The Oral History of Austin Beerworks
How the local brewery became the heir to the aluminum throne
As far as plucky hometown breweries go, Austin Beerworks might be the pluckiest. From the shoestrings that budgeted the original 30-barrel brewhouse came the additional half-dozen new fermenters overlooking their modern habitat like great silver owls on a sobriety hunt. Recently, ABW has doubled their production capacity in only five years of operation while simultaneously debuting their much-anticipated taproom that features a spectrum of true-to-style legacy beers to ambitious small-batch treats.
And if you've lived in Austin longer than 10 seconds, you've undoubtedly glimpsed ABW's thoughtful aluminum packaging, flashing about with its iconic oil drop logo against a backstop of striking pigments like potable pop art. As Austin sits on the verge of international acclaim for its beer proclivity, ABW stands as the city's largest production brewery and a symbol of Austin's emerging brewing talent. Here is the story of how it all came together.
Adam DeBower (co-founder, Operations): Michael Graham and I were best friends as kids growing up here in Austin. When I went off to live in New York City, I met Mike McGovern, who is a UT alum, at this really crazy party in Queens. We bonded over durian fruit and being Texans. I was the only one who ate that durian fruit, by the way.
Mike McGovern (co-founder, Finance/Distribution/HR): Yeah, I just drank the beer.
DeBower: That was your mistake. We drank a lot of beer that day and as it turns out, Mike was a homebrewer and I was a homebrewer. I was already well on my way getting into the beer industry, which is how I met Will [Golden]. I took my first job on the East Coast in Frederick, Maryland, at a brewery now called Flying Dog. Will was the senior brewer there while I was an entry-level guy. We got to be great friends, and when I moved back to Texas in 2009, it took me about a year to convince him that he needed to be here because, one, Austin is fucking awesome, and two, we had been talking about opening a brewery together.
McGovern: Around the time Adam moved back to Austin is when I moved back to Austin.
Michael Graham (co-founder, Sales & Marketing): [Back in the early 2000s], Adam went to Baylor and I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder. Adam came up to visit one weekend and we just crammed in as many brewery tours as possible. After going to all those breweries that day, we saw that you could get paid for making beer. That planted the first seed. And Adam, he's like bamboo.
Will Golden (co-founder, head brewer): Yeah, most people stop at pipe dreams when you go out drinking, but Adam is very persistent. He is the motivator of the group. He just wouldn't let [the idea of opening a brewery] die. It wasn't just talk, he was like, "We're doing this thing."
Graham: Adam was the only guy any of us knew and he brought us all together. The first time the four of us met was at the original Ginger Man Downtown and I remember thinking, "These guys are cool, let's start a business together." That's probably the worst idea anyone can think of.
Golden: I was still living in Maryland at that time, and [the other three] were really putting stuff together. I was like, "Yeah, we actually can do this." So I came down and brought some growlers of beer that I had been making at my pub so that they could taste what I was doing and see that I wasn't just a hack. I was really surprised they had put so much faith in me and they hadn't even tried anything I'd made.
Chris Troutman (co-founder, Austin Beer Guide): The Draught House Pub had this "Meet the New Brewers Event" that week, so Jester King is out there, Hops & Grain is out there, Thirsty Planet is there ... and then all of a sudden, these Austin Beerworks guys show up with this really great branding. They had those stickers and those tin signs. And all the other brewers were like, "Who are these assholes?"
Aaron Chamberlain (co-founder, Austin Beer Guide): A week before that, Austin Beerworks had launched their website and we put them on all our old blogs. That's all they were at the time, a website.
Graham: We'd raised money and we were on the lookout for equipment, but it was a struggle finding used stuff. We didn't have the timeline or the capital to buy [equipment] brand-new. We wanted a 30-barrel system because we had heard so many horror stories about starting off with a seven-barrel system. So we were looking around for a long time and then a brewery in the middle of the South Pacific became available. In Saipan. Adam got an expedited passport.
McGovern: We had to go see it in person, because, well, it was on an island.
DeBower: We made an offer and they accepted. But in between the acceptance and going out for our inspection, they sold it to another brewery who was willing to buy it sight unseen.
Graham: That was a huge gut punch because we got excited about it. A few weeks later something else popped up and it was a brewery called Maritime Pacific in Seattle.
