While wine might have been a bit too much early in the morning on Saturday, a packed house showed up for the For the Love of Beer panel first thing Sunday, proving that there’s nothing like a breakfast beer to set the tone for a good day.
Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris moderated the discussion, featuring Adam DeBower, owner and partner of Austin Beerworks, Brad Farbstein, owner of Real Ale, and Terry Nance from Alaskan Brewing. Norris kicked things off by explaining to the crowd that "there wouldn’t be a craft beer scene in Austin if it weren’t for Real Ale," and asking Farbstein to comment on how the craft beer scene has changed in Texas since they began brewing in 1996.
"We’ve seen the level of interest in craft beer blossom in the last 5-7 years, and the level of knowledge increase significantly," he said. "Customers are more informed." He explained that in light of this growing interest, the brewery began releasing special and small batch releases to stay competitive in the market, like the Brewer’s Cut series, which launched last fall. "We wanted to provide customers with new styles and flavors and be a bit more current with brands." They also wanted give their brewers an outlet to experiment and create.
Farbstein says he originally got into the professional brewing business after catching the homebrew bug while in school at UT. "I was old enough to buy grains and hops, but wasn’t old enough to buy beer," he said. After working as a market representative for Saint Arnold and for a beer distributor that distributed many Texas craft brews, he moved to Real Ale. When the former owner decided he wanted to sell, Farbstein jumped on the opportunity, even though it took him three years to pay for ownership of the brewery.
DeBower reiterated that working full-time in the brewing industry is a labor of love. "I like to work, I like to work hard and I don’t like getting paid well," he joked.
Norris turned the conversation to many people’s favorite topic of late — cans. DeBower said the decision to can their beer from the start instead of releasing their four flagship styles in bottles was an easy one. "Cans protect the beer better. They don’t allow any light to penetrate the beer," he said. "Our whole brand is about world class beer, so we want to give the beer the best fighting chance we could. It was an expensive decision."
For Real Ale, the decision came because there was a demand for their beers where bottles weren’t allowed — like lakes and parks.Farbstein agreed that canning beers was a no-brainer. "Cans are the future. For us to be sitting on a panel and half the beers [we’re tasting today] are in cans, we’re living on the edge." For them, investing in a canning line was slightly more complicated. They worked with a manufacturer who produced large-scale canning lines for the likes of Heineken and Amstel, to develop a prototype line that would process about 60 cans per minute (the larger lines can process over 1800 cans per minute, Farbstein says), so they could more closely supervise quality.
Norris wrapped up the formal line of questioning by asking how the panel regarded the larger beer companies like Miller and Budweiser putting out smaller releases of beer that is marketed as higher quality and "craft."
Almost across the board, the brewers agreed that the "big guys’" efforts to get people to drink their "craft" products are actually helping the real craft operations. Farbstein said, "in their efforts to mimic us, they actually kind of promoted us. They bring more people out of a dominant market and into the craft market. Now they are more likely to go out and try an Alaskan Amber or a Real Ale. I encourage them to continue their efforts."
DeBower agreed, saying that beers like "Blue Moon encourage new fans to come into the craft flock."