If you enjoy beer and you’re a Houstonian, you know Saint Arnold Brewing Co. and its founder, Brock Wagner. Affable, tall, and wiry, and hiding his blonde hair under a big ol’ cowboy hat, he’s the Grand Poobah of the local scene. Heck, he helped to create it.
Exactly 25 years ago—on June 9, 1994—Wagner shipped his very first keg of Saint Arnold Amber Ale, an instant game-changer for the city. It was a confusing, difficult time to be a brewer in Texas, though. Wagner could make beer and, ultimately, distribute it to bars and supermarkets and the like, but he couldn’t sell it for consumption, or to go, at his own brewery; instead, he had to give it away during tours.
Still, the year prior, the state had established what was called a brewpub license, which allowed small brewers to sell their products in taprooms but not distribute anywhere beyond that. The result was that brewpubs started opening around Houston for the first time, during the same era that Saint Arnold was born. And so, despite challenges, the city began to discover the joys of craft beer.
Since those early days, a lot has changed. While things haven’t opened up entirely, Wagner and others spent years advocating for more permissive laws to allow smaller breweries to gain a foothold in the industry, and in 2013 they had some success—brewers are now allowed to both make beer for wider distribution and sell it on their premises. The Texas Senate just recently passed a bill allowing larger craft producers to sell their beer to go. The result is the new generation of breweries that’s exploded across H-Town.
We recently met up with Wagner to chat about the evolution of the beer scene in Houston over some darn good burgers at EaDo’s Rodeo Goat. He got the Nanny Goat, with herbed chèvre complementing a huge, juicy, loosely packed beef patty, while we attacked the Whiskey Burger topped with whiskey cheddar, candied bacon, blackberry compote, and mustard. Both were perfect washed down with—what else?—Saint Arnold beers.
Before the arrival of brewpubs in Houston, in 1993, and Saint Arnold the year after, what was the city’s beer scene like?
A fancy thing was getting a big oil can of Foster’s. Seriously, there was nothing down here. You had Bass Ale. La Carafe actually had Heineken on tap, which was funny because I remember having Heineken on tap and thinking it didn’t taste right because it wasn’t skunked.
How much did things change afterward?
There were a lot of brewpubs that opened up in this town. In fact, I used to put together this thing where we had these monthly brewers’ meetings, and we’d all get together at one of our establishments. We had a nascent brewing community. There were probably four at a time, and we had a total of maybe 11 or 12 or something. And then they all failed.
What made them fail?
I kind of feel like Houston was a little cursed—there wasn’t such an upsurge of demand for craft beer that it helped these places overcome whatever their flaw was, and they all kind of had a flaw. And that flaw could in some cases be that they had bad beer.
You’re saying consumers weren’t quite there yet.
If people came on the tour, they tended to be open-minded and wanted to learn. I would take people through and have them chew on all the malts. When we had a random group coming in, you’d get a bunch of people trying the beer, but you’d have so many people saying, ‘Give me a Light. Give me a Light.’
When did the tide start to turn?
I think about 2009. That’s when you started seeing a few breweries opening up, and it wasn’t an insignificant number. I think that’s one of the things that helped us get the laws passed in 2013.
What happened once the laws opened up?
That was a game changer. You can have a nice career doing this. It’s like having a restaurant or any other business like that, where you can have a lot of them.
Now there are breweries producing wild ales, milkshake beers, hazy beers—literally everything is fair game. What do you think of all that?
I think it’s great. I don’t see any reason to open a brewery and do the exact same thing everybody else does. I think the community here is much richer because people are doing different things, and that’s where you see people succeeding, because they’re doing them well. And I think the customers are getting more. They’re more educated, and they demand quality. We also have a lot of alumni out there, brewing beer and doing a good job.
It feels like the beer scene here is finally becoming community- and locality-focused.
When you have all these new places opening around the city, it’s easier to have something that’s truly local to you. It used to be that on a Saturday you would see people at Saint Arnold from the entire city of Houston. Well, you still see that, but now if I go out to No Label, Southern Star, Bakfish, or some place, I’ll see people who I used to see at Saint Arnold all the time, but now that brewery is two minutes from their house, whereas we’re 30 minutes away. And I think that’s a good thing.
Houston is known for its diverse food scene. Do you hope folks from other parts of the world come here to help push the beer scene further?
Absolutely. You get different tastes. This is an international city, and everybody has their own take. You haven’t really seen ethnic diversity in brewing in Houston, like you do in the food here, and I think that would be something pretty exciting to see.