Amber: This is The BusinessMakers Show brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business and I’m Amber Ambrose. Today we’re here at Saint Arnold Brewing Company with Brock Wagner the Founder of this magical place where they serve a magical beverage called beer. Thanks for joining us today.
Brock: Well thank you Amber, thanks for having me.
Amber: It’s been 10 years since you last appeared on The BusinessMakers Show, bring us up to date.
Brock: I’ve always focused on just kind of what we’re doing everyday and what are we going to bring fresh to our customers. I mean we’ve been doing this 21 years but my mindset is very much what are we bringing to the customers today because that’s what really matters.
Brock: But I guess in the past 10 years we’ve moved from our old original location in a big warehouse to this building by Downtown Houston; we renovated it, we’re getting 100,000 people a year through the building. We’ve added a much larger brew house, our sales – gosh, I have to think back 10 years ago – I mean our sales are up probably 8 times from where they were. So there’s been a lot of growth. We were the only brewery in Houston and – craft brewery in Houston, there is one larger brewery on the East side.
Amber: Oh yeah, those guys, I know what you’re talking about.
Brock: And today there’s I think about 25 breweries in the Houston area and everyday I think there’s another one opening.
Amber: Yeah, every time I read the news there’s a new small, local place opening so you were the original small local place.
Brock: Yes we were and after about 12 years we were an overnight success.
Amber: Can you buy Saint Arnold anywhere in the United States?
Brock: No, Texas, a little bit of Louisiana and a little bit of Florida; actually all of Louisiana. But 2/3 of our sales are still right here in Houston so we really focus first and foremost on Texas and we don’t have any plans to expand beyond that.
Amber: So you’ve got a new facility and that allowed you to do many things; for instance, you guys are about to kick off lunch right now and y’all have been doing that for almost 2 years?
Brock: Yeah, a little over 2 actually.
Amber: So are you considered a brewery still or is it a little part brewery, a little part brew pub? How does that work?
Brock: I view us as a brewery. First and foremost we are a shipping brewery; I think shipping last year was 66,000 barrels of beer and if you look at all of the beer that we serve here on premise it’s probably maybe 1,000 barrels so most of our beer is going out into the public.
Amber: Off premise.
Brock: Right, and that’s first and foremost. Now adding lunch seemed to be kind of a nice addition, adding another opportunity for people to come and experience the brewery.
Amber: So tell me about your food program and why you chose to go with a professional chef instead of just I guess taking the easy route.
Brock: Well I’d always wanted to have a kitchen, that was something that I dreamt of since we opened the brewery and is part of like my kind of pipe dream and it became a reality a couple of years ago because we felt like if we were going to do food we want that quality to be very high. I told Chef when we hired him that I don’t care about making money at lunch. I don’t want to lose my butt but it’s not about making money; it’s about creating another great experience for people when they come and they visit Saint Arnold’s. But to me that’s ultimately what it’s about and why to accomplish that you need an accomplished chef so that’s why we hired Chef Ryan.
Amber: So you’re adding another layer to the experience of coming to the brewery.
Amber: And you do weekly tours – week day tours, it used to be just on the weekend.
Brock: We do tours now 6 days a week, hopefully we’ll be adding additional tours, we’d like to keep building on that. Our tour is still our number one most important piece of marketing that we do. Beer is a very personal relationship and so you have to have that person visiting the brewery, basically this becomes their beer and they go and they market for us.
Amber: They become invested once they see what happens behind the scenes.
Brock: Yes, and that’s how we’ve grown. It’s been very much organic and we still have a close relationship with all of our customers.
Amber: What role do you think that the tour has played in maybe the growth of craft beer throughout Houston?
Brock: What I’ve seen is the people who’ve come on our tour; some of those people have opened breweries. I see people from our tour – when I go visit other breweries I’ll see people who I used to see on our tour a lot, we’ll be on tours at other places. So I think there’s definitely we’ve helped seed the market and educate people about what craft beer is and I think we definitely helped create the whole educated the populous on craft beer and helped lay the groundwork so that other breweries could open. I love that we helped do that.
Amber: So it’s not only just the facilities, the lunch, just everything about the brewery that has changed, it’s that you have some new beer serried that you’ve slowly sort of started to add on to your flagship beers; tell us about that.
Brock: We keep adding, it’s part of the fun. I mean as a brewer – it’s funny, when I was a home brewer I never brewed the same beer twice. A couple times I would set out to brew the same beer but then once I started brewing it was like well, I want to tweak this, I want to do this.
Amber: Like a chef.
