East Austin craft brewery Hops & Grain recently celebrated its two year anniversary, and Eater spoke with owner Josh Hare about what's next in the beer world and in the Austin beer scene. Hops & Grain's lauded list of brews mixes the competing trends Hare perceives in the craft beer world, where there's a desire for "what's new, what's next," but also consumers want tasty beers that will always "be in the fridge." Hare dreams of an Austin where people can "walk or bike" to the nearest brewpub, like in his former hometown of Boulder, and shares some of the details on the brewery's own brewpub expansion. Check out the full interview below.
So, let's start big picture. What do you think are the next big trends in the beer world?
The trend has moved from really really showcasing hop bitterness, hop flavor, hop everything, with generally a little bit higher ABV, to now you're seeing a lot more sessionable, low-alcohol beer. What I'd like to see is more focus on nailing your core styles. You need to have something people like and depend on and buy a lot of.
From the consumer standpoint, everyone wants something new, what's next what's next, but that's not a super sustainable model for a brewery. As craft beer is exploding, a lot of breweries are trying to set themselves apart by making something off the wall, but those beers consumers always want to have in their fridge is what will keep your lights on. Producing a consistent project people want to buy. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a perfect example of that.
How have you focused on core styles at Hops & Grain?
When we built the brewery, we built two separate brewery systems. We have one that's really small that lets us satisfy that desire from the consumer for something new all the time. Whenever you come into the tap room, there's always two to three new beers on tap, and it's a place for us to express ourselves from a creative platform. There's no production scheduling that oversees it. Whatever we want to make, we make. But it's also a place where we experiment with processes we hope to become a mainstay year-round, but without the financial risk of having to get rid of 60 kegs of beer.
We focus our bigger brewhouse to only make our year round beers, so it lets us perfect that process and get to know our equipment really well.
Austin has a insane beer culture. Why do you think that is? Will that become a bigger part of the city, or have we hit peak beer?
Austin is a huge consumer of beer, but only in the past four to five years has Austin focused on consuming local products. Take a walk up and down East 6th, you'll see ten PBR's for every one craft beer. Austin is perfectly suited to embrace craft beer because it's so supportive of creative pursuits, whether music or movies or art, and beer at least we believe to be an art. Also, everyone that's making food wants to make it an experience, and beer adds so many flavors. We find at the food events we do that many of the chefs are big beer drinkers, so that's really fun.
You came here from Boulder, which has another crazy beer culture. Do you see parallels between Austin and Boulder?
Boulder has the advantage of being much smaller, so you see people riding their bikes to breweries, and there are breweries in Boulder that are much easier to get to. Zoning is much different, and the city council is much more supportive.
Whereas in Austin, most of your breweries are centered around industrial areas. Nine out of ten breweries you go to in Austin are centered in strips with auto shops and all sorts of light manufacturing. But because o the way the city is laid out, most of those areas are not really accessible by walking or riding a bike. I would really love to see the Planning and Development office find some ways to try to incorporate breweries into the city center.
Especially on the east side, there's plenty of industrial spaces mixed in with residential areas. You go somewhere like Portland or Boulder, that's just the culture. You walk from your house to go to a pub, and there's fifteen in a one-mile radius.
You are working towards becoming a brewpub yes? How are you guys going to do the brewpub thing and make it your own?
Since April, we have been working with the city to try to get a brewpub license approved here. Because of the way our property is zoned, the only way the city will allow that is if we serve food. So with our expansion and our new taproom, we're carving out a space to have a small kitchen to be able serve a limited menu. Just enough to appease the city.
In our industry, we sell through distributor, so unless we set up an event or go to a bar, we don't get to be in front of our customers and let them know about our core values and what we're trying to do. So from the beginning, from a business standpoint, expanding and adding four thousand square feet and devoting half of that to a tap room rather than production space, on the surface it seems a bit risky, but from our perspective, we want to make sure everyone who comes into our tap room has a place to sit. Right now with the taproom, it's so small there's no seating unless you have a seat at the bar. We hate to see people have to walk out into the hallway when there's 200 people here on a Saturday.
We're really trying to build a space that is inviting. Not trying to make it a tourist-type attraction, we're just trying got make it a place where all of us who work here live, just your normal neighborhood pub that just happens to make the beer on site.
The laws in Texas are not very friendly to craft brewers, but recently they've changed a bit for the better. What other legislative changes you hope are on the horizon?
There are two approaches to changing Texas beer laws. One is through the legislative process, and the other is through litigation and filing suite against TABC, or whoever would make the biggest effect. The recent changes are twenty years' worth of effort to get the beer laws changed. Huge efforts by North by Northwest and Freetail especially. And the Brewers Guild put a lot of resources and energy into going through the legislative process and investigating the opposition, asking, well, why are you opposed? And how can we find a middle ground? We believe expanding the exposure of craft beer will ultimately serve distributors better. I think I really paid off to meet with the distribution lobby and discuss what they were upset about, so we could find a middle ground.
Plans going forward are to protect the legislative change, and continue to advance. As a brewery you can sell beer on site, that's Texas law now, but city code supersedes that, and if city codes says, sorry, you're in a light industrial building, you can't sell alcohol, that will keep you from doing it. So I think the next steps are us meeting with Planning and Development Review Office to gain allowances for what the law now says we can do.
Sustainability is an important part of your mission at Hops & Grain. Do you identify this as a trend in beer in general?
You know, I hope so. I hope people are making decisions with their business that will make them more sustainable. In my opinion, we has consumers we are the only ones who can create a better environment and community, and the producer-consumer connection is important to make that happen. Because we believe in what we're doing, and creating an impact on our community, and enhancing the exposure of craft beer, that's what we identify with our values: it's the environment, community, culture. Every decision we make, whether it's buying new equipment, or ingredient suppliers, or hiring, we think of it with those three things in mind, and if one of those three things will be affected negatively then we don't go forward with it.
We open our doors as often as we can, we give a lot of beer away, and we do a lot of practices in house that are much more efficient than if we used the equipment as it came. We give bonuses if you ride your bike to work, we give on percent of our annual revenue to environmental nonprofits, and then we give one percent of our paid time to those nonprofits.
Business being a profit engine, the only nonprofits can advance is to have partners in for-profit sector. I believe in capitalism but only capitalism that makes money to advance the community you live in, not just your own personal wealth. As a business you have to be profitable to exist, but what you decide to do with those profits is what makes capitalism a good or a bad thing.
There's currently a trend toward beer cocktails. Do you enjoy them? How do you feel about it?
I think it's great. We've partnered with Drink.Well a couple times with The One They Call Zoe, our lager. It's advancing our culture. I think the bars should let the brewery know if they make a cocktail, because we work hard to create this product to be enjoyed on its own, and we like to know so we can try it and give advice on things that may enhance or bring a different variety to the cocktail, but yeah, I think it's totally great.
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