by Layne Lynch
Photography by Chasity Ann Noel
Twenty years ago, Saint Arnold Brewing Company (named for the patron saint of hop-pickers and brewers) set out to establish itself in Houston’s Warehouse District. Fast forward to the present day and the award-winning craft brewery has accomplished that and much more. The urban brewhouse’s sales have soared over the past few years (reaching an average of nearly 55,000 barrels last year), but it’s the widespread influence the ale enterprise has bestowed upon the Texas brewing industry as a whole that makes Saint Arnold’s headquarters a traveler’s destination.
When Brock Wagner launched Saint Arnold Brewing Company in 1994 with just a simple amber ale, he was embarking upon operating one of the first craft breweries in the state.
In the years since Saint Arnold’s inception, up-and-coming breweries around Texas have credited this pioneer craft brewery for firing up the immense diversity we’re witnessing in the industry today. “Craft breweries were unheard of,” he says, “so I wasn’t sure if we would take off or if our sales would fall flat.”
Wagner was indeed courting a risky business venture. Though he came from a lineage of successful beverage entrepreneurs and grew up living in international beer and wine hubs, such as Belgium and Burgundy, at that time he was merely a savvy homebrewer who had left a stable job in investment banking to test his hand at mass production. What’s more, he was introducing a somewhat bitter, no-name beer to a culture that religiously bought light, name-brand brew and wasn’t familiar with terms such as “hops” or “IPA.” “Back then, it wasn’t like people described the types of beers they liked to drink. They mostly stuck with brands, like Coors Light or Budweiser,” says Wagner. “Now, consumers can easily recite the spectrum of styles and flavors of beers they drink, like IPAs and Hefeweizen.”
That once-mundane beer culture has been literally transformed before Wagner’s eyes. In the early days, Saint Arnold’s Saturday tours would pull in anywhere from two to 20 visitors. Compare that to the nearly 1,000 that crowd in on any given Saturday these days, and it’s clear the company has infused something viral into its fizzy, hoppy waters.
But none of this happened overnight. In fact, Wagner says his team isn’t doing anything much differently than they did in the early years; it took about a decade for the public to shift to purchasing local-purveyor goods and for the brewery to begin noticing a spike in sales. “We never changed what we were doing,” Wagner says. “We didn’t advertise around the city or preach to people about craft beer. We focused on quality and consistency. By the mid-two thousands, I think it had sunk into the psyche of beer drinkers that beer was about more than buying a brand. That’s when people really started coming out to see what we were doing here.”
The Saint Arnold’s warehouse, with its worn, red-brick facade, now serves as an entertaining destination for out-of-towners and locals alike. Against a backdrop of comical Saint Arnold murals and the giant steel brewing tanks, patrons play board games, relax at grandiose picnic tables and order from a menu of New American dishes. Over in the beer hall on a recent Saturday, people from all walks of life engaged in a range of celebration milestones—from 21st birthdays and Houston Texans tailgates, to college graduations and long-delayed Texas road trips. But whatever the occasion, it’s clear the visitors all come for one thing: the libations. Wagner and his team of 60 employees have crafted a selection of permanent and seasonal drinks that conjure cult-like followings. A few include the Fancy Lawnmower, a citrusy, hoppy, German-style beer; the Endeavour, a silky, strong, double IPA; Elissa IPA, a malty-bodied, traditional India pale ale; Summer Pils, a warm-weather, aromatic, sweet beer; and an ever-popular Divine Reserve series, which releases small batches around Houston every few months that almost always sell out within two hours of hitting store shelves. “With the Divine Series, I never intended to create a product that makes anyone wait in line,” Wagner says. “But I’ve learned that most people actually enjoy the time it takes to get their hands on the beer.”
In the years since Saint Arnold’s opening, young breweries, such as Deep Ellum Brewing Co., Pedernales Brewing Co., Dodging Duck Brewhaus and Austin Beerworks, have popped up across the state—leaving plenty of room for diversity and competition in the craft playing field. Yet, there’s something special about visiting one of Texas’ original craft breweries that awakens a deep sense of pride in all beer-drinking Texans.