Rob Cartwright and his wife Amy started Independence Brewing Co. in an Austin warehouse six years ago. Today the company has nine employees, not counting two dogs. ("They don't have thumbs," he explains, "so they're not on the payroll.")
Having been selling well at H-E-B stores in Austin and San Antonio, the brewery jumped on the grocery giant's recent offer to expand into the Houston market. Cartwright now spends three days a week in Houston, delivering to eight H-E-Bs, mainly on the north side, and various bars and restaurants.
After sampling his wheat and brown ales, we sat down with the brewmaster at Onion Creek Coffee House last weekend to have an Austin Amber and chat about Independence Brewing and craft beer in Texas.
We sampled your Freestyle wheat and Bootlegger brown recently. Both were very light-bodied. Is that deliberate? We call it the three-beer rule. You've got to be able to drink three of them and be like, "Holy shit, I've had three beers already." If you're in August that's hard to do. It's a challenge. I think local beer should be made specifically for the climate and the sensibilities of where you're at. Denver beer? I love it. But do I think, in August, Denver beer does well in Texas? No. Not at all.
I'm going to use a word that a lot of people don't like in my profession. It's a word that Miller has kind of fucked for the rest of us: I like my beers drinkable. Because I like to drink beer, which means I like to drink a lot of beer, which means I like my beer drinkable. You should never be working to finish your beer.
So we've covered the climate. How about the sensibilities? That's more variable. I've been surprised. I have to be honest, I had no idea Houston was so ultra-high-end. There is a distinct layer of tap accounts that only want the ones at the very top. I've been blown away by how much people like the Convict Hill (Imperial Oatmeal Stout). I mean, it's getting hot, and that beer is selling like crazy. That is sleepy-time beer. It's kind of like a built-in dehydrator, you've got to have two or three waters with that one.
So a lot of the bars here are saying, "Give me your most creative stuff"?This [lifts his hand, which holds a Freestyle wheat] and the amber are both very accessible. The oatmeal stout and the Stash IPA, those are the two they want the most. Or if you've got something that nobody else has, they want that even more. That's awesome. It shows y'all have got an under-serviced market.
I've heard a lot of buzz about the Convict Hill. How was that beer born? I started as a homebrewer way, way back [in an apartment while studying at UT], and all these beers started as some kind of homebrewing idea. Young's Oatmeal Stout was the beer that got me brewing beer because I couldn't afford it, and it was just too doggone good. A lot of my early brewing was emulating the beer styles I wanted to go by but couldn't afford.
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The first job I got brewing beer was at Copper Tank in Austin as the mash-out-guy-slash-floor-scrubber. As you get promoted up the chain, they start letting you make beer. The first beer I actually made at Copper Tank was Rob's Oatmeal Stout, and that was probably the closest thing to this that was not imperial. It started there, and you have to admit everybody's flavor profile has gone way up. Everybody is looking for big, bold, assertive beers, which is great. That's exactly what we can produce.
The oatmeal stout that we make, it has un ungodly amount of roasted barley in it. But there's so much oats in there to kind of balance out the roasted, ashy bite of the roasted barley. The two almost neutralize, and you end up with an extremely intense flavor that doesn't sit on your palate.
What do you see looking forward for yourself and other Texas brewers? It all comes back to being able to make good beer, and I do think the Texas brewers as a group have gotten really good at that now. I don't think the industry here has ever been at a point as high as it is. In the next three to five years, it's going to explode. I talk to these guys fairly regularly, and we're all like, "I need twice as many tanks as I've got and I needed them three months ago." There's about to be an explosion in this state. A lot of them are flying under the radar right now, I think because some of us made it look too easy, but there's like nine in Austin that are thinking of opening right now. You're looking at a double-digit number of breweries saying they've got money and are about to open in the next 18 months. It's about to get interesting. As long as everyone's making good beer, rising water lifts all ships. We're already seeing the benefit of that because it's creating that buzz in the marketplace.
Cartwright said Independence also is developing a honey-champagne beer and a Mandarin Saison brew, among others, that will be on offer soon for the summer heat.