By Layne Victoria Lynce
Photography by Kelly Rucker
It’s no secret that Austin-made brew is in the thick of a cultural revolution. In just a few short years, a handful of outlying craft breweries have transformed into an epicenter of astoundingly diverse, creative entities with such leaders as (512) Brewing Company, Austin Beerworks and Hops & Grain. With the recent changes in Texas alcohol legislation—allowing breweries to sell and serve directly on-site—the industry is at a tipping point.
Of course, behind every well-made product is a visionary, and for Real Ale that creative genius is Brad Farbstein. With a team of nearly 60 employees, Farbstein has evolved the Blanco-based company from a little-known brewery that produced an average of 500 barrels of beer a year in 1998 to a bustling brand that is predicted to reach 55,000 barrels by year’s end. “We’ve seen almost a 30 percent growth rate over the past year, and I’m sure that has something to do with the increase of local breweries,” he says. “Their growth has in turn helped us, and we’re all working together to inspire people to drink local Texas beer.”
Years before Farbstein acquired the Real Ale brewery, he often escaped to home brewing in his college apartment while studying economics at the University of Texas at Austin. Manipulating such ingredients as hops, grains, water and yeast, Farbstein honed a signature collection of homemade brew for his lacrosse teammates to kick back and critique. “I’ll be honest and say what initially attracted me to home brewing was the fact that, at 19, it was illegal for me to buy beer but I could buy hops and barley,” Farbstein admits. “As I got more into it though, it became this incredibly challenging process. It feels so methodical to take these very basic ingredients and transform them into something that really fascinates people. To this day, that’s what inspires me.”
Years of hustling and bustling as a local distributor for Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Company and Austin’s now-closed Microbility Beverage eventually led Farbstein to a fated encounter with Philip and Diane Conner of Real Ale, with whom he began to formally work in the late ’90s. “I really appreciated their commitment to high-quality ingredients and consistency with their beers,” he says. “I honestly think that’s what has helped [Real Ale] become what it is today. We don’t obsess over expansion; instead, we focus on creating a product that tastes the same every time.”
It only seemed fitting, then, that when the Conners decided to sell their young brewery in 1998, Farbstein seized the opportunity to manage the brand. With a portfolio of extremely successful Whole Foods Market stock Farbstein had purchased when he was 11 years old and a promise for additional profits to come, he bought the historic brewery from the Conners—bringing the establishment to heights even he could have never imagined over the following 15 years.
The first growth spurt under Farbstein’s wing came with the creation of Real Ale’s most popular beer: Fireman’s #4—a smooth blonde ale inspired by a playful collaboration between Farbstein and his bike-craftsman buddy, Greg Mundy of Fireman’s Texas Cruzers. “That is the fourth beer in our lineup and it comprises sixty percent of our sales. It’s a great beer…real balanced, hoppy and appeals to a wide range of beer drinkers.”
Through the years, more members have been added to the eclectic family tree, including the full-bodied, award-winning and spicy Rio Blanco Pale Ale, the aromatic, citrusy-sweet Devil’s Backbone and seasonally inspired options like the smooth Coffee Porter and the toffee-sweet, caramely Phoenixx Double Extra Special Bitter. One thing Farbstein never plans to do, however, is force his Blanco-based products beyond state lines into unfamiliar territory. “We’re in Texas and that’s how I want to keep it. I once heard someone say that pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered, and I absolutely agree with that assertion. We want to focus on being innovative, creative, nimble and flexible. Once you start focusing too much on growth, you inevitably lose your passion.”
In the coming months, Real Ale plans to draw on their beverage creativity and innovation by rolling out additional seasonal and limited-edition flavors along with the long-awaited tasting room on the second floor of their brewing facility. In the spacious tasting room, patrons will be able to sip and savor flavorful, fragrant beers while watching the strenuous production process below and the sprawling Hill Country landscape. “We struggled for years to get a bill passed that would allow us to do something like this,” Farbstein says. “It’s relieving to see all that energy, support and focus everyone in the industry put into this legislation is finally paying off. I feel like we’re about to see an even greater expansion of Texas breweries.”