The Oral History of ABGB
Pils to wake, pils to sleep
By Eric Puga, Fri., Aug. 31, 2018
In a city like Austin, it is downright invigorating to have a such a staple of rustic, provincial "Old Austin" culture representing the pragmatists as does the Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company. The name itself delivers on four promises, though few of its fans ever refer to it by its Christian name, and have instead adopted a smoother delivery in the form of the ABGB.
That's because simplicity is the dominant practice at this South Austin brewery, which triples as a community mess hall and impromptu honky-tonk practically every night of the week. The direct descendant of the original Austin pilsner house, Live Oak Brewery, through the departed tanks of the now-defunct Bitter End, to the brewhouses of two Uncle Billy's Brew & Ques, ABGB delivers on uncomplicated lagers and straightforward revelry. Surely by now you've smashed the like button on one of their iconic and award-winning pilsners, or have dazzled at one of their creatively concocted pizzas, or marveled so hard at the spinouts from dance floor acrobats it makes your ego quiver. The point is, after a triumphant five years of business, the ABGB is a lot of things to a lot of people. This is the story of how all of it came together.
Brian "Swifty" Peters [co-owner/brewer]: Well, I think it goes back to when Amos and I met a long time ago at Bitter End Brewery and I was brewing there with Tim [Schwartz of Real Ale Brewing]. Amos had started doing some homebrewing and was always asking me for advice on this and that and we'd talk about lagers. That was in 2002. I never thought we'd be sitting here together right now.
Amos Lowe [co-owner/brewer]: I brewed in my driveway and had a bunch of friends who got together to talk about how we'd rather make beer for a living but we'd never do anything about it. I'd go over to Bitter End to hassle these guys, you know, to get information. I had talked about opening a brewery for a long time. I had done a bunch of research but never really got off the dime and got moving on it.
Peters: I asked Amos to come work for me one day a week at Uncle Billy's in early 2009. I said, "You come work with me on Fridays" because I could see that he wanted to. I was like, go tell Gretchen [Lowe, Amos' wife] that it's going to work out and then tell your boss or whatever. And you're like, "Yeah, let's do that."
Lowe: I was an engineer at that point. I was still a career man. I mean, now it seems like it made sense, but at the time it didn't really make sense to stop being a professional engineer and start brewing beer for a living. At that time you really had to love it to do it because this whole beer renaissance hadn't really taken off yet. And the people who were doing it weren't really making a lot of money, but they loved it.
Peters: All of a sudden we started brewing together on Fridays. And then in April, I guess it was 2010, we went to [the World Beer Cup in] Chicago and won a medal for our kellerbier. [Lowe] called and he's like, "I quit engineering. I'm starting a brewery."
Chris Troutman [co-founder/editor-in-chief, Austin Beer Guide]: In Austin back then there was Live Oak Pilz and there was what Swifty was doing over at Uncle Billy's with Bottle Rocket. It won some awards so people around town started to really notice. Amos was just kind of stitched to Swifty from armpit to hip and together, they just started making some really great beer. It wasn't widely distributed either, so you had to get down to the location by the park to get it.
Habeab Kurdi [ABGB regular, friend of the brewery]: Once I got to actually meet Swifty through [Schwartz] and Brent [Sapstead] and Brad [Farbstein] who were all out at Real Ale ... and got to know Amos as well, it made sense that this culture had come from Bitter End to [defunct Austin brewery] Waterloo, through Real Ale, and eventually Uncle Billy's. I was excited when Uncle Billy's opened at the lake [where Swifty left to go brew, while Peters held down the park location], but I knew those [programs] weren't sustainable for what they wanted to do.
While future brewery plans bubbled beneath, future co-founders accumulated in the form of Houston friends Curt and Jill Knobloch and New York pal Mark Jensen who all moved from their respective cities to Austin on a promise to make their late-night drunken fantasies into a tangible reality.