Brock: Exactly, I have the same problem when I cook. Actually at home and when I cook I’m a big recipe cooker but brewing I wasn’t so much. But we’re always looking to come out with new things, we have the Icon line of beers which has been a lot of fun giving our brewers a lot of chance to experiment with different styles; sometimes very traditional styles, sometimes innovative styles. The Divine Reserve series is now 10 years old, we have the Bishop’s Barrel series with all of our barrel aged beers and that’s now 3 years old and about every 3 months we come out with another small release of beer that’s been aged in barrels.
We average about a year in barrels, sometimes as short as maybe 4 or 5 months. The next release will actually have spent over 2 years in the barrels. We just came out with Art Car IPA, our kind of American style IPA. We’ve had Elissa IPA now for maybe 12 years which is much more of a British style though it uses American hops but much more of a balanced malt hops. Now we have Art Car IPA which is a much brighter, in your face, citrus – some people say tropical fruits – in the nose. We have other beers that we’re working on.
Amber: There’s always something new is what you’re saying.
Amber: And I know another new thing, speaking of Art Car IPA, is your canning series.
Brock: Yes, we are canning. It was a great idea that I had – I’m kidding by the way when I say that. I was the anti-can person.
Amber: Why is that?
Brock: When we opened a can was seen as a low quality beer; it was not a craft beer package. Oskar Blues really innovated when they started canning and then there were some companies that came out with some very inexpensive canning lines. And so what we started seeing was lots of craft breweries – new craft breweries – opening and only canning because you can get into canning for only $30-$35,000.00 whereas a decent bottling line would cost you about half a million. By the way, our canning line was about $2 million.
Amber: It wasn’t one of the cheap ones is what you’re saying.
Brock: I was holding out as the anti-can guy but my coworkers revolted, presented me with a contract one day fully negotiated and said just sign here and don’t worry your pretty little head about anything else and now I’ve come to really like cans, like where they go. It’s been great to be at a baseball game and have the hockers come down with a tray and hand me a big 16oz Lawnmower or Santo; that’s pretty darn exciting. So when it comes to cans I’ve learned to cook and eat my crow many different ways; I’m sautéing, grilling, baking, using all sorts of different sauces to really enjoy that crow.
Amber: Which just means that you’re a good business owner because you know when to give in to something that is important.
Brock: And I will say that because of what small breweries have been doing with cans, especially with craft beer consumers in their 20s, they actually prefer canned to bottled; there’s been this flip flop.
Amber: Oh those crazy Millennials, what is up with that?
Brock: Yeah, what is up with them? Kids…
Amber: No, that makes a lot of sense. It is easily portable; you can use it at a beach, you can find it at a baseball game so it’s opened up some avenues for you guys that weren’t there before.
Brock: It has, it has.
Amber: What are the things that you think you’ve learned in the last 10 years?
Brock: I would say first and foremost it’s about people; whether it’s coworkers or customers you always want to surround yourself with the best people and I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve done really well. I’ve put our team of people against any other brewery anywhere in the world; passionate, great fun people. People I love to have a beer with which is one of the tests for who we hire.
Amber: You’re involvement in the community is very noticeable, what brought that on?
Brock: When I started the brewery we wrote a mission statement. Actually before opening the brewery so 22 years ago I wrote a mission statement. It had two parts; one was brew and sell the best beer in Texas and the other one was to create an institution that Houston and the region was proud of. And another way to state that is it’s really about building community because to me beer is about community. Beer brings people together; it’s a very social beverage. I also believe that businesses should be a part of the community. We make our money off of the community so we need to be giving back to the community, but I think that a brewery is in a unique position of really being able to build that community.
You see in our tours people come, they bring friends, they bring family, they meet new people; the fact that it’s a 5% alcohol beverage means it’s something that you sit around and you can drink for a while. You can’t do that with martinis, at least and not be very communal. So we’re always looking for ways to be able to be involved in the community and typically what we do is we do things that we want to do and then we try to rationalize some sort of a business purpose.
Amber: Oh I see.
Brock: So whether it’s having an MS150 team – which we just tallied, our team has raised over $3 million since inception.
Amber: For MS research.
Brock: For MS research. We’re very involved in Texas Children’s Hospital – I have a very personal connection to that one, Rice – again I have a personal connection there; the Orange Show, the Art Car parades which we do that, again, it was something that we loved and wanted to do and we now have a fleet of Art Cars. All of our cars are hand painted by local artists; people think that oh, are those wraps? Nope, those are all painted. We renamed Brown Ale to be Ale Wagger and donate a dollar a case of that for animal rescue and again that’s something that, you know, I have 5 rescue animals at home. So I mean that’s often the way these things come about.
Amber: So it’s very personal.
Brock: So it’s a personal connection but then when we get involved we want to really have a positive effect on the organization and the community.
Amber: Thank you for joining us today Brock, we really appreciate it.
Amber: This is The BusinessMakers Show brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business and I’m Amber Ambrose.
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