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Saint Arnold Brewing Co. Reflects on First 20 Years

June 2014 marked Saint Arnold Brewing Company’s 20th anniversary

Saint Arnold Brewing Company is known as the oldest craft brewery in Texas, but other craft breweries came before it. To outlast its predecessors, Saint Arnold has had to fight for shelf and tap space, cultivate a craft beer community and find workarounds to arcane state brewing laws. Along the way the brewery has played a central role in shaping a thriving craft beer culture and has defined how craft beer is brewed and enjoyed throughout Texas.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that brewing beer was Saint Arnold Founder/Brewer Brock Wagner’s destiny. His great-great-great grandfather, Ferdinand Wagner, was a saloon keeper in New Orleans before heading to San Francisco on the heels of the gold rush in 1852. He established Wagner's Beer Hall in San Francisco, which somehow survived the devastating earthquake and fire that struck San Francisco in 1906, and remains the oldest continuously operating bar in the city, now called The Saloon.

The child of a Proctor and Gamble executive, Brock spent his formative years in Brussels, Belgium. He remembers accompanying his parents on trips to Burgundy, having wine with dinner and how his pallet developed even while he was very young. His earliest memory of a special beer was trying Hudepohl Brewing Co.’s Christian Moerlein as a teenager in Cincinnati. Christian Moerlein was the first American beer to brew in strict compliance with the Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Law.

“I remember having that beer and thinking, ‘Wow, this really has a nice flavor to it!’” Brock told Foodways Texas in a 2011 interview. “Looking back, it was a nice malty, probably…a Vienna, but it was a really nice beer.”

Wagner first discovered his passion for brewing when he was a Rice University student in Economics. A professor of Wagner’s shared his own experiences, knowledge and excitement about home brewing, and Wagner began brewing in his dorm room.

''I started home brewing at Rice,'' Wagner told the Houston Chronicle in 2008. ''I ran my own little illicit pub out of my dorm room.''

While Wagner considered brewing as a career, it was too dream-like. His overall career goal was to have his own company and, after graduating, he felt that would best be achieved in finance. He stepped from Rice University to considerable success in investment banking. During the next seven years he worked on corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions projects totaling more than $4 billion.

“Originally I thought the motivation would be to make a lot of money. After seven years of investment banking, I came to realize money wasn’t my motivating factor,” Wagner told Forbes in 2010. “I had told my boss that I thought he was an idiot. Not surprisingly, he wanted to fire me. I decided I had to do something that I was passionate about.”

By the time Wagner arrived in California for a family Thanksgiving in 1992 he was re-evaluating everything in his life, “I started thinking about what my grandfather had said about loving what he did every day,” Brock told Ronnie Crocker in his book, Houston Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Bayou City.

Wagner talked to his family and decided to start brewing professionally. He teamed with fellow Rice alumnus Kevin Bartol, who also jumped out of investment banking.

“Kevin is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life,” Wagner told Rice University in 2013. “I’m a little more of a pie in the sky kind of guy, while his mind is very logical, which provided a good balance. He’s also a great negotiator – he could negotiate water from a rock. That was really critical in our research and starting up the company.”

Wagner and Bartol analyzed the financials of all the beer companies they could, and they explored the production facilities of 25 breweries to learn scaled up brewing techniques and business practices.

“I remember being taken aback at how friendly and helpful all the brewers were,” said Wagner.

The two partners started the company with $900,000 raised from their own savings, and from friends and family. They named it Saint Arnold Brewing Company in honor or St. Arnold of Metz, France, the patron saint of brewers. St. Arnold was famous for encouraging local peasants to drink beer instead of water due to its “gift of health.” What neither the brewers nor the drinkers understood at the time was that the brewing process killed the pathogens in water. As a result, the water could cause deadly illness, but the beer was safe to drink. This same story is also told of St. Arnold of Soissons, another patron of brewers.

Wagner and Bartol rented a warehouse in northwest Houston and began the brewery build-out on January 1, 1994. Their goals were to brew world class beers, create an institution that made Houston proud and foster a community of people who appreciate great, full-flavored beers. Wagner set about developing the recipe for their first beer, a rich, malty pale ale with a pleasant hop profile.  He experimented with yeasts and refined their recipe, finally settling on a yeast from a now defunct brewery in the south of England that gave the beer a pleasant creamy character.  That became the Saint Arnold house yeast still used in many of their beer recipes 20 years later.