Lowe: We used to sneak my beer into ACL festival in coolers with false bottoms and we'd bring a bunch of Ozarka bottles of Pils because at the time there wasn't really anything to drink there. That's kind of how it started. [The co-founders] would all meet in my driveway because I lived by Zilker Park and we'd load up all the coolers and walk down. That led up to the culmination of Curt declaring they were gonna move to Austin and we were gonna build a brewery. We planned out a production brewery at first so we could close at night and go home. But then it was like, well, the margins [for a production brewery] are terrible, and you have to sell a lot of beer to make a living doing that. So the idea was, let's just make a living and have some fun. That's how we ended up a brewpub.
Jill Knobloch [co-owner/manager/branding]: I have logos from even before we moved from Houston. I mean, there were a lot of different names that we were gonna go with and Amos would make fun of them, like SoCo Brew Co. and Loco Brew Co.
Lowe: We had a lot of BrewCos. There were a lot of different names and designs along the way.
Knobloch: No one ever calls ABGB [by its long name]. Mark had thrown it out there before as a reference to CBGB.
Mark Jensen [co-owner/music & event booking]: A little bit. I wanted it to start with an A and wanted it to be the Austin-something. I thought the idea of having ABGB sound like radio call letters and one day producing our own music content would be attractive. Then we found this place and it helped that it had trees out there. I mean, If you're gonna call yourself a beer garden it helps to have space where you could actually have a beer garden.
Lowe: We looked around at a lot of spaces [and] when we got to go look at [this one], it was hard to see because there's shit everywhere. But once we got in there we were like, "Oh my God, it's perfect." All of a sudden it's like, "Oh, this is the Austin Beer Garden." We we're like, hey, we should work on the logo now.
Knobloch: The logo was inspired by a lot of different input. Amos would send me pictures of old surfboards and surf logos and signage like that. He was pretty retro in the things he gravitated towards. I remember Swifty on countless times saying, "I don't want it to look too slick." I've said it a lot of times: We try really hard to make it look like we're not trying too hard. If we came to a place where we didn't really know the answer or the direction we wanted to go in, we would ask ourselves "What would 1972 do?"
Peters: So, when these guys were finished with the business plan, I came over and was, like, "I love this. Can I come with you guys? Will you take me at all?" I wasn't a part of the original picture [at ABGB]. Amos was like [imitates voice], "Well, Let me talk to the partners" [laughs]. [The other co-founders] were like [sarcastically], "Yeah, there's space." So that was the best day of my life. I wanted to do an ice house brewpub [on my own] but they had already created something that was perfect and I was just like, "Yeah man, I want to get in."
Knobloch: We had to beg you a little bit.
Peters: You didn't have to beg me at all.
Lowe: We were on the outs at [Uncle Billy's] because they knew we were leaving. They'd had enough of us at that point.
Troutman: The way I found out about ABGB was during a livestream of KEXP radio out of Seattle and the host, John Richards, played a request for "Brian who was starting a brewery in Austin." I emailed Swifty and said, "Hey, I heard you're quitting [UB's] and opening a brewery." [Swifty later confirmed the rumor and the song, The The's "This Is the Day."]
Lowe: We were doing construction during the hottest time of the year, so there was no air conditioning and it was hot as hell in here during that process.
Tim "Jesus" Stevens [executive chef]: I almost passed out in the bathroom because there was no AC. It was dark and there was no electricity and I'm on the floor caulking the ground and I stand up and I'm like, oh man. I think I'm going to black out. It was hotter in that bathroom than it is [near the ABGB's brew kettles]. We had injuries all over the place: [points to colleagues while reciting maladies] Bee stings. Poison ivy. Poison ivy. Poison ivy. Cut his hand. I broke my nose. But when the inspector came in with his checklist and said "OK, you guys are ready," I literally turned yellow I was so scared. Amos was like, "I don't give a shit what happens, we just have to open these doors." We didn't have tables. We didn't have windows. It was like a cave in here.
Peters: None of us had opened a restaurant before and we negotiated with the landlords for six months, no rent. We moved in in March and opened a day short of six months to take money because we had to be open.
Jensen: We even had to borrow tables from Austin Beerworks.
Peters: Shout-out to Austin Beerworks!