DeBower: [The ad] showed up on a Wednesday and I called them on Thursday to let them know I would be there on Friday. I hopped a 5am flight to Seattle, got a rental car and drove straight there. I looked at it, called the guys and said "Well, it's in terrible shape, but it's available." Will and I had been there a few weeks earlier drinking beer off of it [while looking at a different brewery] and [the guys] gave the go-ahead to buy it. Fifteen minutes later, two other interested parties showed up trying to buy it too.
Christian Helms (branding, Helms Workshop): I had more of a traditional training and education in higher-concept design. I had done some restaurant work and some music industry work, but I'm a beer guy; I wanted a brewery so badly. When ABW came along I tried to play it cool, but I think I tried to hug them in our first meeting.
Mike Woolf (writer, Beef & Pie Productions): Christian and I were working together on different projects and he called me one day and he said, "Hey, there's this brewery I think I'm working on," and I said immediately, "I'm in."
Graham: We were all really strong in different areas [of brewery development] but we quickly realized that none of us know how to make a beer label. We got really lucky to find Christian. It was through The Austin Chronicle actually. They did a piece on local screenprinting artists [The Art Is Formally Known as Prints, Nov.6, 2009] and we knew screenprinting was actually very similar to can design. Out of all the people featured in that article, Christian was our favorite. We went to his website, and it said, "New clients, you can reach me at [dialectical blather]," but then it said, "If you are a brewery, call me immediately!"
Helms: ... yeah, like, "Here's my cell number!" We set up a 30-minute introductory meeting that ended up going over three hours until we drank all the Prima Pils at Frank Restaurant. We just hit it off. It vacillated back and forth between serious beer talk, the brand, and general humor. They were just funny guys.
Woolf: It all sounded really great, especially having been a homebrewer myself. I brought them a bottle of this beer I'd made and we drank it. Then they stomped on the actual beer bottle [in some sort of ritual] and I remember thinking, "That's awesome." When we left the meeting I asked Christian, "Well, what do you think the beer's gonna taste like?" and we just shrugged.
Helms: We worked for a long time before there was any beer. We talked so much about the profile, the quality, the flavor, and everyone was so optimistic. But there's always that thing in the back of your mind, "What if this doesn't happen, what if the beer isn't good?"
Graham: Christian and Mike [Woolf] really helped us over time distill our ideas down into a very tangible thing. We like beers where you had one and you found yourself wanting another. It distilled down to two words: "bold" and "clean." That was the starting point that we built the brand around. And since the marketing had been around [long before we brewed], we were held to a high standard before the beer was even there.
Tim Bullock (co-owner St. Elmo Brewing Co., former ABW staffer): When you see that a brewery has named themselves Austin Beerworks, you think, "That's either gonna suck or be the best thing ever," because no one's gonna name themselves after this city and just be like, "Meh, we're all right."
Bryan Winslow (co-owner St. Elmo Brewing Co., former ABW brewer): They've always been coy like that, and they still are about everything they do. They play their cards right. They're prepared. They're always on the same page.
Caroline Wallace (events manager for the Texas Craft Brewers Guild): For me, they were a total sleeper. All of a sudden they were on the menu at Opal Divine's and I got my first taste. I remember going to Friday tasting room hours and you had to reserve a spot online. They'd only last like 30 minutes. It was like [trying to get into] a movie premiere.
Troutman: At the time, taproom tours in Austin sucked. It was mostly just following a brewer around their Frankenstein brewing setup. Business hours were unpredictable and infrequent. ABW were one of the first in the city to get the taproom tour right.
Winslow: I first read about Austin Beerworks on a beer blog while I was in Korea teaching. When I moved back [to the U.S.], I had been in Austin for, like, two hours when I walked into the brewery looking for a job. They were inside kegging, and I was like, "Hey guys, do you need a hand?" They said, "Yeah, we're taking volunteers."
Bullock: I was living in New York and finishing my time at Brooklyn [Brewing Co.] and thinking about moving to Austin with my wife. We visited during Austin Beer Week in October of 2011. I had done some quick research on beer in Austin while I was in New York and at that time, people didn't talk or write about beer in Austin that much. The scene was just really starting to develop.
Winslow: We would work 12-hour shifts and just ask them everything there is to know. They would show us how every piece of equipment in the place worked. We would volunteer to work the taproom on Fridays and people would come in and just love it. It was so fucking awesome. We would make the beer, help Will clean out the mash, can the beer, and then we'd clean up to make the place look pretty. People would come in and drink and it was super fun. Those turned into 18-hour days.