That first beer was Saint Arnold Amber Ale, which remains their flagship product. It took six test batches to achieve the desired balance between the complex hop aroma, rich malty body and floral hop finish. The recipe has remained unchanged since 1994.

Saint Arnold filled their first kegs on June 9, 1994 and trucked them to eight accounts, five of which are still open:  Big Easy, Ginger Man, JP Hops House, Richmond Arms and Star Pizza. All five have carried Saint Arnold continuously for the past 20 years.

In the beginning, achieving acceptance from beer drinkers and gaining space for taps in bars and restaurants and for bottles on store shelves was a massive undertaking. With few exceptions, taps were devoted to popular American light lagers made in factories by conglomerates. Most beer drinkers lacked the palettes to enjoy the full flavor and greater complexity of a craft beer. They wanted their beer to be predictable, not surprising. Saint Arnold’s production was 610 barrels.

But Saint Arnold’s beer was surprising others in the craft brewing world as their beer was among the best. Saint Arnold Amber Ale and Saint Arnold Brown Ale each won 1st Place in their respective categories at the Colorado State Fair in 1995. Then in 1996, both won Silver Medals at the World Beer Championships. Brown Ale added a Silver Medal at the World Beer cup that same year.

Rather than using expensive advertising to build an audience for their beer, Saint Arnold employed a “guerilla marketing” strategy. They set out to do what no conglomerate could: connect in a personal way with beer lovers. State law prohibited breweries from selling to consumers, so they opened the brewery to the public on Saturdays and served samples for free.

The first weekend, 10 people showed up. But word-of-mouth and an aggressive effort to collect e-mail addresses for what would become the Saint Arnold Army steadily spread the brewery’s story. A year later, the typical tour attracted a few dozen people. A few years after that, hundreds were descending upon the brewery on a typical Saturday, and the tradition of bringing chairs, food and games was established.

These tours were essential for establishing the local craft beer community and building Saint Arnold’s support over the years. Using blast e-mails and organizing pub crawls built brand loyalty – both among beer lovers and the bars that sold their beer. Production grew steadily.

In 1999, Kevin Bartol decided to sell a substantial amount of his ownership in Saint Arnold. He remains an investor and the brewery recognizes him as “founder emeritus.” Bartol is now an executive with a global provider of offshore contract drilling services.

By 2003, Saint Arnold’s annual production reached 7,000 barrels. Growth had been slow but steady through its first 10 years. But tastes were changing. The people coming to the tours were younger. Bars were adding taps and new bars were opening with a dozen or more taps – something unheard of just a few years before.

And the Saint Arnold Army played a significant role – not only advocating for craft beer but helping fund brewery initiatives. For instance, customers contributed $6,000 toward the purchase of a reverse osmosis machine to make better beer. Saint Arnold auctioned naming rights for brewing vessels, the money from which helped to fund new equipment.

Saint Arnold’s growth and innovation were about to explode. In 2004, Saint Arnold introduced Saint Arnold Elissa IPA. In 2005, the brewery unveiled plans for a series of small batch releases: Saint Arnold Divine Reserve. At the time, the idea of releasing a variety of different beer styles under a single label was unheard of. Response for Saint Arnold Divine Reserve No. 1 on November 2nd, 2005 was immediate, overwhelming and history making. No beer release in Texas had ever generated such excitement.

Production was up 27 percent in 2004, and then surpassed 10,000 barrels in 2005.

The decision to add an entry fee for the brewery tour in 2006 didn’t cause a ripple – and it became the model adopted by most other Texas craft breweries today.

2007 marked its highest growth rate ever – 30 percent – and production reached nearly 18,000 barrels.  An estimated 50,000 people visited the brewery that year. But space constraints had become serious.

“Our current location has served us well and has helped us accomplish a lot by making great beer, but we have run out of space,” Wagner said at the time.