Lowe: I'll never forget the first time we were open; it felt like we were being attacked. There were so many people and we didn't know we were doing. We were like, "Oh shit."
Stevens: It was 3:30 on a Friday and there were people lined up outside since noon. We wouldn't even open for another three and a half hours and there was a line.
Peters: We kept passing out beer for people in line because we felt like, well, if you have to wait this long you might as well have some free beer. So we walked up and down and passed out beer for people waiting. We did that for a long time.
Lowe: We thought it was going to be a nice launch and it was just straight up 180 miles per hour right away. It was crazy. We opened and there were people everywhere. But we knew the beer was good. That was the one thing we had figured out. We knew we could do good beer.
Peters: We'd already been brewing together so long. [Amos] was a pilsner guy. I was a pilsner guy. I mean, the reason we're pilsner guys is, in Texas, it's so hot and you don't want to drink an ale all the time. Especially when you're done brewing, you want to have something that's a little more thirst-quenching. Pilsners are what brewers want to drink. So we brewed what we wanted to drink.
Lowe: When [opening night] was over we had a beer, you know, we just sat here and had a beer and we were like, "Whoa." That was a nice feeling, man, you know. It was like, wow, it's working, we did it. And then it was like, oh, we have this long list of shit we need to figure out [laughs].
One of the unique features of ABGB is a dedicated stage, specifically designed for local music acts as well as ABGB's philanthropic Hell Yes Project events, which the brewery heavily promotes as major advocates of Austin-area charities.
Jensen: It was a totally new career for me, but I knew we all had pretty good musical taste since that's how we all got together originally. So the idea of putting on a show here and figuring out what it was going to be like [made a lot of sense]. Some of [the booking] was trial and error but I'm sure that's probably the way homebrewing starts too. Like, this was my first homebrew.
Lowe: It was always in the original business plan to be involved in the local culture and to give back. It was very important to us to make it feel like we were doing something worthwhile and strive to be part of the community.
Jensen: It was a way of kind of crystallizing what we wanted to do from the get-go, community-based outreach, you know. We sort of picked things that were nearest and dearest to us. Once you started getting to know your [community], you just start thinking that we've gotta help these organizations out. I like to call myself the Julie McCoy of this cruise ship. It's almost like we're always out at sea and there's always something going on the lido deck.
Kurdi: The first time I showed up here was for a band I wanted to see onstage. I sat down at a picnic table and the stage is to my right, not to my front, and I'm like, who's ever gonna show up here to sit at a picnic table and have to crane their body to watch? Lo and behold, every damned table in the place was full and people are they're standing and cheering and clapping. Basically, [ABGB] was like, "How do we create a brewery/pizza place, but kinda make it like Gruene Hall?"
Troutman: I think the stage at ABGB is just as important as any of the fermenters they have. It's as much a part of their DNA as anything on the menu or anything they're brewing. They've been able to cross demographics in Austin. You can come here with anybody, and not have to say that you're going to a beer place, you're just going to a place. An Austin place. They've nailed it with food, music, and beer without putting it all in your face.
Lowe: Tim's food was a big part of it because there are people that come here just for the food. You know, I think we do pretty well in the beer world, but the food is an entire draw that we wouldn't have had if it wasn't for Tim.
Stevens: I really didn't know what I was doing, but it's just like the thing with our beer, we use the best ingredients available and I looked at that in our food. I don't compare us to like James Beard restaurants and stuff, but as far as brewpub food goes, there's no brewpub in Texas that does what we do. I mean, I go to some of these restaurants and a lot of them love doing these small plates, and it's like, I'm not a small child.
No other event has showcased the triumphs of ABGB more than the Emmys of beer – the Great American Beer Festival – where ABGB has flexed their clout with a total of four gold medals, one bronze, and designation as Large Brewpub of the Year in both 2016 and 2017.
Lowe: Our first GABF gold was for Rocket 100 [in 2015]. Then the next year at GABF we won two: a bronze for Hell Yes Helles and another gold for Industry Pils. We got to do a turnaround.
Peters: A turnaround at GABF is when you win a medal and then you turn around to go to back to the stage again before you get to your seats because they've called you up for another medal.
