Saint Arnold Brewing Company - Exotic Texas Beer

St Arnolds Brewery Brock Wagner
Saint Arnold Brewing Company
Published August, 2007

It's not hard to get a Texan to drink a beer. It's about like convincing a rock to sink to the bottom of a pond. It is, however, tougher to get a Texan to drink an unknown, possibly exotic beer. Like most people, Texans are creatures of habit and one of their most ingrained habits is their beer choice.

Upon reaching legal drinking age (or thereabouts), a Texan might spend a few weeks, or maybe even months, settling on a favorite beer but after that, its pretty much for life. Texans are more likely to change religions than beers.

There are three key factors Texans consider when choosing their beer. First is peer pressure. Young people everywhere, including in Texas, want to be part of the "in" crowd. That means drinking what the rest of the in crowd is drinking, like it or not.

Second is consistency. Much like eating at a familiar fast food franchise while traveling; it may not be the best, but at least it's predictable. And finally, there's availability. Texans like knowing their beer of choice is going to be readily available in any self-respecting ice house across the state. Its pretty unlikely that anyone in the Lone Star State (home of Lone Star Beer) is going to pledge allegiance to a beer they may only be able to find on occasion.

Thats not to say there aren't any craft beers in Texas. There are. But for a state with a population of more than 23 million, 72 percent of which is over 18, its surprisingly few. There are only five craft beer breweries in Texas.

Brewing Beer in a Rice University Dormroom

The oldest, the St. Arnold Brewery in Houston, was founded by Brock Wagner in 1994. Wagner was a student at Rice University when he took up home, or rather, dorm, brewing.

"I basically ran a pub out of my dorm room. It was definitely not sanctioned by the university. By the time I graduated I was on double secret probation over a beer marathon I ran with some friends of mine. We hadnt broken any rules but the university was not amused."

Wagner was a wine drinker until he met one of the resident associates at Rice who got him interested in beer. "I was a fan of beer, but wine was actually my passion."

After sampling a few imported beers at a restaurant near campus, Wagner realized how limited the local over-the-counter selection was. Thats when he decided to make his own.

An entrepreneur at heart, Wagner spent two years studying mechanical engineering before changing his major to economics and managerial studies. "I always knew I wanted to have my own company," he says. "While I was studying engineering I realized I loved the course work but hated the job. Thats when I switched to economics."

Wagner had already spent several years as an investment banker when his grandfather died in California. In the fall of 1992, while attending the funeral, Wagner reflected on some advice his grandfather had given him.

"He told me he considered himself a very lucky man because hed enjoyed his work every day of his life. He had a nursery business and then when he retired he opened a botanical garden. He did that for 25-30 years, right up until he died.

"That got me to thinking about what I love. If I could do anything I wanted, what would it be?

"After years of being an investment banker, I realized I wasn't motivated by money. That wasn't what got me up in the morning. Thats when I decided to open a brewery."

St. Arnolds shipped its first keg of beer in 1994, more than a year after Wagners epiphany. "One of the odd things about the process was that I thought it was a crazy idea but everyone else I talked to about it thought it was great. I sort of wanted a little resistance. Maybe I was hoping someone would try to talk me out of it."

That first batch was an amber ale, still the flagship of the St. Arnold fleet. The brewery now produces as many as a dozen different beers at a time. And while sales of craft beer are growing around the state, it's an uphill struggle.

Once a Texan develops a taste for craft beer, he's similar to craft beer drinkers around the country. Wagner explains that the state's beer taste is a cultural phenomenon.

"You just have fewer people in Texas who are willing to drink craft beers. Culturally, Texas is a very different group than in other places."

Wagner uses colleges campuses, known for consuming a fair amount of beer, as an example. A University of Colorado student, he says, might consider it fashionable to be seen drinking a craft beer. "He likes the outdoors, skiing, mountain climbing. He likes good food and good beer. Its just part of his psyche."

The Big Man On Campus at the University of Texas, according to Wagner, likes to hunt and drink Bud Light.

"That's starting to change a little bit," he admits. "It's starting to be seen as okay to have good taste."

Wagner adds that once a Texan develops a taste for craft beer, he's similar to craft beer drinkers around the country. "They just like good beer."

Texas' Marketing Hurdles

One of the things limiting craft brewing in Texas, other than Texan's taste buds, is the states three-tier marketing system. Brewers can only sell their beer to distributors, who then sell it to retailers. Wagner says tweaking that law would help craft beers make a name for themselves.

"In every state where craft brewing thrives, breweries are allowed to have some level of direct sales to the public and distribution. In states where craft beers do well, microbrewers like ourselves are allowed to distribute our beer but we can also have a little brew pub and sell some beer direct to people.

"The thing that's so important about that is if we had some direct sales, every six pack we sell directly to the public has the profit value of 10 six packs we sell to our distributor. So a very small amount of sales has a huge impact on profits. I'm not trying to put supermarkets and liquor stores out of business, in fact I'd be the high-price vendor in the market. The stupidest thing I could do would be to try to undercut supermarkets. They'd drop me pretty quick if I did that."

In a perfect world, says Wagner, St. Arnold would brew 20,000 barrels of beer a year and distribute it throughout Texas. "Beer is best when its fresh and we dont pasteurize our beer or put any kind of preservatives in it, so we'd only distribute it in Texas. It really makes a difference in the quality of the beer. And were certainly more about quality than quantity. I'm doing this because I love it. I don't have anything to prove."

Contact: Saint Arnold Brewing Company website

Caribbean Fried Rice

  • 3 tablespoons peanut or corn oil
  • 1 lb. chicken breast, chopped into 1-in. chunks
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 green scallion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme, finely chopped
  • 1 Scotch bonnet chile, seeded and minced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and minced
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and minced
  • 3 celery stalks with leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup cooked green beans
  • 2 carrots, peeled, cooked and diced
  • 3 oz. light lager blended with 1 egg
  • 4 cups cooked rice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Place oil in a large wok set over medium heat and fry chicken until white and cooked.

Add onions, garlic, thyme, peppers, chile, celery leaves and cook until onions are soft, about 5 minutes, stirring often, over medium heat. Add tomato puree, beans and carrots, and reducing heat to low, cook 3 minutes. Add rice, stir to blend, and using the spoon, push the rice up the sides of the wok, clearing a space nearest the heat.

Pour in the egg and lager mixture into the well, and cook egg until just beginning to scramble, then blend in rice and heat through. Serve hot.

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