Bullock: During that week we visited [from NYC], ABW released Battle Axe at Opal Divine's on Sixth Street. It was their first seasonal. I remember telling my wife, "We gotta get there, it's gonna be crowded." And when we arrive no one is there. I go up and talk to the four guys in Austin Beerworks shirts and tell them we're in town from New York, I worked for Brooklyn, and it was just off to the races. They were the best people to meet and talk about beer. They paid for our dinner and invited us to the Draught House. That's how we were introduced. Then I went to work for them.
Helms: One of the things we talked about in the beginning was that we were gonna be putting the beer in cans, and because that was different, we wanted to be really different. No hops, no wheat, no streams, no dogs, no mountains, none of that shit. We literally made a list of what craft beer looks like and we did the opposite.
Woolf: Canning was a big deal. It was the first thing we wrote about for the website: Why cans? We had three reasons: gets beer cold quicker, stays [fresh] longer, and Mother Earth. Maybe there was another: shotgunnability. They said, "Think of cans as little kegs," and I thought, "Okay, now we can finally explain this to people in a way that will resonate."
Graham: [At the time], there were only about 100 canning breweries in the country and we became interested in how all the canning breweries were doing it. There's a brewery called Upslope in Boulder that started just a year before us who were canning. They were located in a tiny industrial park and right next door to a mechanical engineering firm that built stuff for pharmaceutical companies or something like that. The engineers would all come over after work to drink and were always interested in the brewing machinery. When they saw the canning line, they said, "This thing is a piece of shit; we can literally build you something better in a couple of weeks." And so they did. They turned it into Wild Goose Canning. We were machine number two [after Upslope]. It filled six cans a minute.
Winslow: Those first cans were so hard to make on that manual filler and it was fucking awful. You would come out of there freezing, covered in beer, your pants could stand up on their own. They would be so encrusted with beer that you could just set 'em up. It was miserable. It was fun, too.
DeBower: It had about a 30 percent failure rate, so there was so much beer that got wasted. We couldn't bear to pour beer down the drain because we had worked so hard to make it. So we'd sit there and pour it into pitchers, and for the first four weeks of canning we were shitfaced constantly. Our girlfriends and wives had to come get us.
Graham: We wondered how we were gonna get enough accounts to justify the purchase, so we started emailing all these places. The first to respond was Spec's who wanted something like 700 cases ready for the Fourth of July. We were expecting them to say 20 cases, not 700 cases. We were like, "How about we do one hundred?" I think we finally settled on 300 [cases]. We were doing 24-hour shifts at six cans a minute.
McGovern: And if someone had to go to the bathroom it was down to three cans a minute. Will and I came in at 10pm and worked until five in the morning.
Graham: When we show up in the morning these guys are wasted.
Golden: We drank every low fill can and danced to Girl Talk all night.
McGovern: We always just talked about what we wanted the final beer to taste like. It wasn't like, "Hey, let's brew five batches and pick a winner." It was always, "Let's figure out what the end product is gonna be and figure out how to get there." I think a lot of people try different batches and see which one floats their boat.
Troutman: Right before they opened and they'd been so busy building, we did a video interview with them – it's a terrible video, don't look for it – but they had just starting brewing and they said, "Yeah, we'll have some beer ready for you." We were drinking it right out of the brite tanks and none of it was carbonated or conditioned yet. We had these new beers out in front of us, and the whole time, the guys were like, "Please don't comment on the beer, this is unfinished beer, please don't comment on it," but the thing was, it all tasted terrific. It was just pre-filtered, uncarbonated beer and it was still great. And they wouldn't let me comment on it.
Helms: It's like one of those things when you renovate your house and you bring friends over, [and you say], "Well, I'm still gonna change this, and that is still a work in progress." That's what they did with the first tastings. I was like, "But this is already phenomenal." The beer was so good.
Troutman: That was the thing that Austin Beerworks did, they made filtered beer [acceptable] in Austin. No other brewery was really filtering their beer. They made a big deal about, "It's gonna be finished, carbonated, and filtered," and that was gonna be their thing. My impression of them after that video night was that these guys really cared about the quality of their beer. When they finally did [debut], the beers were all good, right away. They set the bar in Austin that you should expect good beer from a new brewery. Not everyone has done that, even after them.
Chamberlain: There were quality beers in Austin, but it was the first that had it as their main focus.
Graham: We grew so much quicker than we had planned. We spent a lot of time writing a business plan, detailing the size of the market, comparing other breweries, and we felt pretty confident that we made good projections.
