I read an article the other day where the author interveiwed folks about their first encounters with craft beer. Questions like What was your first craft beer? What led you into craft beer? What was your gateway beer? That last one is certainly my least favorite but either way, the purpose of this piece was to tell the virgin experience of drinking craft beer. Seems to be a mildly popular topic with readers and it got me to thinking about my own experiences.
My first craft beer was Coors Banquet Beer drank in an alley behind my middle school buddies parents house at 3pm on a summer afternoon. We were 12 years old and willing to try just about anything. We would continue to become more and more bulletproof as our teenage years progressed, mine in particular leading to my first arrest at age 14. Turns out when you drink beer in a parking lot before a country music concert in Abilene, TX and you’re well under the legal drinking age, sometimes people notice. Sometimes those people are undercover cops. And most always, they find no humor in your handing them a middle school id card when they ask for your drivers license. All of those things happened to me and I can assure you, there were no laughs coming from the police officer. It was a simple punishment though. I received a misdemeanor ticket, fine and some community service. Oh, and also an alcohol awareness class which, ultimately, just piqued even more my fascination/education/interest in alcohol. No time was served, I was sent on my way minus the 6 pack of Banquet Beer that I had in tow.
Anyway, Coors Banquet Beer. Now I know that many people these days don’t really view Banquet Beer as a craft beer and that’s fine with me. You do you and I’ll do me. Believe it or not Coors Banquet Beer has not always been available in every city in every state in the US. Banquet Beer used to be a whale. Think about that for a minute. Young and eager drinkers wanting to experience more than what they had available locally and had heard the tales of this beer made at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, cold filtered and all the other bells and whistles. Trucking it across state lanes was a regular activity of these early craft beer drinker bandits.
My first craft beer that wasn’t made by one of the major brewing conglomerates of our time was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I drank a few in the parking lot of a String Cheese Incident show at Red Rocks Amphitheater outside of Denver. It was fantastic and bore a striking aromatic resemblance to some of my other “hobbies”. It also seemed to be what all the cool crunchy kids were doing. So, I did it too, why not? From that point forward my excitement to try beers I’d never heard of before was on fire. I still love trying new beers and I still love finding a super fresh Banquet Beer served a touch above freezing temperatures.
As a brewer and a thinker, the most exciting parts of my job at Hops & Grain always involve product development. Exploring a new beer and carrying it from conception to final package is what really turns my gears. It feeds my short attention span in ways that other tasks required to run a brewery do not. Combining conversations with strangers, a genuine curiosity for the grain to glass process and analysis of hard numbers is an incredibly gratifying experience for me. Each of our beers is a story and each of them represent an inspiring time and place in the broader story of Hops & Grain Brewing. They are fun stories to tell and even more fun to experience first hand. I don’t brew nearly as much as I used to but if I’m not on the road I’m at the brewery every day. Walking around touching tanks, pulling samples and taking in the ecosystem are my meditation. It quickly became spiritual for me and I find myself out of sorts when I haven’t had a daily walk thru the brewery.
One of the most exciting and terrifying elements of our company’s growth has been bringing on more people and personalities to join our team. With more personalities comes more opinions. More opinions brings on, hopefully, more conversation. And conversation is generally a good thing. Communication and a level of trust is key in any organization. In a small brewery with 10-20 employees, communication and trust are absolutely crucial. Decisions are generally made quickly and being nimble and flexible thus becomes a requirement. It’s a crazy blend of manufacturing, engineering and public speaking all done in facilities that were, for the most part, built on a shoestring budget and not designed for visitors. Our facility isn’t run from a command center. Valves won’t turn without a human hand turning them. Because of that and because of the DIY nature most of us have carried out our expansions with, communication becomes paramount to safety and success. But that communication is also inspiring and critical for brand development.
Some of my favorite conversations these days happen when I get to chat about beer with our crew. Not talking about the schedule for the week, sales numbers or the like. I’m talking about just talking about beer. Asking questions about preference, Sharing opinions of newly found beers. Discussing sensory observations and pontificating on what brought them on. Those are my favorite conversations. They enable me to better understand the interest levels and bandwidth of each of our team members. It enables me to make more informed decisions and I think that it makes me a better boss.
Starting back in 2012 Hops & Grain started on a journey to create a lager comparable in flavor and experience to Coors Banquet Beer. But, of course, brewed with the limitations of a production brewery not designed for lager brewing. We’ve been fairly sporadic with our exploration of the style, brewing only a couple batches per year. Back in early 2016 all of that changed. We began to really put a concerted effort into developing a Premium American Lager.
When Hops & Grain first opened you could pretty confidently say that we didn’t have a style preference as a brewery. We would brew anything, no barriers. Over time though, we began to streamline our efforts and really develop our brewing personality. And through that we began to build on our early successes and really develop into a more complex but focused operation. Today I can confidently say that we brew lagers and hop forward beers. Sure we make a Porter as well as some of the other small batch experiments that we periodically serve in our tasting room. But by and away my interest level as a brewer lies in lagers and hops.
What for the longest time was just referred to as Hops & Grain Beer eventually began to take on a personality all its own. Amazingly it also quickly climbed the ranks to become one of the top sellers in our tasting room. Much like all of our year round offerings, River Beer began as just an idea, brewed in small quantities and served primarily to our tasting room visitors. Once a beer begins to build steam then we have to come up with a name. The process of naming a beer has always been something that we take very seriously. Most of us shop with our eyes and having an attention grabbing name and exciting graphic design are crucial. For us, the name and design are at the top of the importance pyramid, second only to the quality of the product inside. As soon as a name is identified, then begins the fun process of developing the text that will be included in the can design. Generally lending to more abstract thought, the words that grace our cans are some of my favorite contributions to our company. I'm no good at graphic design, which is why we have a great team for that. I'm a liquid designer, and proud of it. I also like words.
I say this with almost every new beer but our latest release, River Beer, is one of my favorites. From the overall design that harkens back to a time when beer designs were a bit simpler. Also a time of expressive use of descriptive words like “fine”, “extra”, “premium” and the like. A time when beer was, well, simpler. A time when online beer ratings sites weren’t even imaginable, let alone a reputable source of information. A time when the words “cold” and “beer” were enough of a menu description. River Beer is our ode to the lifestyle that we love so much. One of conversation, story telling, outdoor enjoyment and an all around appreciation for the task before us. It’s a beer that you don’t have to think about. A beer that tastes, well, good. You know, an Extra Fine Premium Lager.
River Beer also has a community component to it. We spend a lot of time outside and a lot of that time on the water. We like everything from fishing, paddling, swimming and just generally exploring. Austin is a town that centers on a river. Our new brewery in San Marcos is one of my favorite river towns. All of these rivers make life more enjoyable. Our enjoyment of the rivers comes with responsibility though. We have been working with a number of great conservation groups in the hill country over the course of our existence as a brewery and River Beer will continue to showcase those relationships. Each month we’ll be donating a portion of sales of River Beer to conservation groups committed to preserving the rivers in central Texas. We have a lot of exciting partnerships that we’ll be announcing later in the year and look forward to continuing to build on our excitement and involvement in environmental stewardship.
I truly believe that River Beer is also a testament to the work that our production team carries out on a day to day basis. A beer with nothing to hide behind is a hard beer to make. These beers take time and commitment to make well and our team of brewers, cellar operators and packaging operators continues to knock it out of the park!
River Beer is a smooth, clean and crisp lager. Drink it cold straight out of the can preferably on the banks of one of the great waterways that we enjoy in central Texas. It also pairs well with beaches, pools and golf courses.
Badass photos by Tyler Malone