently in the start-up phase in Central Texas. But then someone mentions that another brewer looking to turn pro is present. Who? That guy over there. And hey, you should talk to this person, they're starting a brewery as well. Oh, and have you met so-and-so?
Wow! Something other than wildflowers is popping up in Central Texas. At last count – updated moments before I started typing this article – at least 10 groups of entrepreneurs have plans to enter the brewing scene. They're in varying stages of making it happen: At least one might be in business by the time you read this; some are under construction; still others are nothing more than a business plan and a website. Here is a quick survey of the soldiers entering the battle, with hopes they all survive.
I said Jester King is in a ranch "setting" – actually, it is literally on a ranch. "We just randomly got a call from the landowner here," says Jeffrey Stuffings. As it turns out, ranch owner Chad Nemec wanted a brewery on his land and was looking for prospects. "He was actually at Spec's talking to one of the beer persons there and asked if they knew any local brewers that were starting up, and fortunately, he mentioned Jester King. So we're leasing about 4 acres from him, and we want it to be a craft beer destination, where people can come out to the Hill Country, enjoy craft beer, and be outdoors. We want to have a lot of live music out here and just make it a fun place for people to come out." Now construction is under way, and the fermentation tanks and brewhouse were scheduled to arrive last week, with brewing expected by August.
Jester King already has a fully developed line of styles ready to go, and my own taste buds can attest: Stuffings and his co-founders – brother Michael and friend Joe Madia – are ready for prime time. At the groundbreaking they rolled out a wheat, an imperial stout, a red, a saison, an imperial IPA, and a rye IPA.
Stuffings' path into the business is a common one: "I was in a position where I didn't feel passionate about what I was doing. I went to law school and ended up getting a job here doing insurance defense litigation, and it was really boring and the clients were just terrible people. I started homebrewing when I was in law school. I just wanted to do something I love and care about.
"We're excited to get going. It's been a long-term process to build this dream. It's so exciting seeing things actually start to take shape, whereas before it was just a business plan on paper."
Benjamin Sabel began brewing at a legally questionable time: high school. "My mother was very understanding," he says. "I did my first batch in one of those Mr. Beer kits in the fridge. It tasted terrible, but it was a start."
Now, he and lifelong friend Judson Mulherin are on the edge of something very grownup: starting and running a business. Capital has been raised, a lease acquired, and on June 21, the brewhouse equipment and fermenters should arrive. "By the day, the excitement is growing," Sabel says. "Pouring the concrete, getting things accomplished is a great feeling."
Sabel and Mulherin grew up in Nashville and stayed in touch after leaving. They went to separate brewing hotbeds: Sabel to Portland, Ore., Mulherin to Southern California and then Boulder, Colo. Sabel worked for California's Bayhawk Ales, a contract brewer, and then they both moved to Austin in 2008. "We remained friends the whole time," Sabel says, "and he came up with the idea for this business. So then we got very serious about our beer-making."
Now, the duo anticipates the results of those efforts will launch in October. They intend to first land in bars with Envy Amber and Blur Texas Hefe, followed by Alibi Blonde Bock and Nightlight Dry Irish Stout. Within nine months to a year after launch, they hope to be bottling. "Our amber is kind of a unique blend," says Sabel. "Kind of a light ESB, very flavorful, but not too hoppy or too malty – a nice blend for an amber. Our hefe is kind of a different take on a hefe. We have a little bit of caramel malt in ours to kind of round it out, give it a little more flavor. We lean toward the citrus, so it's a very refreshing summertime beer but also a beer you can drink any time of the year."
The nation's first cooperatively run brewpub plans to start serving later this summer. We're giving them short shrift here, but only because we featured them in detail earlier: see "From Beer to Infinity," Jan. 22.
Jordan Weeks and Caleb Cranford aren't quite as far along as Jester King, Circle, or Thirsty Planet, but they're ahead on one front: They already have a building. "It has everything we need; all we really need is equipment," Weeks says. "Right now we're in fundraising mode to buy the equipment."
As for potential product, "We're only going to be packaging in kegs and 750-milliliter wire-cork bottles," says Weeks, who has lived in Austin 21 years. "We'll be doing 'style-challenging' beers – huge, aggressive beers that seasoned beer connoisseurs enjoy, the kind of beers that brewers like to drink."
He's not a dabbler, Weeks insists: "Hopefully by next year we'll have actual product," he says. "We're in it for the long haul. In the prospectus [for investors], we say, 'We'll make $50 million in the next 20 years.' So it's a family affair; it will be here forever. We want to be part of something exciting in South Austin. We want to create more excellence in South Austin."
Can craft brewing make it in the Texas countryside, a bastion of Bud Light? It already has. Fredericksburg Brewing Co. has operated a brewpub there since 1994. Now Tim Elliott and son Sean will try the same in nearby but smaller Johnson City. Brewer Sean went to college in Fort Collins, Colo., home to New Belgium and others, and got the brewing bug.
