Why Texas’ Oldest Craft Brewery Doesn’t Do Collaboration Beers

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Q&A with Saint Arnold taps into some industry-wide sentiment.

Saint Arnold, Texas’ oldest craft brewery, has been cooling off Houston with their brews for 24 summers and counting. After winning “Mid-size Brewing Company and Brewer of the Year” at last year’s Great American Beer Festival, the brewery is now in the national spotlight as one of the country’s best places to grab a beer.

I visited the Saint Arnold tap room during American Craft Beer Week to chat with their Chief Marketing Officer, Lennie Ambrose, about the brewery’s secrets to success and their biggest challenges. In the interview below, Lennie shares why they’ll never do a collaboration beer or expand distribution to other states, and how they’ve learned to never say never.

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How’s American Craft Beer Week been treating y’all so far?

To be honest, we’ve never put a focus on that, as far as advertised American Craft Beer Week. I don’t know what it is about this market, but there were some Houston Beer Weeks a few years ago and they just kind of died off a little bit, so we’ve never really put a focus on that. We had a big beer release earlier in the week, on Monday, and that went great. And it just happened to align with American Craft Beer Week.

The beer we released is called ‘Not a Collaboration,’ and we did it with a brewery in town, Brash Brewing Company, but its actually not a collaboration. Everybody thinks we’re being all ‘wink wink’ to make everyone sort of think that it is, but its actually not.

So how’s it not a collaboration if you made it with another brewery?

We brewed it completely separate from them. They knew we were gonna make it, and they made another version of it called ‘Fake News,’ but we didn’t collaborate on the recipe, and they didn’t come over here to brew, we didn’t go over there to brew, so it actually wasn’t a collaboration. We’re just friends with them.

If there’s anything we actually collaborated on is that some of our branding and their branding was kind of mixed up between us. Brash’s was released on April 20th and ours released on Monday, but we kept saying that it wasn’t a collaboration, and we even did some videos where we went over and inspected their place, but it wasn’t a collaboration at all.

The purpose of calling it ‘Not a Collaboration’ was just to have fun with it. We know those guys and we have almost a ‘big brother little brother’ relationship. They pick fun at us, and Brash Brewing is more like the ‘cool kid’ or something, and we’re the older brewery, more established, so there’s that kind of dynamic, so it just kind of works out well. The guy that owns Brash, he owns a big craft beer bar in town too, so we’ve known him a long time through that.

Do you do a lot of collaborations?

Almost none. Our boss isn’t necessarily against collaborations, but he thinks they’re kind of just for marketing. So that’s the other part of this, that he said we would never do one with anybody. The only time we did do one was last year, for Sierra Nevada Beer Camp, when we were part of their mix 12 pack. But it was with Sierra so we were like, yeah of course we’re going to do that.

Do you think you’ll do any collaborations in the future, as part of your growth strategy?

I don’t think so. Definitely not part of our growth strategy. If we did one, we’d do one kind of like this one was, but we don’t have big plans for anything like that. We have said many things at this brewery, many definitive, defined statements, things we’ll never do, and then we end up doing them. That’s also been part of the joke too, and our boss recognizes that. He said ‘we’re never gonna do cans’ and then of course three or four years later we did cans. So I think the public is almost in on that joke, that we say we aren’t gonna do something then go back on that. But when we actually do it, we acknowledge that yeah, hey we said this before, and now we changed our mind.

So as CMO, and as the craft beer market continues to grow, what do you see as key differentiators between Saint Arnold and other breweries?

Us being around for 24 years is the biggest one. I feel like by being around longer than anyone else, we’ve been able to take on kind of a leadership role. I’m sure there’s some people that think we’re old and stodgy and tired and whatever those things are, but locally we’ve been able to, you know, participate with other breweries and events. Not on brewing beer, but last year actually a bunch of breweries got together and did tribute beers. They brewed a version of one of our recipes, and we didn’t like, collaborate together on them, they just did it. And then we had events all around town where all the breweries were there, so we’ve tried to be good stewards of the industry in town and that’s worked well for us.

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Also, setting up differentiators between us and the other biggest brewery in town, which is Karbach, and you know they were bought out by [AB InBev]. So trying to define what those differences are and still be respectful and not call anybody out, but just make sure that people know. And then winning brewery of the year last year at GABF was a big boost too. Certainly nobody was thinking that was gonna happen, but it did, and that was cool.

