Brewmasters' Panel Gives Inside Look Into Houston's Colorful Craft Brew Scene

From left; Dave Fougeron, president of Southern Star Brewing; Rassul Zarinfar, founder of Buffalo Brewing Co.; Brian Royo, head brewer and co-founder at No Label Brewing; Brock Wagner, founder of Saint Arnold Brewing Company; Jake Schiffer, president of Leprechaun Cider Company.
From left; Dave Fougeron, president of Southern Star Brewing; Rassul Zarinfar, founder of Buffalo Brewing Co.; Brian Royo, head brewer and co-founder at No Label Brewing; Brock Wagner, founder of Saint Arnold Brewing Company; Jake Schiffer, president of Leprechaun Cider Company.
Photo by Carla Soriano

"With wine you've got a very narrow palette of colors to work, with but beer can be anything from Monet to Van Gogh to Salvador Dali to Pollock. We can do incredible things, paint with so many different colors" proclaimed Rassul Zarinfar, founder of Buffalo Brewing Co.

"There's no 's' is in St. Arnold," shouted Brock Wagner playfully.

"Recently we threw out a batch because the guys forgot to add the yeast," No Label's Brian Royo recounts, laughing.

These are just a couple of the sound bites that came out at the Brewmaster Panel held at Whole Foods Sugarland recently, a special Houston Beer Week event that's now in its third year. This year's panel was led by Ryan Lewis, Whole Foods Houston's first cicerone, and was made up of some of the crème de la crème of Houston's craft brewing scene. The panel participants began by introducing themselves and their brewery's philosophy.

Rassul Zarinfar, the enthusiastic Founder of Buffalo Brewing Co., began energetically: "We sold our first keg in January 2012. Buffalo Brewing is flavor- and science-driven. We like to brew with flowers, wits. I'm sure you've had one of beers and said 'what the hell were they thinking', but the beer's been good."

The quieter Brian Royo, No Label Brewing's head brewer and co-founder, said, "No Label Brewing is family owned and operated, and our philosophy is real simple: KISS: keep it simple, stupid."

Brock Wagner, the founder of Saint Arnold Brewing Company scanned the guys sitting on either side of him and said, "Hi, I'm old. Saint Arnold will be 20 years old in 2014. Our philosophy is to brew great beer, have fun while we do it, and promote beer culture and community. Community is highly connected to beer."

Jake Schiffer, the president of Leprechaun Cider Company, said, "At Leprechaun, we make apple cider in the Spanish sidra style, using champagne yeast. We use hand-picked apples --never apple concentrate, or sugars, or really...any additives."

Dave Fougeron, the president of Southern Star Brewing, walked in a bit late. In an apologetic tone, he explained that "there are a lot of cars between Conroe (where his brewery is) and Sugarland." He sat down and gave a short and sweet introduction: "I started Southern Star six years ago, and we're in it to make the best beer we possibly can."


Rassul Zarinfar, Founder of Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co.
Rassul Zarinfar, Founder of Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co.
Photo by Mai Pham

That's how the panel began. From the get-go, their spirits were high and an unmistakable friendliness and camaraderie could be felt between the group. With the small size of the craft beer community in Houston, you would think that each of the panelists would be tight-lipped about what they do and how they do it, but quite the opposite is true. As a group, they explained that they love getting together to talk about their brews -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

And there's been lot's of ugly -- none of the panelists were shy about expounding on some of the mishaps. Schiffer told the story of his introduction into the real world of craft brewing. "For our first batch, we got a huge order from our distributor. We harvested the apples. We fermented the cider. We got all the kegs. We distributed them. I flew in to Houston from San Diego, where I was living at the time, and went into Red Lion to try our cider. It was way too sweet and had no bubbles. It turns out our carbonation machine was broken. So we had 500 kegs out with zero carbonation. We had to go pick every one of them up."

Even the veterans at Saint Arnold still experience setbacks. "When we scaled Santo up, we brewed three big tanks, and it came out only good, not great. We had to dump all three tanks and tweak the recipe. Needless to say, it was the most expensive testing ever," said Wagner.

Business, brewing, and distribution mistakes paired with long hours of work can make the brewing industry more difficult than it might seem from the outside. Moderator Ryan Lewis described it as a "labor of love" and asked the panelists what keeps them going on days when they want to pull their hair out.

Hiccups like the ones Schiffer and Wagner talked about seem to be what No Label's Royo thrives on. "I love it. It's a challenge every single day. Something is always breaking. There's always some obstacle to overcome. But it's a lot of fun to figure out the puzzle pieces, how it's going to work. I love that, and I love the people that I work with."

"In the history of beer, beers have been about bringing people together for the most important parts of their life. You have them over a beer. And we have an opportunity as brewers to do that. That's f*cking unbelievable. The other piece of the equation that is really important for us, and me personally, is the creative expression," said Buffalo Bayou Brewing's Rassul.

Southern Star's Fougeron added that "Brock hit on a really good point earlier: You learn something new every day, and I think that's absolutely true. That's what drives me to keep doing this every day. What excited me the most is that beer is part art, part science and a little bit of wizardry. You can coax so many different flavors out of four ingredients."

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