The Eating...Our Words 100: Brock Wagner, Godfather of Craft Beer in Houston and Founder of Saint Arnold Brewery, the Oldest Microbrewery in Texas
Brock Wagner is the godfather of craft beer in Houston.
Eating...Our Words has embarked on a project to profile 100 Houston culinarians of all fields, practices, careers and backgrounds. This isn't a Best of Houston list, it's not a 100 Favorites list and it's not in any particular order. Instead, the Eating...Our Words 100 is a way to introduce our readers to some of the most notable people behind Houston's exciting and deep-rooted culinary culture. Twice a week, we'll explore a new culinarian's work, his or her inspiration and what makes Houston a perfect home.
Whether you enjoy discussing beer or not, you'll always find something to talk about with Brock Wagner. The godfather of craft beer in Houston and founder of microbrewery Saint Arnold (which isn't so micro anymore) is our city's version of The Most Interesting Man in the World.
Cincinnati-born Wagner grew up in Brussels, Belgium and graduated with a B.A. in Economics from Rice University. And although his grandfather famously founded San Francisco's oldest beer bar -- Wagner's Beer Hall, now called The Saloon -- Wagner admits that he was into wine far before he was into beer, thanks to the time spent in Belgium with his mother and father.
"My first real love was actually wine," he said on the phone last week, fresh off a trip to Germany. "Every Spring we'd load in the car and drive down to Burgundy. At lunch, we would spread out a blanket in a field some place and pull out the meat and the cheese and the bread and dessert from the patisserie in the village. And in the afternoon we'd go down to the winery and my parents would let me sample wine. Starting at age 5, my parents would let me have a little glass at the table."
An encounter with a homebrewer got Wagner fascinated by beer, and after several years spent in corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions he abandoned it all to pursue brewing full time. He founded Saint Arnold Brewery in 1994 (the same year as his wedding to wife Karen), which moved from its small, un-air-conditioned warehouse to a massive brewing complex befitting Houston's biggest craft brewery in 2009. Recently, Wagner launched a new Bishop's Barrel series that features Saint Arnold beer aged in wine or liquor barrels -- a series guaranteed to become as popular as its famously limited-run Divine Reserve series.
Who he is:
Wagner is the founder of Saint Arnold, Texas' oldest and Houston's largest craft brewery, as well as a Rice University grad who's fallen in love with his adopted home of Houston after first arriving in the early 1980s.
"I really liked Houston, but it took a little bit of cultural adjustment," Wagner says. "The diversity of the city, the culture, the weather, the fact that I could be wearing shorts right now if I wanted to. But the thing I liked the most was that I've never been in a city where everybody gets along so well. That's not to say that Houston's perfect -- and I arrived in 1983, back when the city had just had some issues with race and the police forces -- but I was always amazed with how everybody is sort of mushed together.
"Nobody cares who your mommy and daddy are or who you came from," he says. "They just care what you bring to the table."
Why does he like it?
There's always something to teach and something to learn about beer, something that Wagner found out when he started teaching tasting courses at his alma mater. And people always have a good time when beer is involved.
"I got big into wine and taught wine tasting and education courses when I was at Rice but that was also when my real interest in beer started," he says. "It was funny because people would behave differently at the beginning of each course: If the class was on wine, everybody was very quiet and people were attentive and serious."
"But at the beer course, people would be joking around a lot more," he continues. "At the end of the tasting course, everyone was loud and boisterous -- and at the end of the wine tasting course, everyone was too -- but the interesting part was how they came together. People learned that beer is not just about playing quarters and chugging. There are actual styles and flavors. And beer tasting doesn't mean, 'Do you like Bud Light or Coors better?'"
What inspires him?
"I like the fact that when you ask a 21-year-old today, 'What kind of beer do you drink?' the answer is more likely to be IPAs or pale ales or porters," Wagner says. "It's more likely to be a beer style. And the fact that 21-year-olds expect beer to have flavor and variety and not be sort of a mass-produced, watered-down bland product sold totally on advertising -- that's the most encouraging thing about the world of beer today and that's what I see in Houston."
And interestingly enough, Wagner credits Hungry's for first inspiring his own love of beer.
"I went to Hungry's in the Village because there was no food service at Rice on Saturday nights, so you had to go off-campus," he recalls. "Back then, they had a big, glass cooler kind of like what you see in a convenience store with all these different beers from around the world and that was really unheard of. I'd never seen anything like that before."
"I remember the first time I picked up a bottle of Pilsner Urquell -- it had all that flavor and hops and bitterness and I'd never tasted that before in a beer. The next weekend I had a Bellhaven and every time I went I would try a different beer."
The second inspirational moment in Wagner's life occurred in 1984 and introduced him to home brewing. "That really excited me," he says. "A lot of styles were hard to find and some styles had just vanished. But as a homebrewer, you could do whatever you wanted and do anything and start experimenting."
He's equally excited by all the new microbreweries that have finally begun opening around town -- although it's taken longer than he expected.
"In my business plan [for Saint Arnold], I knew it was a weak market and that there'd be a lot of educating and groundwork to do, but I expected another craft brewery to open five years later," he says. "A lot more education had to occur before people really started wanting to drink craft beer."
"I started to notice real changes around 2001. That's when I started to notice younger people coming up for the tour," Wagner says, going back to the idea that younger generations are embracing craft beer in larger numbers. "I was usually the one carding people on the tour back then and I would card people if I thought they were under 30, but there weren't that many people under 30 on our tours. By 2005, we started seeing people showing up on their 21st birthday."
Wagner at the launch party for Santo, the brewery's so-called "black Kölsch."
Photo by Marco Torres
If not this, then what?
Wagner can't imagine doing anything else -- even though he had the opportunity to sell his entire brewery recently.
"I had this weird thing a few months ago where another brewery came in and offered me more money than I'd ever thought I'd get in the world," he says. "I just sat there and went, "Well, what else would I do?' There's nothing in the world I'd rather do."
And although the buy-out was unsolicited, Wagner says it did make him consider what he'd do with his life if it weren't centered around Saint Arnold.
"My training was in economics and finance and I still enjoy that world. The problem is that the work is really interesting but the people who go into it will drive you out of it; they're all about the money," he says. "So if someone put a gun to my head, I would probably start another business -- something I was really into. The things that I love most are beer and food but I also really like building communities, so I like the idea of getting involved in and redeveloping a small community in a city area -- multi-use, walkable communities where you have businesses and you have living and you have some sort of craft element involved."
(Note: We would totally live in that craft beer-oriented community.)
If not here, then where?
"Probably in Northern California, like four hours north of San Francisco," Wagner says. "There's farmland, ocean, logging communities. That's where my grandparents settled and my parents live there now."
The Eating...Our Words 100:
Blanche Kinze, Murray's Cheese Master at Kroger Bear Dalton, Wine Buyer and Educator at Spec's Sam Ray of Republic National Server Thai Van of Kata Robata Dale Robertson, a Populist Among Wine Writers Denman Moody, Author of The Advanced Oenophile Benjy Mason of Down House
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.