Barrels of curiosity bound about in Josh Hare’s head. Ingrained in art and steeped in science, the founder of Hops & Grain Brewing, an independent craft beer maker crannied away on the east side of Austin, Texas, has thoughts and questions naturally swirl around his mind, reminiscing about all sorts of matters.
Nestled between two brand new foeders in their brand-new barrel room, Hare harkens back to when this small encapsulation he now stands in used to house a simple, tiny taproom just four years ago. As it sat mostly vacant, the inspiration for renovation hopped into his brain.
“The hard part is trying to be an artist while still being very calculated,” said Hare. A natural story teller, he humbly continued, “We want people to fall in love with our story and our brand, you gotta get people on board with that.”
The Texas native turned Coloradan and back again also taught 7th Grade and professionally competed in triathlons before beginning Hops & Grain in 2011. It started with simply a lightly hoppy, clean pale ale called Pale Dog and a chewy yet dry altbier fittingly named ALTeration. Their hoppy lager, The One They Call Zoe (named after his dog) perked their popularity and it’s been on a steady soar ever since. A Pale Mosaic, a tropical IPA, followed suit and those two beers make a bulk of the brewery’s sales along with the recently-released and resplendently named River Beer. A chewier tribute to Coors Banquet Beer (or a yellow belly, as we call’em in Texas), has caught on quickly and is emerging into a mainstay.
Happy hanging out with his barrels of sour beer, Hare sips their Pellets & Powder IPA, which experiments with blending those two forms of hops inspired from the creative minds at Yakima Chief Hopunion and their LupuLN2 products. From the look on Hare’s face, however, the newly forming culture around River Beer might make him most proud at this current moment.
“We launched this right at the height of the fucking hazy beer craze, and sour beer craze. And we’re making the most basic, easy-drinking, you-don’t-have-to-think-about-it-lager,” said Hare, who is in the process of releasing a hazy IPA as well. “For that to really resonate with craft beer drinkers it had to have something else to it. Brewers will always love a beer like that, you don’t have to sell it to them. I personally spent most of my adult life on a bike, out in the wilderness, or on a river. I love water, I’ve always loved water.”
From small start to the grander scale on down to the microbial, attention and awareness permeates Hare and his way of life. Thus, once it was time for a full-on barrel program, there were multitudes to imagine and consider. And fun to be had, which is what drew him to want the barrel program in the first place.
Learning a lager yeast leant toward flavor profiles and a dryness he longed for in his own sour beers, it was a not-well-known fact about a well-known brewery that activated his inspiration into a new creation.
“I’m drawn to the style of sour beer New Belgium is making, it’s just bracingly sour,” Hare said before unveiling a bigger reveal. “Almost all of their [wood barrel] stuff is fermented from lager yeast, which is super, super unique and not something that a lot of places do…”
That perked up a bigger question in his mind. The quintessential curiosity.
“…I wonder why?”
From New Belgium back to abundant roots where barrels are backed into nooks and temperature control is nature, Belgium beckoned. Hare heard and again found himself thinking of the base beer, which would be lagered and transferred into the oak foeders, and again found himself contemplating.
He believed there had to be ways to create better environments within wood that didn’t need “sick” stages, and they could be as attenuated as their originators and progenitors of the style back abroad.
“Usually you have this six-month sick stage where the beer is kinda weird. Whereas when you drop your theoretical IBUs to 15 or 10 all of a sudden, that stuff is like six days in — you’ve already got a pellicle (a protective layer that creates over the liquid) forming,” said Hare, who credits breweries such as Yazoo and Great Raft, among others, for helping shape the barrel program. “Also realizing Zoe is Vienna and Pale malts, no dextrin malts. I got it down to like zero plato almost immediately and then it got dry, with no perceived mouth feel at all.”
Through eight Saison strains, it was a Belgian yeast that actually came clean. Originally a lager yeast was going to boost the base beer for the Volumes of Oak and Volumes of Funk sour program. Another yeast strain stuck its neck (necks?) up, and Hare saw the value in a Saison yeast — but not just any Saison yeast. And not the Saison yeast most would think when dry and tropical come to mind, which is where Hare wanted these beers to be. The best beer for barrels, and for a sour program, became clearer and clearer.