What makes him think he can go pro? "Well, I can never keep my beer on hand," he laughs, "so that's one thing that led me to believe I can make the jump. It's a little scary, but I think we're ready, and it should be interesting."
While Sean handles the beer, Tim has been constructing the building for a year and a half and says, "I suspect we'll be open before the end of the year." Tim says to expect brick-oven pizza, "and you gotta have a good hamburger anywhere."
As for the brew, Sean says he doesn't expect any crazy hop bombs, at least not immediately. "Nothing too drastic," he says of his planned beer menu. "A blond or a kolsch, something easy-drinking, an American pale ale, some sort of amber. I'm thinking of a pecan amber. Nothing too complicated for people just getting into the microbrew scene, but we'll have seasonals."
It's hard to imagine anyone with a more unique business niche or background than Josh Hare. Originally a professional triathlete, he's already in business selling (via his website) dog biscuits made from spent grain left over from brewing. Now he's trying to raise $300,000 to go pro in beer-making, hopefully by the end of the year.
"I started doing a lot of market research when I lived up in Boulder about four years ago," Hare told me. "I moved to Austin to train during the wintertime and just fell in love with the city and saw an opportunity for craft beer and small, local business." He came to Austin to help a friend open a running shop but started fundraising with partner Jeff Russell for Hops & Grain in December. He says he'll start with a 15-barrel system, smaller than the typical 30. "A lot of my ideas came from the craft beer movement in Boulder," he says. "They all started small, one or two flagship beers, made those work, and then made their brand experimenting beyond that."
"I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, so I was weaned on Anheuser-Busch, and that's all I knew. Anything exotic was like Michelob Dark."
But Chris Orf ("I just go by 'Orf,'" he says), after undergrad years at Southern Methodist University, went up to grad school in Oregon for a master's degree in chemistry. The combination of a craft brewing hotbed and a knack for mixing things led to homebrewing. "It was just a natural next step," he says. He came to Austin after acquiring a business background in New York City in advertising and film/theatre production. Orf is still early in the capital-raising phase but hopes to hit the market in early 2011. If he does, his motto will be "Creativity in ale forms."
"Orf Brewing specializes in American hybrid ales," he says. "Beers that don't fit any of the known, accepted judging categories." His flagship beer would mix pilsner grains, pale ale hops, and kolsch yeast. "Frankenstein beers," he says. "We just make something up, and as long as it tastes good, we'll go with it."
Hopes were high that you'd be able to read this article with a glass of Yellow Armadillo or Thirsty Goat in your hand. Alas, Thirsty Planet wasn't quite ready to send its brews to bars at press time, but start asking for them next week.
That puts Brian Smittle and wife Tammy at the front of the line for Austin's new brewers, completing a two-decade journey. After he received a business administration degree from William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., "the job market wasn't very good, so I decided to go be a ski bum in Vail, Colorado," says Smittle. Within a couple of days, he attended a beer festival and got an invitation to watch a local brewer work. "He was mixing up 300 gallons of beer, and I said, 'Are you getting paid for this?' He said, 'Yeah, I usually ski in the morning and brew beer at night.' And I thought: 'Wow, that could be the best sentence I've ever heard. It's a scam, and I want in on it.'" Within a few years, he was also getting paid to do it, including stints at Oklahoma brewpubs.
Now that you've returned from the bar, enjoy your Yellow Armadillo – it's an American-style wheat, with 50% wheat and 50% barley, and Smittle promises it will be refreshing and citrusy. Or if you got the Thirsty Goat, expect an amber with "a spicy bitterness, but nothing too heavy." And eventually, the more adventurous among you can try Bucket Head IPA, which should be out soon. "It's a big-alcohol beer," says Smittle. "It's not a double IPA, but you can see it from there. It won't quite pull the enamel off your teeth, but it will get you where you want to go. It's not for everyone and doesn't try to be."
Shane Bordeaux, Shawn Franks, and Jim Sampson are still in early days of making their brewing dream come true, but they hope to find some land on the north shore of Lake Travis and start building by the end of summer, with beer coming out by next spring.
The three high tech workers are looking to make "Tex-Mex beer": "Mexican lager-type stuff brewed here in Texas," Sampson says. "A lighter lager, a darker lager, the standard beers, and then throw things in like jalapeños or prickly pears or agave nectar, those kinds of things, and throw a Texas flair on it."
Erik Marr is currently the furthest of this bunch from making the dream a reality. So far, the brewery is just a blog and a business plan. But if the New Mexico native, an Austinite since 1997, executes his plan, he'll be in business by 2012 with a 100% organic brewery. "I think it would do well here," Marr says. "Austin is the place for it."
Lee Nichols blogs about beer at i-love-beer.blogspot.com.
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