How the easing of state laws paved the way for new breweries and brewpubs cropping up along the Texas Coast
Beer starts out as something pretty simple: Grain, hops, yeast and water. But in the hands of skilled brewers, that simplicity can be fashioned into a world of flavors.
Skyler Forshage, head brewer at Galveston Bay Beer Co. in Dickinson, uses the brewery’s taproom as a laboratory to size up consumers’ tastes and preferences.
There’s the Galveston Bay Beer Co. staple: Bull Shark, a Scottish ale. But Forshage also is constantly tweaking ingredients to test new recipes. He’ll start with a smaller batch using variations on the primary ingredients and put it temporarily on tap at the bar.
If a recipe sells well, Forshage will start making larger batches — up to 40 barrels at a time — and might try to get it on the retail distribution list. And his customers — locals who stop in regularly or out-of-towners searching out a new beer — aren’t too shy to weigh in.
“They’ll say this needs more hops or make it less bitter,” Forshage said. “I take it back to the drawing board and make little changes until I’m happy with it.”
That proximity between brewers and drinkers, and the continual conversation about what makes a beer taste good, is among the reasons people are increasingly choosing to drink at local brewpubs.
And changes to state laws are encouraging more breweries to take the risk and open shop.
New breweries and brewpubs started cropping up around the region after state lawmakers eased regulations in 2013 dictating how and where brewers can sell their beers. The new laws make it easier for Gulf Coast breweries to afford to open shop and sell in the bigger Houston market.
“The change in regulations really enabled us to open up a craft brewery,” said Austin Webber, one of four partners who own and operate Saloon Door Brewing in Webster.
“We’d been talking about opening a business for years and years, and had settled on a craft brewery. We wanted to open in the Houston area because we’re from Galveston.”
Open for business
The area has seen a boom of breweries. There’s also Galveston Island Brewing, Fetching Lab Brewery outside of Alvin, Texas Beer Refinery and Galactic Coast Brewing, both in Dickinson. Most opened in the past three years after lawmakers eased regulations on distributing and selling beers.
Texas has historically had some of the tightest regulations for craft breweries. The state operates on a three-tier system of separation between manufacturing beer, distributing it and selling it, said Chris Porter, spokesman for the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, which regulates the beer industry.
In 1993, lawmakers legalized brewpubs, allowing brewers to sell their beers on-site
for the first time. And lawmakers have adjusted still in recent years following the explosive growth of the craft beer industry in other parts of the country, Forshage said.
In 2013, lawmakers approved sweeping reforms, allowing brewpubs to distribute their beer using third-party distributors and sell limited amounts of their own beer directly to retailers. The new law also changed the cap on brewpub production from 5,000 barrels a year to 10,000.
“For breweries who operate on a small scale, it gives them more control,” Porter said. “It cuts out the middleman.”
Selling directly to retailers allows brewery owners to sell more beer and make enough to keep the doors open.
“We make most of our money on retail,” Webber said.
Saloon Door Brewing, known for beers such as Brew Crew Irish Red Ale and Tasty AF Peanut Butter and Chocolate Milk Stout, held off on distributing for the first six months after it started brewing in February 2016, Webber said.
At first, the company distributed directly to about five local bars, he said. After “learning the lay of the land” and increasing brand recognition, Webber and his business partners hired Bluebonnet Distributing, a craft beer distribution company based in Houston. Saloon Door Brewing now has 88 clients on its distribution list, he said.
Population growth in the state and other factors have led to a huge jump in the number of craft breweries.
The state issues brewery permits for businesses making ales with higher alcoholic concentration, more than 4 percent alcohol by volume. Beer makers producing beverages with 4 percent or less alcohol by volume get manufacturing permits.
Craft breweries almost exclusively need brewery permits because ales and other types of beer have higher alcohol content. From there, a craft beer maker could be considered a brewpub or a brewery.
“The industry has grown incredibly over the years,” Porter said.
In 2000, there were six active brewery permits and seven brewpubs, according to the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission. There were five manufacturer permits.
By comparison, there were 156 brewpub permits and 119 brewery permits as of February this year. There were 86 brewery permits with an additional self-distribution permit, a new distinction, according to the commission. There were 59 manufacturer permits.
In Galveston County, the breweries for the most part have an on-site brewing system and a taproom for tastings.
It takes about eight hours to prepare a batch, Forshage said. The beer then ferments for anywhere from five days to weeks, depending on the type, before it’s ready to be served on tap or canned for distribution, he said.
The process starts by mashing grains and adding them to boiling water. Hops are then added for flavor, bitterness and aroma. The combination is then cooled and put into a fermenter in which the yeast is added. The end product is then packaged and carbonated.
The endeavor involves a lot of cleaning, prepping and babysitting, Forshage said.
“In a lot of ways, being a brewer is like being a glorified janitor,” he said.
But there’s also a lot of creativity. A drink can be changed drastically by using a different hop or yeast — or even adding different chemicals to the water, Forshage said.
“It’s all very experimental,” he said. “I brew stylistically and just try to come up with different recipes.”
For its part, the drinking public is eager to try new types of beer, said Bailey Steward, taproom manager at Texas Beer Refinery on Dickinson Avenue. Texas Beer Refinery is best known for beers like Tex’s Blonde, Mexican IPA and Bayou City Brown Ale, she said.
“Beer knowledge really ranges broadly, but most people are interested in learning more about making beer,” Steward said. “We have people who come in and know more about it than I do and people who come in and ask me all sorts of questions.”
Galveston Island Brewing Co. opened its doors June 2014 and since has expanded rapidly, owner Mark Dell’Osso said. In 2014, the company produced about 300 barrels of beer, but this year is on track to produce about 2,600 barrels, he said.
The company now uses Del Papa Distributing Co. to sell beer in the greater Houston market, but saves most of its production for the local Galveston market, where more and more people are enjoying craft beer.
“Craft consumption is changing every day,” Dell’Osso said. “Texas is one of the biggest beer-consuming states and every day we’re seeing a large growth in craft beers’ share of that.”
On the same team
Brewers don’t see the proliferation of new breweries and brewpubs as a threat to their own ventures.
“If anything, it’s the opposite,” Forshage said. “We see it as we’re the small guys teaming up together to fight the big manufacturers and distributors.”
The local brewers even started getting together once a month to share ideas, socialize and taste each others beers, said Brett Bray, owner of Fetching Lab Brewery just west of Santa Fe.
Bray opened Fetching Lab Brewery in February 2015 after six years of brewing and learning about the industry from visiting breweries around the state.
“When we started looking, everyone was so friendly,” Bray said. “They told us everything they knew about the business and really helped us get started.”
Bray started the get-togethers, which are hosted on a rotating basis at the different local breweries, to continue the camaraderie and sharing ideas.
The social aspect could come back to the product itself, brewers say.
“Before I got into the craft beer industry, I was a trial attorney,” Webber said. “Transitioning into the craft beer world was a complete culture shock. Everybody is nice. Everybody loves beer. People just get excited about having a good time.”