Sunday, April 29, 2012

Brewing Bigshot Interview Series: Brock Wagner, St. Arnold's Brewing



Once Upon A Time...I met Nicole, the Louisiana sales and marketing rep for St. Arnold's Brewing on a fine Friday evening when she bought me a pint of their Elyssa IPA on cask. We sat and talked about the brewery and its beers, and the events that St. Arnold's was hosting. We started talking about the passion and vision of the founder, Brock Wagner, and she mentioned that she thought he'd agree to be interviewed by me.

Sure enough, about a week or so later, I got an email from Nicole to set up the phone interview. Which... I  forgot about because I got so slammed at work. Both Nicole and Brock were very gracious about understanding that I am juggling a full time job alongside this SUPER GLAMOROUS blogging gig, and I was able to reschedule for the next morning.

The following morning, I called Brock at his office and, after profusely apologizing to the point of probable annoyance, I busted out my best mad interview skillz.

Brock Wagner
(all images courtesy of the St. Arnold website)
A little background (gleaned from my careful review of their website) on St. Arnold's: Brock Wagner (along with a partner, Kevin Bartol) founded the brewery in 1994, making it the oldest craft brewery in Texas. Wagner is a homebrewer and bases most of his recipes on the traditional German and British styles. Think brown ale, traditional IPA, Kölsch, Pils, Bock, Oktoberfest. There's a lot of room for creativity within style parameters, like subbing out a Bavarian hefeweizen yeast for their Fancy Lawnmower kölsch yeast to create Weedwacker. Or the Divine Reserve series, which basically is a once a year release of a big beer that they've been working on. A few have become regular beer selections, like the Double IPA Endeavor and the Imperial Pumpkin Stout Pumpkinator.

Wagner's primary beer philosophy is simple and two pronged: one, you need to create a great beer that's great BEFORE you tinker with it (cask conditioning, barrel aging) and two, beer has soul. We discussed the soul of the beer when talking about his brewing team- how they're a integral part of the development process (a role that Wagner had shouldered alone at the start of St. Arnold's production) and they all love beer, love drinking beer, love brewing beer, love being creative with beer, love challenging themselves and each other to make better beer. He's convinced that love gives the beer soul and can be tasted in the beer itself. (I started to respond to this metaphor in a somewhat metaphysical fashion, talking about that beer is a living thing, with the yeast, and as such, takes on the energy around it... and then realized I sounded like a crazy person. Point is, I personally agree with his philosophy.) "You can taste if it’s been brewed for marketing purposes as opposed to people putting their heart and soul into it," Wagner said.

As Wagner has a somewhat "Elder Statesman" status since his brewery has been around for almost twenty years, I asked him his opinions on beer trends and fashions. He demurred about making any predictions - "I get asked that a lot, and though I know the beer world will be different in five years, I have no idea how" - but did weigh in on the recent trend of brewery collaborations.  Short answer: "I hate them." Longer answer: Wagner explains that he just doesn't understand the point of them. He pointed to the collaboration that most would say started the trend, the Russian River/Avery Collaboration Not Litigation beer. "There was a purpose to it, a story behind it," he said. Now, however, "what are these brewers trying to do, exactly?" he continues, "it's lost on me."

Hilariously (and the irony was not lost on him or the rest of his brew crew), St. Arnold's is actually kind of doing a collaboration, in a sense. In support of Seattle's Fremont Brewing Company's initiative in raising money for Operation Homefront (a charity dedicated to providing assistance to service members and their families), St. Arnold's and four other breweries will be replicating Fremont's Homefront IPA using their own in-house yeast. Wagner says he hopes to raise $100,000 through St. Arnold's participation alone. So, it's kind of a collaboration, but he points out that there's a reason to unite in this fashion, to raise awareness and funds for this cause that obviously resonates with him.