“The more neutral the base beer the better, but I also wanted this to be a very unique one-base beer process. I didn’t want to have multiple brands in here,” said Hare, who is the only person working in the barrel room to avoid strain on his staff and cross-contamination of any kind into the divided areas the brewhouse. “We went through eight different Saison yeast strains, and the Belgian Saison was the mildest. It doesn’t give off the phenol ester you’d expect from it; it’s actually not peppery or super spicy. It’s super berry, because we fermented it cool.”
Some Saisons stay restrained in places like Belgium because of the mild climate and suitable temperatures for those yeast strains, yet stateside letting them just roam isn’t always the best idea, according to Hare.
“Most breweries let their Saison yeast just free ride because, whatever, some book told them that’s the best way to make Belgian beers and Saison beers,” Hare opined. “[Cold-fermenting] keeps it really restrained, but secondary aging when there’s still some of that Saison yeast in there, that’s when it really starts to produce these beautiful, aromatic, floral rose hips-esque characters I wasn’t able to find in the DuPont strain or any of that stuff. It’s versatile, it holds up well, it takes well to brett and bacteria, and it ferments down super dry — which I want it do over time.”
Finalizing his foeder vision, another step added into the mix came to create something truly unique. They rack out of their stainless vessels and transfer to the foeders before the beer reaches the height of fermentation so there’s still a good bit of sugar left, meaning an active, healthy yeast joins the barrel side to then blend with their brett and bacteria cultures. And temperature control ain’t gonna be left up to nature as far as Hare is concerned.
“It’s not hot in Belgium; most places aren’t temp controlled there, and it’s like, ‘Theres a reason.’ Conventional wisdom would tell you the reason why beautiful Belgian beers don’t have the same Belgian flavors that American-Belgian beers do is mostly directly related to temperature control,” he explained.
Wood would be the key, as Hare went with American Oak barrels over French Oak to further harness a dryness which would tie the tastes together.
“You run some risk because they’re awful pourus; there’s a lot more oxygen ingress in American vs. French, but I preferred the more rich, vanilla, coconut character that comes from American,” Hare continued. “French is a lot more refined — not that American is unrefined, but it’s a little more bold. As most things in the American beer scene tend to be.”
Talking about beer, talking about barrels, talking about it all, Hare says, “Huh. It’s like so simple and nuanced, not crazy heavy.”
“I realized within about a year that a sour program can’t be built onto a beer you already make, and then you just try to force it into a sour program,” Hare said, “…that whole concept needs to be separated.”
Looking to the left of the new Foeder Crafters of America bulks of oak, which are 30 and 15 barrels big, sit stacked the first boxes of Volumes of Oak bottles standing a little more than waist-high, set to hit stores in the fall. Here Hare stands as boxes back up to barrels behind them, all of which was not so long ago the smallest of tap rooms in out of the way Austin. Situated at the end of East 6th Street, the brewery is magnetic opposite of the well-known West Sixth Street District oozing away in downtown.
“I moved to Austin in 2005 and lived in East Austin. I was coming here because I care, and I wanted to make this neighborhood better than it was,” he said. “Every release we want to be relevant to the Austin community and a vehicle to engage with the rest of the community.”
The local suds lovers took to the spot “where Sixth Street ends and life begins,” and Hare was able to move the taproom to the other end of the building and open up more space, as well as add more equipment to the brewhouse. Of course, original plans for a taproom and restaurant were sullied by the government, a commonality in Hare’s time standing up against archaic laws run rampant throughout Texas.
That’s another tale though.
Once the brewery opened up a much larger taproom, the former taproom sat barren, until the blend became abundantly apparent and Hare had a chance to merge sentimentality and progress in the spot that now houses a bunch of puncheons and barrels.
“I didn’t want it to just be storage; I wanted to resurrect it into something. So, this was the first step,” said Hare, who began brewing when he was 17.
