Up until March of last year, there weren't a whole lot of good reasons to spend a Saturday afternoon in Conroe. But now there's at least one: The Southern Star Brewing Company.
Southern Star celebrated their one-year anniversary this spring with the release of their second canned beer, Bombshell Blonde. Perhaps you've seen the pleasantly phallic logo in your local grocery store -- a royal blue can featuring a cowgirl pin-up riding an A-bomb Slim Pickens-style. Their first canned beer, Pine Belt Pale Ale, has been available for about a year in grocery stores like Central Market, Whole Foods and Spec's, and unlike other Texas microbrews, in other states as well.
The brewing company was born from a partnership between friends who met playing Frisbee golf at a Woodlands course. Both men were homebrewers. One, Dave Fougeron, was a head brewer at St. Arnold's. Symbols of this meeting are displayed at their Montgomery County brewing warehouse -- four well-worn Frisbees hang above the tap wall.
Fougeron and co-founder Brian Hutchins have been giving Saturday brewery tours since the month after they opened the brewery. The building, a pre-fab with lettered instructions still visible in the rafters, is located on a farm road east of I-45, in a small patch of piney woods. It's remote even for Conroe, and it takes about an hour drive from Houston to get there.
In the backwoods, it's easy to imagine East Texas' earlier days as a haven for bootlegging. Hutchins cracks a joke about this.
"We're Montgomery County's largest brewery. And we're the only one. Though out here in the sticks you'd think they'd at least try to open one."
The brewery opens at 1 p.m., though bikers swung through earlier in the day. By 1:30 p.m. there is a line for beer. The facility is un-airconditioned and groups huddle by huge industrial fans to keep cool. They also drink more beer to keep cool. Samples, about 6 oz each, are free, and include both the Pine Belt Pale Ale and Bombshell Blonde, as well as a third beer, Buried Hatchet Stout, not yet available in cans. SSB also brews seasonal beers, and when they're available you can sample them during the tours. SSB sells pint glasses featuring their logos -- buy a $5 glass and they'll fill it for free.
By 2 p.m., Hutchins is ready to lead the tour of about 50 people. Referring to himself as "The Fungus Farmer," he explains the exact process by which water, yeast, malt and hops are converted into liquid gold. He also explains why Southern Star is sold in cans, not bottles. The brewery's slogan is "handcrafted taste in a can."
"Cans are a better product for beers. I can guarantee my product in a can, no refrigeration, for six months," he says. "It's a recyclable product, and it doesn't get light struck."
Canning their beers, which they do on the spot (huge pallets of the lovely Bombshell Blonde cans, waiting to filled, dominate one corner of the warehouse), allows them to sell beer in places as far away as Chicago because the beer, brewed without preservatives and unpasteurized, has a longer shelf life. The cans are sealed by hand in a kind of press, and Hutchins estimates he can do 10 cases an hour. SSB is looking into a canning line to improve the process.
Rob Martin, sales and marketing director at SSB and another disc golf aficionado, said selling beer in cans is better for the consumer too.
"We could do cans or bottles," he said. "We couldn't afford to do both. We're all outdoorsmen, and we can go a lot more places with cans."
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Hutchins said that SSB tries to be a green company too, but the brewery's location makes that difficult. There are few facilities in Conroe to recycle. But when a tour-goer asks if they treat the water they use to make beer, he says no.
"It turns out that Conroe, TX, has the perfect water for brewing ale."
By the end of the tour, Texas Traveler had consumed several beers as part of our "research." Thankfully we didn't have to go home on an empty stomach. A groups of guys called the Outlaw Kookers set up outside the brewery on tour days and sell barbecued sandwiches and sausage, for decent prices. Tour-goers and the brewers hang out and chat until about 4 p.m. By the end of the day it feels more like a backyard party than just a trip to the 'burbs.
Tours take place every other Saturday at the brewery, at 1207 N FM 3083 Rd E in Conroe. Check Southern Star Brewery's website for tour dates throughout summer. The next tour will be July 4. What better way to spend Independence Day?