Lowe: Like, breweries who are really good, they get a turnaround. I think that's cool.
Peters: [After that], we went out into the hallway outside the theatre because we were done with our beers and all the categories were over and I mentioned something like we might be up for Brewpub of the Year. I mean, the brewery the year before had won with only two medals, and I was like, "Hey, we have two medals!" So, Amos went back into the theatre to watch.
Lowe: I walked back in and they were getting ready to announce Large Brewpub of the Year and all of the sudden I see Austin Beer Garden Brewing flash up on the screen. I was like, OH SHIT! I had to go back out to the hallway and find everybody. And I was like, "Guys, we won! C'mon, we gotta go back in."
Peters: You didn't say it like that. He was more like, "WE WON! GUYS! WE DID IT!"
Lowe: Then the following year [the awards ceremony] was in a really small space and we couldn't even get inside, so there were probably a thousand of us outside the theatre. We won the first gold medal for Rocket 100 and we end up winning [another gold] for Velvet Revolution pilsner. I'm thinking, "Man, we did better this year than last year. We got a real shot at Brewpub of the Year again." And then they put our name back up there on the screen. It was like, "Large Brewpub of the Year, Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company," and I was like, "Holy shit, we won it again!" That was a pretty wonderful moment.
Peters: Two times in a row [for Brewpub of the Year]. That's never happened. Back-to-back has never happened, ever. Not that I'm a historian or anything, but someone told me later.
Peters: After that second Brewpub of the Year, we went out with our friends from OMF [Our Mutual Friend Brewing] and we had a big bar tab. We bought everything we could buy. We smoked cigars and shut down the bar.
Lowe: It is a big deal being recognized by your peers. It's still important to have that recognition and it feels good and no one's going to ever say winning sucks.
Peters: The last few years have been really different [at GABF] because some of the brewers who make some of the best beers in the country want to come up and talk to us and are interested in talking about some of the things we do. When we first opened no one knew us or knew what was going on. Word got around. I guess that's how that happens.
Lowe: [When we got back to Austin from GABF], it was the first time we ever had anyone waiting for us.
Stevens: Yeah, usually we just struggle in and it's like, "Okay, I'll see you tomorrow." But, everyone was here yelling and screaming.
Troutman: Initially, they didn't try to court a lot of the beer nerd scene. They just kind of did what they knew they were good at and for a long time ABGB was sorta under the radar. But I'd been drinking Swifty's beers for years, and now I could finally drink them in a location that didn't feel like a fucking Cracker Barrel. These guys were here just making their lagers, creating a cool scene, and cultivating this really great live music venue.
Kurdi: The thing I hearken back to is my very first visit out here, I sat out here for about 15 to 20 minutes and there weren't many other people around. Great moon in the sky. And a train is just going by. One of those really long industrial trains just having its way through Austin. When I first moved here in 1999, you could hear the train 10, 15 miles away and it was comforting actually. Trains come through ABGB all the time, and that does add that old Austin element to me. Whether they meant to or not, the fact that they wound up here with this giant expanse of picnic tables, trees, and lights right on the train tracks, I find that really charming.
Jensen: We all have deep connections to the Austin we knew and loved. I think that that's true for a lot of people from the first time they get to Austin. There was something about trying to re-create that Austin from when we all first got here. We want to keep it as pristine as possible, and also help some people out with our Hell Yes Project too. We've celebrated the things that we loved about Austin and have made sure to protect it.
Lowe: When we finally got the deal done and we were going to open ABGB, my wife said, "Congratulations. You never have to grow up." Basically, from day one, it's exceeded what we expected. We expected to sell a certain amount of beer when we opened and we've sold 50 percent more than that. It's just been great.
Stevens: We've gotten better and better every year.
Lowe: We've been around five years and everyone's like, you're old. Somebody was like, "Man, you guys are an institution." You don't even have to do something for 25 years anymore. It's like if you make it five years, that's pretty good. After five years, we've almost got it figured out.
Peters: Yeah, just give us five more years and it'll be tight. Just five more years.