Best of Houston

Saint Arnold Looks Back On 25 Years of Trailblazing

Interior of new beer hall and restaurant featuring custom painted "chapel" murals
Interior of new beer hall and restaurant featuring custom painted "chapel" murals Photo Courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company
In the mid 1980s Brock Wagner was an undergrad at Rice, learning from his RA how to brew beer in a dorm room. A decade later he quit his job in investment banking and recruited his friend, Kevin Bartol, to start one of the first, and now the oldest, craft breweries in Texas. In January of 1994 Brock and Kevin officially started Saint Arnold Brewing Company with their first beer, Amber Ale.

Recently, that original recipe was recognized on a national stage (once again). At the 2018 Great American Beer Festival, Saint Arnold Amber Ale won a bronze medal in the Ordinary/Special Bitter Category. With another Saint Arnold fan favorite, Oktoberfest, winning silver in the Scottish Ale category. The event marked the fourth time both ales were awarded medals at the GABF.

Both achievements come on the heels of another milestone in the company's history. Just this July, Saint Arnold opened the doors to its enormous new beer garden and restaurant. An industrial looking structure with an open concept houses the beer garden, a day drinking mecca with all manner of Sunday-Funday activities and enough space to host a convention. The restaurant is a cathedral-inspired beer hall that features six mural-covered "chapels", each painted by a different local artist. The building, just across the street from the brewery on Lyons Ave, is the culmination of the company's 25 year journey.

Now, after decades of work, with dozens of national medals under his belt, in his brand new sprawling beer garden, Brock Wagner, the godfather of Houston craft beer, sat down with the Houston Press to discuss the earliest days of his business and the current state of craft beer culture.

click to enlarge Exterior of brand new Saint Arnold Beer Garden - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAINT ARNOLD BREWING COMPANY
Exterior of brand new Saint Arnold Beer Garden
Photo Courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company
"We thought this would be so easy. There was no competition." Brock recalls the first few years of operations for his once nascent business, admitting that he and business partner, Kevin, did not foresee Houston's sheer lack of interest in craft beer at that time. "We had to educate them", he explains — only half in jest.

He wasn't joking. In the early 1990s Houston had no other micro or craft breweries. There were only a handful of brewpubs, a once common vestige of a time before local breweries. These pubs brewed and sold their own beer, but only to their patrons within the confines of their establishments. They were a far cry from the full on distributor model of modern breweries, who's products line the shelves of every H-E-B and Spec's in Texas.

When Brock Wagner started his small Texas brewery in 1994, the state's liquor laws were arcane. "They were terrible," he says. Wagner and Bartol would sell brewery tours and give away beer to work around the state's restrictive laws. The model also provided a convenient way to educate the public about their craft. "You showed up, we gave you beer." On more one occasion that loophole was tested by TABC sting operations. Undercover agents would show up to the brewery to drink free beer without paying for the brewery tour, waiting to be charged. They never were.

In the two decades that passed, a handful of notable competitors entered the regional beer market as craft breweries gained national popularity. Some of those local businesses grew as big as Saint Arnold and eventually sold to international beer conglomerates. "I've had plenty of offers over the years", Brock says, with a tinge of pride. Despite those offers, he never sold. Saint Arnold remains independent to this day, one of the most important, if not the most important, aspect of Wagner's business.

click to enlarge Exterior of brand new Saint Arnold Beer Garden - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAINT ARNOLD BREWING COMPANY
Exterior of brand new Saint Arnold Beer Garden
Photo Courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company
Despite some early competition during the '90s, and the growing popularity of craft breweries in the early 2000s, it wasn't until laws loosened in 2013 that Houston experienced the wave of micro-breweries which today canvas the city like so many mattress stores and barbecue chains. The city that once drank Miller, Bud, and Coors exclusively is now home to dozens of small independent breweries each fighting for their share of the Saint Arnold dream. Not to mention more beer gardens and patio bars than you can shake ten sticks at.

Ironically, it was Brock Wagner's own tireless efforts, lobbying to change the state's liquor laws, that created the very wave of competition Saint Arnold faces today. He doesn't seem at all bothered by that fact, however. "I love it," he responds, when asked about the current state of craft beer culture in Houston. Brock and his team are beer lovers after all, and Houston's recent infatuation with the culture they have devoted their lives to is cause for celebration. It also doesn't hurt that their business is decades ahead of many of their local competitors, producing 70,000 barrels of beer each year and expanding. In fact, Saint Arnold doesn't just support its competition, it mentors them. Brock and company hold regular meetings for local brewers where they offer brewing advice to up-and-coming business owners.

While he is thrilled about the city's sudden craft beer fever, and surprisingly supportive of his competitors, Wagner is no fan of the loathsome beer snob. "beer snobs drive me nuts," he says. "For them its about exclusivity. They love to tell you about this new rare beer they found, and it's only good because you don't have it. Once you have it, it's not good anymore." Brock seems to love beer for its ability to bring people together. He loves the craft and the community that forms around brewing, and he especially seems to love sharing his craft with the world (or rather, with Texas and Louisiana).

Brock wraps up the conversation by considering the future. "I think I've accomplished everything I wanted to achieve," he says calmly. After 25 years of hustling, grinding and trailblazing, Brock Wagner is satisfied. He put every cent and every second he had into a wild business idea with no precedent for success, and out of it he created a local industry — a local culture. Today he can sit back (in his literal shrine to Texas craft beer) and enjoy the fruits of his three decades of labor. His only goal now: for his business to outlive him.
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Houston Press contributor Carlos Brandon is a freelance writer, blogger, and self proclaimed Houston hip hop historian. He contributes to various publications and can usually be found haggling with food truck cooks or talking politics on the METRO Rail.
Contact: Carlos Brandon