Wagner’s vision was to repurpose an historic building into a downtown brewery that would expand the character of Houston’s core. He imagined a social center of the community, as well as a place of commerce and an industrial producer. His search led him to 2000 Lyons Avenue. The original structure was built in 1914 and most recently it had been used to store frozen foods for the Houston Independent School District.

When Wagner first visited the site, its faded and worn exterior struck him as having just the right rough-hewn character and charm.

“It’s exactly what I always wanted.” Wagner told writer Ronnie Crocker.

The brewhouse for the new facility came from Klosterbrauerei Raitenhaslach, a Bavarian monastery that historians believe began brewing as early as 1313 before discontinuing its brewing operations in 2003.

“Our brewing philosophy is very traditional,” said Wagner at the time. “We feel a responsibility to uphold the rich beer culture that has been nurtured for centuries in Germany, and the symbolism of Saint Arnold’s new brewhouse coming from a monastery is not lost on us.”

Saint Arnold commenced brewing in its new facility in early 2010 and shortly thereafter expanded tours to weekday afternoons. The first kitchen ever opened in a distributing craft brewery in Texas was added in 2013 to serve weekday lunches and food to accompany Saturday tours. The facility also accommodated the development of a barrel aging program, with a refrigerated room devoted to aging beer in oak barrels from wineries, and distillers of bourbon and rum. The program led to the creation of the Bishop’s Barrel series, launched in 2012.

Saint Arnold Brewery now attracts thousands of passionate craft beer lovers each week. They come for the lunches, tours, parties, fundraising events, wedding receptions and community gatherings.

After 16 years focusing solely on Texas markets, Saint Arnold expanded distribution to Louisiana in 2010. Portions of Florida were added in 2013.

Saint Arnold brews a wide variety of year-round, seasonal and special release beers. Saint Arnold Amber Ale and Saint Arnold Brown Ale have been around the longest. The brewery’s top-seller, Saint Arnold Fancy Lawnmower, a delicate and complex Kölsch that truly reveals the brewmaster’s skills, was introduced in 2000. Elissa IPA came in 2004, followed by Santo, a black Kölsch, and Weedwacker – originally released as part of the brewery’s “Movable Yeast” series – in 2011. Endeavour Double IPA – originally Saint Arnold Divine Reserve No. 11 – was introduced in 2012. The brewery released its seventh year-round beer, Saint Arnold Boiler Room Berliner Weisse, this spring.

Seasonals including Saint Arnold Spring Bock, Summer Pils, Oktoberfest, Christmas Ale, Winter Stout, Pumpkinator (originally released as Saint Arnold Divine Reserve No. 9) and Sailing Santa, which was inspired by customers requesting a mix of Elissa IPA with Christmas Ale.

Saint Arnold’s special series now include three beer lines: Divine Reserve, Bishop’s Barrel and Icon. To date, there have been 14 Divine Reserve beers – all big single batch brews. Bishop’s Barrel beers are aged in oak barrels in the brewery’s barrel room and released to bars and restaurants in bottles. Icon beers are released every three months or so, and feature a variety of beer styles under four labels distinguished by their color.

Annual production is now greater than 60,000 barrels. In August 2014, the brewery completed installation of a brew kettle that transformed its operation into a four-vessel brewhouse. This increased capacity from 90,000 barrels to approximately 240,000 barrels and will accommodate production needs for the foreseeable future.

The constant experimentation and innovation, the small batch releases, the fact that Brock Wagner remains hands-on and makes the brewery as personable as a handshake – are all reflections of Saint Arnold’s roots in homebrewing. Wagner still considers himself a homebrewer, but with an awesomely equipped facility and a highly skilled and creative group of brewing friends.

20 years into it, Saint Arnold Brewing Company’s staff of 60 dedicated employees is having fun, producing world-class full-flavored beers and constantly coming up with new ways to surprise beer lovers.


More Stories By Daniel Keeney

Dan Keeney is the president of DPK Public Relations, which represents PULSE, The Aldridge Company, Schipul - The Web Marketing Company, Society for Heart Attack Prevention and Eradication, ERHC Energy, Saint Arnold Brewing Company, Arocha Hair Restoration among other companies. Specialties include helping organizations increase their positive visibility and establish and strengthen relationships with influencers in their markets.

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