The brewery being known for their clean, creative styles and cohesive branding, Hare earned an insight into how to integrate precision with ingenuity. He also discovered exactly which type of beer would – and would not — work through experimenting, initially trying out some of the Hops & Grain base beers in their barrels. Soon he made side-by-side versions of aged beers, one fermented in oak and one in stainless for their Del Roble program, which was inspired by Firestone Walker’s methods and mastery. Though, as is common with experimentation, not everything panned out.
“This is fucking awful! And it’s not getting any better,” exclaimed Hare. Recollecting a collection of barrel versions of their malty ale ALTeration, he heartily chuckled and said he remembered thinking,“We had eight to 10 barrels of ALT that I gave three years to. It wasn’t acetobacter or anything, it was just not good. A lot of [the barrel aging program] I wasn’t planning on releasing, I just wanted to better understand what was going on with barrel-aging.”
Numerous barrels still sit throughout the brewhouse, housing other barrel-aging projects that highlight more of the play of the different barrel characters in their beers.
As the Volumes of Oak bottles go through trials to ensure there aren’t any “bombs or gushers” going into the market, Hops & Grain also is set to expand into a new facility 30 miles down the road in a city south of Austin.
San Marcos sits around a river, a college town with its own character and history built around a town square. There, Hops & Grain plans to move the bulk of its production, while the original facility will continue on with the more experimental side (along with a revamped taproom). The expansion idea became reality with help of the community rather than a few big ballers ready to back the brewery. A mere four days was all it took for Hops & Grain to raise $250,000 through crowdfunding, to give the fans a tangible thing to be a part of.
That’s why the heart of San Marcos came calling to Josh Hare the same way Austin did. It became another way to settle into a city and contribute to it, not detract from it — somewhat similar to how he’s treating the living organisms and beer in the barrel house.
“It’s only 30 miles [from Austin], but it’s a world away as far as they’re concerned,” Hare said. “And half of our employees live in Hays County, so we want to give them a better quality of life. San Marcos has been incredibly welcoming, and we want to be in the heart of the city.”
He’s only awaiting the brewhouse equipment at this point. From there, the next step will be testing out the facility in about two months, with hopes to open the 30-barrel, 12,000 gallon-capacity brewery sometime after Thanksgiving. At the same time, a little east of the brewery, Hare snagged some land just outside of city jurisdiction. The barrel room will eventually reside there, along with a small bakery program to continue facilitating many of the brewery’s philanthropic endeavors.
Hare had thought a lot about how he and the brewery would give back to San Marcos and help foster a symbiotic relationship.
“What better way to open a new business in a town than to immediately give a percentage of sales back to something literally the city thrives and revolves around. And. People love drinking beer on the river,” he said.
Hops & Grain rarely distributes more than 50 miles from its Austin brewery currently, including to major cities such as Dallas and San Antonio. That will change with the new facility, and with that, more opportunities to be embedded in a community. Meanwhile, San Marcos sits in Hays County, while Austin is in Travis County. As a tribute to both in someways, Hare released Haze County, a juicy and duh, hazy as hell beer that sits just right with the IPA loving covent. After getting stalled at the federal level, Haze County was finally approved and is being canned at the brewery starting Sept. 13. Though the TABC gave approval to the brewery to can the beer, it was actually held up at the federal level surrounding wording on the can and the spelling of Haze until Hare finally won that fight. Look for cans of Haze County to start hitting stores now.
Astonished eyes still alight with a smile, Josh shrugs and shakes his head in a much-too knowingly fashion.
Hare, who grew up engulfed in nature around water, hosts and participates in charitable endeavors such as The Bicycle Coalition, 1400 Miles, and is working on recapturing CO2 among many other things. The brewery is committed to having as little waste as possible, and they’re doing things like making dog biscuits from spent grain to help that commitment, while their building is 100 percent wind powered and has solar panels that can provide around 85 percent of the energy used by the brewery during peak times.
“Beer is one of the most resource-intensive endeavors around. Still to this day we implement processes to save, conserve, reduce any way we can,” Hare said. “The best way to move into a new neighborhood and at least overcome that cynicism and skepticm is to be completely transparent on what you’re doing is good for the neighborhood — I’m not just coming in here to make money, grow a business, and retire.”