DeBower: We were so wrong. We beat our best-case scenario by five-fold that first year.
McGovern: What we projected in year five, we burned through in year one.
Chamberlain: I gave them four skateboard wheels to use on their rolling door of their first cold room. Without me all of the beer would have been hot.
Golden: When I was brewing for the Frederick Brewing Company, it was really kinda just going by the wayside [and] we were doing upwards of 28 different breweries and their beers by contract, so got to see hundreds of different recipes and different ways of brewing beer. I fell in love with lagers there for sure. Adam and I talked about doing a pilsner as one of the core lineup beers, which became Pearl Snap. It seemed crazy back then for a start-up to do a cold fermented lager, let alone two as part of your initial offerings. We didn't think it was going to sell very well.
DeBower: We thought we were making it for us.
Golden: It was a brewer's beer. We thought maybe some people might love it, but it wouldn't really do much. Michael and I went out to visit our first accounts and we were at [a bar near campus] and we said, "Hey we're gonna offer a pilsner as one of our core four," and they were like, "That's not gonna sell. This is an IPA town."
Golden: One day we were on the upper deck of 35 going Downtown and there was a big-ass billboard that Budweiser put up of advertising a 25-ounce cans. They one-upped everybody by putting one extra ounce of beer in a can and we were like, "Fuck those guys. We should make a 45-pack."
McGovern: [The number] kept increasing until someone suggested a 99-pack. That's the number that made everyone laugh. I wanted it to be a 98-pack with two beers duct taped to the outside.
Golden: Michael suggested that we go out and find all the Rollerblades in town. Adam and I had just gotten back from Montreal and that place was lousy with Rollerbladers. That was [Michael's] idea how to get the 99-pack out of the store and to your house. You bought a 99-pack and you would have gotten a free pair of Rollerblades.
Woolf: From a branding point of view, it was so exciting. Michael emails everyone a week later and says, "You know, legally, we can make a 99-pack." And here we thought the TABC crushes all hopes and dreams of creativity.
Wallace: All I knew when I saw it, I wanted that box so badly. I remember at first it was hard to discern whether it was a prank or not.
Graham: When we put in the box order, one of the guys from the dye company emailed us back and asked, "Is this real? Don't fuck with me. Is this Steve from accounting?"
Golden: I can only imagine the minutiae and mundane life of working at a box factory ...
Graham: ... and this order comes across your desk, and you're like, "This is why I went to college!" That was an affirming email.
McGovern: We had prototypes of the boxes and we were doing structural tests on which way you stacked the cans and where to put the handles. If you put them farther away, you had to force it so a buddy would have to help you carry it. That was intentional. We had to deconstruct our delivery vans just to get the boxes in there.
DeBower: Practically speaking, it was the worst business decision we could ever make.
Troutman: They took me to the cold room to see the 99-pack just before the release and I asked Will, "Can I take a photo of this?" And he said "Yeah, sure, why not? Just don't post that anywhere," and I'm like "Then what the fuck is this photo worth?" It was gonna be viral.
Helms: Good Morning America was great because they showed a snappy intro and talked about Austin Beerworks and then mentioned that the box was taller than Shaq. They had a graphic.
Golden: Adam got on Fox news.
Helms: Without the monumental press it got, it wouldn't be celebrated as a success story exactly. There was a lack of clarity with Peacemaker and its style, extra pale ale. The idea was to rename it Anytime Ale, so you got usage: This is your last beer at the end of the night and the first beer at the end of the day.
Graham: It became a liability because we had one line that accounts could call and place an order, and nobody could place an order because the phone was ringing off the hook. It was actually really stressful and I was thinking we had to kill this thing. We still get multiple emails every week, "Are you still making the 99-pack?"
Woolf: Well, the thing was, you sold it for $99. It was crazy in every way.
Graham: Literally, The Ellen DeGeneres Show called and was like, "Hey, we wanna ... " and I was just, like "NO!"
McGovern: The ultimate thing is, it worked. Peacemaker sales went back up and it helped it find its audience.
Troutman: They also did that emoji Festbier that trolled SXSW calling it "the officially unofficial beer of March 11-20th." It was like a Pokémon hunt trying to find the bars that had it. No other breweries in Austin are as culturally in-tune with what's really going on in the city. They're very nimble and ready to do things like that. They were also the first in Austin to develop an IPA seasonal series with Heavy Machinery.
