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Blue Ribbon Beers: Saint Arnold Brewing Company is the Best Mid-Size Operation in the Nation

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Meeting Brock Wagner at Saint Arnold Brewing Company feels like meeting a kid in a candy store. Never mind that Wagner founded the company 24 years ago and can be found working long hours most days—you get the sense that he’s just as excited to be there as the legions of fans that show up for twice-daily (thrice on Saturday) guided tours. Wagner’s enthusiasm, his belief in what he’s doing, is what allowed Saint Arnold to survive as the first microbrewery in Texas, long before craft beer was even a gleam in the average consumer’s eye. You can taste it in the beers that he and his team create, from the Amber Ale that started it all to more recent efforts, like a collaboration with local James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega.

But beneath his easy-going charm, Wagner is a fiercely independent businessman with a serious mission: Saint Arnold is here to stay, craft-crushing Budweisers of the world be damned. And Houston is the better for it.

From Humble Home Brewer to Craft Beer King

Microbreweries have worked their way into consumers’ hearts in the soundest possible way—through their stomachs. But the superiority of micro-brewed beer wasn’t always as obvious as it is today. Indeed, the very existence of craft beer was a mystery to most.

It was certainly a mystery to Brock Wagner, who didn’t discover great beer till his college days. “I started to realize that there was more to the world than just the bland light beer that people were drinking at college parties,” he explains. The RA of his dorm took note, and did what any responsible RA would do: Introduced Wagner to home-brewing. “That opened up a whole new world of flavors and creativity,” he recalls. “It’s a lot like cooking, which I already loved to do. You mix that with a passion for beer, and you could actually brew styles that you couldn’t necessarily buy commercially. Either because they weren’t available, or in a few cases because nobody was brewing those styles anymore.”

“Down here in Texas, there wasn’t a craft beer scene,” he goes on. “Sierra Nevada came into the market around 1985. I would go buy Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and it would have about an inch of sediment in the bottom of it.”

Beer, it should be noted, is also in the family. “The first beer I brewed was called Edouard Lafayette Stout, after my great-great grandfather,” Wagner says. “He started the oldest bar in San Francisco. So alcohol runs in the blood.” With a stout in the bag, there followed a porter—darker beers are “easier and more forgiving” to brew for beginners—and finally a pale ale.

(L) Brock Wagner in the Saint Arnold Beer Hall; (R) Saint Arnold's Fancy Lawnmower, a German-style Kölsch that is a staple of summers in Houston. Pictures courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company.
(L) Brock Wagner in the Saint Arnold Beer Hall; (R) Saint Arnold’s Fancy Lawnmower, a German-style Kölsch that is a staple of summers in Houston. Pictures courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company.

But lives are rarely led along direct paths, and Wagner’s was no different. Although he’d long dreamed of owning a business, starting a brewery, while it’s never been easy, was practically unheard of thirty years ago. “I ran the numbers and didn’t think I could make any money,” Wagner admits. So he did what most people have to do at one point or another: He switched tracks and worked on Plan B, landing a job in investment banking. It was, in many ways, the responsible thing to do. But it left a creative void in Wagner’s life that refused to subside.

“I realized that money wasn’t my motivator,” he explains. “I wanted to do something I was truly passionate about. So I went back, looked at those numbers again, and decided that I could keep food on the table, a roof over my head, and hopefully put a kid through college one day. That’s what my hurdle was. And lo and behold, I’m able to put food on the table, I have a roof over my head, and I’m putting a kid through college. So it’s all worked out.”

What Wagner didn’t see coming—what he couldn’t have seen coming—was the craft beer boom that has since captivated the palates of beer-lovers across America. “I never expected it to grow the way it has,” Wagner marvels. “There were fewer than 100 shipping craft breweries when I started looking at opening Saint Arnold.” By the time he actually opened, that number had risen to just shy of 200. The count today? Over 6,000, with the greater Houston area alone accounting for almost 50.

[My great-great grandfather] started the oldest bar in San Francisco. So alcohol runs in the blood.
—Brock Wagner

Here’s an anecdote that’s aged particularly well: When it was time to name his company, Wagner took inspiration from Arnold of Soissons, the patron saint of brewers who, in the eleventh century, encouraged peasants to drink beer as a healthier alternative to soiled local water. Today, Wagner has risen to something approaching canonical status himself; there’s an argument to be made that the craft beer scene that so many Texans enjoy wouldn’t be where it is today without his leadership.

The Brew’s the Thing

In the 24 years since its inception, Saint Arnold has grown from fledgling outsider to a 67,000-barrels-per-year powerhouse, ditching its “micro” label and picking up Best Mid-Size Brewery of the Year honors at the 2017 Great American Beer Festival. You can find Brock’s brews on tap at all of the best bars in Houston, and no Texas grocer worth its salt is without an assortment of Saint Arnold six-packs.