Ole St. Arnold himself
I asked him, since St. Arnolds has been around for a while, what changes have you seen in the craft beer market during the lifetime of the brewery? The two biggest shifts, he answered, are in the improvement in the quality of the beer, as well as a demographic and palate change in the consumer. When he first started in 1994, he said, “there were only like 37 craft beer drinkers in the area, and I knew all of them.” so when he started brewing professionally, he brewed for those dudes, but also made sure to brew lighter beers like the Fancy Lawnmower to attract people away from the BMC (Bud, Miller, Coors) beers. It's a sign of a fundamental change in the craft brew market over the last twenty years, that even though the Fancy Lawnmower is still growing, Elyssa IPA has moved from 25% of Lawnmower’s sales to 75%. And now craft beer drinkers are of all ages, walks of life, and, of course, both genders.

When we started talking about the changing demographics of the craft beer drinker, I asked him his thoughts about women in the craft beer world, because I'm always interested to hear different perspectives of that. He says that in his experience, any disparity between men and women when it comes to consuming and appreciating (and brewing) craft beer is more perception rather than reality. He admits that when you go to the major brewer's conferences they tend to be "sausage fests," but that there are women drinking craft beer everywhere he goes, so it's just a case of changing the perception. St. Arnold's has several women on staff in a variety of roles, including a brewer, and also actively supports a national craft beer organization for women, Girls' Pint Out. The Texas chapter has held a couple of ladies-only events at the brewery that have sold out pretty much immediately.  They had just held one as a fundraiser the night before I spoke to Brock, actually. I appreciated his willingness to discuss gender in the beer world, as it's a topic I'm endlessly interested in and enjoy hearing about, but sometimes people get defensive just by my bringing it up. Wagner did not, and we had a great talk about it.

I brought up another favorite topic of mine, the session beer. He said that he loves being able to drink a beer that he can enjoy several of in one sitting but that the market, in his estimation, is not quite ready for session beers to become the norm. He doesn't think that the average craft beer drinker is ready to shell out the same amount of money ($8 for a six-pack) for something with less alcohol.  He and I agreed that we both, personally, would, but as a business owner that knows that his costs will remain constant regardless of ABVs, it's a wait and see attitude. (Guess that means that session beer education for the craft beer consumer must carry on!) Accordingly, he goes by the cutoff of 5% or under for what he (and the craft beer market) considers a session beer, as opposed to the 4.5% advocated by the Session Beer Project

I asked him a completely ridiculous question - what is your favorite St. Arnold's beer? And he responded with the fairly typical response - can't choose, like choosing a favorite child. Though he did make an excellent point, in that, he became a brewer so he could brew his favorite beers, heh. He mentioned that he did have specific favorite beers for different moods, though.  (he did not elaborate, however.) While we were talking, one of his brewers came in his office to have Brock taste a batch sample. I didn't hear what they said, but when he got back on the phone, he explained that he tastes every batch of every beer as they age, and it is actually as not as much fun as one might think, because in that case, he's working hard to find flaws. See?  Educational!


SO ANYWAY! Brock and his team are gonna be in New Orleans for American Craft Beer Week! I asked him if they were gonna be doing such cool stuff in Houston or any other Texas markets for ACBW, but other than a couple beer dinners before coming to New Orleans, this will be the big "St. Arnold on Tour" hurrah. I asked him why, and he told me it was a great excuse for them to come hang out in New Orleans for a few days and have lots of fun. "I love Louisiana and New Orleans," Brock said. "This is a great excuse for us to go enjoy the city and make a splash." Louisiana has shown lots of love to St. Arnold Brewing too. Although they've only been distributed here since late 2010, their market growth has been faster than they anticipated. Wagner says that the brewery tours have always had lots of Louisiana residents, especially when LSU was playing in town. 

I had a great time talking to Brock and I'm looking forward to his visiting New Orleans in a couple weeks, especially the Crawfish Boil with the NOLA Pie Guy on Sunday.  Crawfish, beer, and pie... perfection!

Whoa, this was long.  If you got here to the end, I owe you a beer! Just remind me when I see ya next.

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