Wallace: For me, the legacy of Austin Beerworks in Texas is Einhorn. It was the first sour beer I'd had that wasn't Belgian in influence or a fruited sour from lambic. I remember it being so far outside of the framework from what me and my friends were drinking. We were obsessed with it.
Winslow: One time I was at Craft Pride and I'd had like six pints of Einhorn. I kept thinking, "This is only like two beers," [due to its notoriously low alcohol percentage] and that it was such a damn good beer.
Troutman: For a while there, if I was staying out late, I would text my wife and say, "Don't worry, honey, just drinking Einhorn!"
Wallace: [Laughs] It's like I'm barely even drinking!
Chamberlain: That beer was definitely a revelation. We made our whole summer issue release party about Einhorn.
Wallace: Quality and fun is what their legacy is all about. They can [goof] around a lot because they make great beer and they have the quality to back it up. You don't want to be the silly brewery whose beer doesn't live up to the marketing or the jokes. When you're confident you have a great product, you can have a lot of fun. I think they've kept the industry grounded and are approachable to people.
Bullock: Working at ABW was so much fun for a lot of reasons. The beer was so good, but it was also awesome because it was a brand everyone could really connect with. The guys who founded the brewery have a great sense of humor. They always said, "We take nothing seriously but the beer."
Winslow: Sometimes they don't even take the beer seriously and shotgun it as fast as possible. I love that they slam their beers every Friday. There was a bit of a learning curve because I had to figure out what to take seriously and what not to take seriously. It's like when you go off to college and you realize your parents aren't around anymore. All day long it would be inside jokes and obscure references. And a lot of Black Keys and Ratatat.
Bullock: And making fun of Will for getting into the Lumineers. Bryan would play Daft Punk and Will had strong words about that. These were the small things we would start to pick up on.
Golden: I was in an emo phase, more pounding of the heart stuff. Daft Punk, I mean, I like a few of their songs. Buy y'all can keep that shit.
DeBower: Bryan had that on repeat a thousand and a half times. I come in one day and told him, "If you play that fucking album one more time I'm gonna scream," and he hits play and it's the first track off Random Access Memories. Will is like, [screams], and Bryan's just up there on the brewing platform mixing away.
Winslow: People always ask Tim and I all the time how to start a brewery, and the easiest answer to that is: Go work for a brewery. There's a lot to be said of the handing down of knowledge, passing down the heritage of brewing, [then] making it your own.
Golden: Something we've always talked about is [that] we hire people with a limited background in professional brewing. We are of the mindset that there are so many people who want to get through the door, that we can mold them into the brewers we want them to be.
McGovern: [We believe that] if we can hire smart, interesting people, they can always learn to brew. It's not like it's an advanced degree. You just have to have the willingness to learn it.
DeBower: We really bootstrapped this business. We were extraordinarily conservative with our money because we had to be. We opened this company with less money than any brewery our size that I've ever heard of. It was a significantly small number. We had to be tight with every dollar we spent.
Graham: There's so much competition now and places to choose from that if your first batches aren't up to par, there's no reason to support you because there's a dozen other local breweries out there. We still sell everything we make within a 15-20 mile radius of the brewery, and we owe a lot of credit to local support. I think we've done a good job too, but [breweries] can't just coast on being local anymore.
Golden: This whole new space is affording us the ability to do so many more cool things like start a sour program and it's more in-depth.
DeBower: We installed a [quality assurance] lab with a fully qualified, Siebel-trained, technician. The guy is a badass.
Graham: ... and a full-on climate controlled barrel room.
DeBower: More cans and seasonal beers are coming, too. We'll have new year-round releases. This is a thing. It's really happening. More lagers. And bathrooms. They're air-conditioned!
Graham: This is our retirement plan. We're not trying to cash out, we're not trying to get to a certain size, we're not trying to do mergers and acquisitions; this is our life. When we started the brewery, it was like keeping a sea monkey alive [but now] we're trying to raise an adult. [Our] point of view is to make the world a better place and to treat people well.
DeBower: That's our mission statement: "Quality of beer, quality of life." We hire people, not skill sets. You've got to be a quality person in order to obtain a position here and you have to make quality beer. All those things are really cyclical.
McGovern: When we first decided to start this thing, we were like, "Wow. This is the beginning." Then we raised the funds and signed the lease, and thought "OK, well, now is the beginning." We got our certificate of occupancy to start using the equipment, brewed the first beer, packaged it, and sold it, and we thought, "Well, that was the beginning." But now that we're here in this new place we realize that we've only just begun.