We’re not really defined by the beer we brew, we’re not a brewery that is known for kind of crazy stuff or hazy IPAs or whatever. We try to do the year-round stuff really well and introduce new styles that kind of fit in that mold, and also do some adjunct barrel stuff as well. So I guess maybe because of our size, that works better for us.

What’re some of your most popular beers on tap right now?

Our Seasonal, currently Summer Pils, is far and away the most ordered beer here. And Seasonal is still our number one brand. So out in the market overall, Seasonal is number one.

Our fastest growing brand is Art Car IPA that we released 3 or 4 years ago, that was kind of the current American IPA style. It’s not quite West Coast and not quite East Coast. There’s no fruit in it but its got the juicy fruit flavors of an IPA and still got some bitterness in there as well, you know what I’m talking about. So it’s not really a West Coast emphasizing bitter or East Coast that now emphasizes the juiciness of fruit, but we released that a few years ago and it’s still a monster for us.

We also released a popular orange blonde ale that’s named after a monument here in town called Orange Show, but I think a challenge is just trying to figure out what people want. We’ve released some beers and thought ‘this is gonna be a big home run’ and it did well, but  its not, you know, growing to be a number one brand. So everybody struggles with that I’m sure, but that’s been a big challenge over the last couple years. And Art Car was definitely a hit in that regard.

Do you have plans to grow your distribution, now that you’ve gained more national attention?

No. In fact, we were in Florida and Colorado for a little while and we pulled back out of those states. We were selling some beer, but it really wasn’t enough to staff someone there, and it didn’t really make sense any more after a while. It was a good test, and I guess I’m glad we did it when we did it, because then we didn’t branch out into any other states. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of the bigger top 50 breweries pulling back from states.

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So focusing on Texas, what needs to happen for the state to start moving in the right direction to support craft beer industry growth, via off-premise (beer-to-go) sales and other policy changes?

I don’t know if I have a good answer for that. I feel like the distributor lobby is so against giving up [their position], and in fact, you know the last legislative session rolled stuff back really with the bump tax and all that garbage, that I, personally am not super confident [that there will be progress next legislative session]. I certainly hope there will be, and think we have to try and rally the troops. I hope [beer-to-go] happens.

Click here to learn more about Texas’ broken beer laws and sign the petition to urge Texas’ legislators to legalize to-go sales from Texas craft breweries.

Switching gears back to the beer, what’s Saint Arnold’s secret to making sure your beer is top notch wherever folks get it on tap?

We have a lab with two people that are constantly reviewing everything, and we hot-shelf test everything, and it’s a pretty rigorous process. We keg, bottle, and can, all three, and we keep a pretty tight reign on QA/QC, so I’m confident in what we’re doing. If someone has an individual problem, we address it right away. You know, we replace beer and make sure we’re on top of that, but having two people in the lab has been a big benefit. We basically always have someone from the lab here whenever we’re brewing.

What’s the deciding factor on whether to keg, can or bottle a beer?

As far as whether its draft or packaged, we don’t currently have anything that is either draft or packaged, its all both. Now, we have launched brands as draft, then followed up a few months later with packaged, and that’s basically just to kind of get it out in the market, if it’s an off time for grocery store resets we can still get it out there and give people a taste of it on-premise and then you take it off premise. We’ll do some one-offs occasionally, or treatments to an existing beer we have here for a couple accounts here and there, but on wide releases we do all three, to give us flexibility on where to place that product.

And you know, accounts want it. If we release something package only, so the off premise people have it, then then on-premise people want it. They’ll say “hey, the customers are asking for this, why can’t we get it?” And in reverse its kind of the same thing. We also have a good relationship with retailers, so maybe we’ll do small batches of things draft only, but as far as full-on releases, they want it and they’ll make room in the cold box for it, so it benefits us to get it to them.

Anything else you’d like folks to know about Saint Arnold?

Come see us!

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Gabriela is an award-winning homebrewer, BJCP certified beer and mead judge, and ardent supporter of the growing independent craft beer movement. With a background in public policy and data science, Gabriela is working toward increasing transparency around the link between campaign contributions from large corporations and voting outcomes on state legislation impacting craft beer industry growth. In her free time, she enjoys roadtripping, reading, and exploring the great outdoors.

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