Uncle Billy's current head brewer Trevor Nearburg is passing the brewing torch (er, firkin) to the incoming brewer Stephen Wagner, a longtime homebrewer.Arianna Auber / American-Statesman
Not long after a new head brewer takes over at Uncle Billy’s Brewery and Smokehouse, the production brewery is making another big change and will become a "brewstillery" making both beer and spirits.
Cocktails made with the in-house liquor are slated to join the menu by the holidays. In the meantime, current Uncle Billy’s employee Stephen Wagner is getting the promotion of his dreams and taking charge of the beer program at Uncle Billy’s, which switched from a brewpub license this summer to begin offering its canned beers beyond Texas.
The current head brewer Trevor Nearburg, who has been integral in the past few years by helping to transition Uncle Billy’s into one of Texas’ largest brewpubs before it made the licensing switch in June, is off to the Texas Hill Country. He is about to close on 15 acres of land across from Jester King Brewery and will open Beerburg Beer Werks on that acreage this time next year.
Beerburg — a name based off Nearburg’s own surname — is going to be a sophisticated farm-to-table brewpub with a noted chef, Beth DiBaggio, in the kitchen. She worked at the Peached Tortilla, one of the first places in Austin focused on local sourcing, before opening her own catering service, La Pera. The catering service will operate out of Beerburg and provide the food menu there.
Nearburg leaves Uncle Billy’s knowing the brewery is in good hands with Wagner, a homebrewer who has worked at craft-focused beer bars like the Flying Saucer in Sugar Land.
"This was an obvious choice for us," Nearburg said of Wagner’s promotion. "I have interviewed a lot of people who want to brew, and the passion is pretty easy to gauge. I think his passion is higher than most, and it’s not just driven by, ‘Oh, brewing sounds cool.’ The other thing is that he took the training so well. He’s very meticulous."
Although Wagner has never brewed on a professional level before, he has homebrewed since 2005 and has worked as Nearburg’s protégé for the past six months. He’s excited to take charge — and largely already has, as evidenced by our interview, when he excused himself a couple of times to check on a beer he was making.
Stephen Wagner is taking over brewing duties at Uncle Billy's and plans to introduce new seasonal beers depending on what he's noticed about customer tastes.Arianna Auber / American-Statesman
The mainstay recipes like the Green Room IPA "aren't going to change," he said. "But when it comes to the seasonals, I may play with them and see what the sales trends say. Those can change from one year to the next. I might try a black cherry dunkelweizen or just a by-the-book pilsner. That's a great go-to for a hot summer day. I never want anyone to be bored looking at our beer menu."
Wagner will also oversee the roster of upcoming Uncle Billy’s spirits available both at the brewery and on the market. Look for infusions, he said, as well as cocktails on tap. Wagner’s background behind the bar will come in handy in peddling them to customers, many of whom have missed having spirits at Uncle Billy’s since the licensing switch. (A production brewery can only sell the booze it makes itself.)
"In addition to homebrewing, I've been managing since 2006, primarily beer bars, so working with good beer is all I've done in my adult life. It's what I wanted to do," Wagner said. "I thought the ship had sailed on me becoming a professional brewer, but then I started working at Uncle Billy’s."
For his part, Nearburg is excited to be finally opening the concept he has been envisioning since a fateful trip to Colorado’s Avery Brewing taproom. At Beerburg, he’ll have a handful of the beers everyone loves, such as a pale ale and pilsner, and several more experimental offerings that have become his bread and butter. Heading up the beer program is Gino Guerrero, following him from Uncle Billy’s.
"I plan on partnering with a bunch of local farms and growers and creating both food and beer menus based on seasonality. I want to be the Jack Allen’s of breweries," he said.
He also notes that he aims "to complement Jester King, not compete with it. I’m not doing farmhouse ales, even though I say farm-to-table," he said. His two favorite Uncle Billy’s brews that he created, a lictenhainer made with malts smoked in the Uncle Billy’s kitchen, and the Berdoll Brown Pecan Ale, a collaboration with a local pecan grower, embody the kinds of beers Beerburg will specialize in.
Uncle Billy’s, joining the likes of Real Ale and Treaty Oak Brewing & Distilling as the latest alcohol producer to make both beer and spirits, is at 1530 Barton Springs Rd. Beerburg will be on Fitzhugh Road, where Jester King, Argus Cidery, Treaty Oak and other boozy spots are also located.
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