Divine Drinking

Throughout the years, Catholic saints have handed down plenty of advice on how to live: Behave piously, don't be greedy and so on. But let's face it, there's not one of them you'd invite to your next party -- that is, save one bearded fellow who could probably drink you under the table: St. Arnold, the Patron Saint of Brewers.

The real-life bishop of Metz, France, lived from 580-640 A.D., and gained fame by encouraging his parishioners to drink beer -- and lots of it -- when local water supplies were contaminated. "From man's sweat and God's love, beer came into the world," he's reputed to have said. And his spirit lives on today in the microbrewery (Houston's first and only) that bears his name. You can see exactly how the divine liquid is made, and sample plenty of the end product, every Saturday at the St. Arnold's Brewery Tour and Tasting.

The tour traces St. Arnold's four basic ingredients -- malted grain, water, hops and yeast -- as they become the bottles of joy known as Kristall Weizen, Brown and Amber ales. But for founders Kevin Bartol and Brock Wagner -- former investment bankers who quit their jobs and tapped St. Arnold's first keg in June 1994 -- it's not just about the scientific process.

"How many of you are professionals who have been with us before?" Bartol asked a group one Saturday. Several men raised their own glasses -- with the St. Arnold's logo, of course -- and nodded in affirmation. "Good. But for the new people, we won't run out of beer. And don't worry -- the tasting lasts longer than the tour." The tasting, in fact, resembles nothing short of a spontaneous kegger with guests like Japanese tourists, ballcap-wearing frat boys, young marrieds and the occasional septuagenarian.

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Tour-goers are often surprised to learn that their docents are the heads of the company, but Wagner says he can't think of anything more fun: "I get to talk to people about beer and host a party every week." And the patrons couldn't be happier. Jim Spackman brought along his 78-year-old grandfather and seven-year-old son (he wasn't drinking). Spackman said he's "really gotten a taste for St. Arnold's beer."

Which is, of course, Bartol and Wagner's ultimate aim. Without the advertising budget of Budweiser or even Shiner, St. Arnold's sees the tours as fertile grounds for attracting new drinkers. "Word of mouth is a slow way to grow, but it works for us," says Bartol. "They're going to be the [most] loyal customers."

St. Arnold's recently brought out its seasonal Christmas Ale, a rich beer with a high alcohol content; the brew took a gold medal at Chicago's Real Ale Festival. It's certainly proved popular since its debut in 1995, when Bartol and Wagner sold out their entire inventory before Thanksgiving. Not coincidentally, the Thanksgiving weekend tour is always one of the best-attended of the year. "It's definitely something different to do with visitors from out of town," Bartol laughs. And hey, look at it this way -- it's one of Houston's few attractions that can claim a heavenly blessing.

-- Bob Ruggiero

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