Ordinarily, it’s easy to take something so ubiquitous for granted. Not so for Saint Arnold. Every sip of their beer shines with fantastic flavors and superior mouthfeel. The secret, per Wagner, is simple: “Use the fewest number of ingredients to achieve what you’re after,” he advises.

It’s a philosophy that’s served him well, underpinning everything from his Amber Ale (still brewed according to the original 1994 recipe) to the bolder, heavier Bishop Barrel brews, a series of small-batch beers aged in wood barrels that once held anything from cognac to tequila.

Photo courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company
Photo courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company

While he still pitches in with new brews, Wagner has assembled a crack team of beer lovers to innovate recipes, fostering an open-minded company culture that welcomes suggestions from anyone on the team. (The day we meet, he’s getting ready to arrange a batch of test brews cooked up by an avid home-brewer who works on the packaging line.) Much of that innovation comes from the creative mind of Brewing Operations Manager Aaron Inkrott.

Inkrott has traveled his own unique journey to the suds sphere—a fact that many of his colleagues have in common. “Most brewers had some other career before they got into the industry,” he says. After spending ten years in the music industry working as a recording engineer and producer, Inkrott had had enough of the light-on-content, big-on-image scene. When he came into brewing, he knew he’d found his sweet spot.

“I realized that a brewer is kind of the marriage of the recording engineer and the artist. They’re doing the engineering and science behind formulating and brewing a recipe, and then finally they create this tangible product people can enjoy. That’s kind of how I got into brewing—it had everything I loved about the music industry, but I could be the musician and the engineer all in one.”

If it sounds like a dream job, you’re not far off the mark. Not only is Inkrott spending his days engineering (and tasting) the next great Texas brew, he’s exploring equally fascinating avenues for inspiration. “The longer I’m in this industry, the more I realize I need to find inspiration outside of beer,” he explains. “I’m a huge fanatic of wine and cocktails, so I get inspiration from that. I also take inspiration from baking pies.”

It may sound far-fetched, but brewing requires a fair amount of culinary skill. Inkrott knows his hops, and he’s also tapped into the effects of everything from yeast varieties to the subtleties of flavor that arise from different periods of aging. “We have a beer that has a lot of cherry flavor, and we use this yeast that creates a kind of almond, powdered sugar aroma,” he says. “I really like finding inspiration outside of beer and bringing it to fruition.”

The Wurst of der Week, a sausage-themed special available at the Saint Arnold Beer Hall. Photo courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company.
The Wurst of der Week, a sausage-themed special available at the Saint Arnold Beer Hall. Photo courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company.

Building Community Through Beer

Saint Arnold has achieved greatness. With the distinction of being Texas’ first craft brewery, plus a slew of award-winning brews and the honors, the only question is: What’s next?

“Our mission is to build community through our passion for beer,” Wagner explains. “And it turns out that beer is a great way to build community.”

In keeping with their mission, Saint Arnold has community-oriented plans for 2018. Currently, the company boasts a magnificent brewery and popular tap room, all housed in a repurposed East Downtown warehouse. “We wanted to be somewhere that Houston could be proud of,” says Wagner. Not one to opt for the easy solution, he forewent building something out of town and moved into an existing historical structure.

“I wanted to find an old building, and I got lucky with this one,” he says proudly. “It’s a 100-year-old building, and we completely gutted and repurposed it. You couldn’t replace a building with this kind of character.”

Our mission is to build community through our passion for beer. And it turns out that beer is a great way to build community.
—Brock Wagner

Having achieved the perfect tap room, Saint Arnold is expanding. This summer, they’re opening a biergarten—right next door to their historical brewery. “We want to keep the feeling of the neighborhood alive,” Wagner says.

For anyone surprised that this expansion isn’t taking place out-of-state, the reasoning is perfectly sound. “Beer is a local tradition, and we’re really driven by the community element,” he explains. “When you get too far afield, it’s hard to have that kind of spirit. We’re in Texas and Louisiana. And our plan is to grow and expand and sell our beer in Texas and Louisiana.”

When the community’s as strong as it is in Houston, it’s easy to understand why businesses choose to focus on their local market. “Without Houston, we wouldn’t exist,” Aaron Inkrott affirms. “75% of our beer is still sold in Houston, so we realize that we need to take care of the city as well as it takes care of us.”

“I love Houston,” Wagner adds. “It’s the most welcoming place I’ve ever been. It’s incredibly pro-business. It’s a great place to work.” He pauses for a moment, then laughs. “And I actually like the climate here!” That’s good news for Houston—after 24 years as the head of its most beloved brewery, it’s hard to imagine the city without him.

Featured photo by Two Cats Communications.

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