SA beer makers tapping into growing craft beer movement

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When it comes to beer, San Antonio has a rich brewing tradition that is often forgotten.

While Pearl and Lone Star haven't made beer in the Alamo city in over a decade, there's a whole new generation of local beer makers tapping into the growing craft beer movement.

Jason Ard is one of those young brewers. Just two years ago, he was brewing his own beer at home as a hobby. Last month, he officially opened his own microbrewery: Branchline Brewing Company.

Ard's 3,600 square foot facility is capable of producing up to 1,000 barrels a year.

"In the grand scheme of production breweries, we're pretty tiny, but that makes us agile," Ard said. "There's definitely a thirst for Texas made beer. Our goal is to convert people from maybe the light fizzy beer to something that's maybe a little more full flavored."

Since opening up, Ard has already got his Branchline beers into 20 San Antonio bars, restaurants and brewpubs and a handful up in Austin. He sees plenty of room for more growth as the city rediscovers its love for handcrafted beers.

"I think we're a little behind maybe some of the other big cities in Texas, but I think we are growing," Ard said.

Alex Rattray is another local brewer who got his start making home brew.

"I didn't even have a garage, it was in my backyard," Rattray said of his humble brewing beginnings. "It started as just kind of a fun little hobby and now it's my career."

Rattray and his brother Tim recently opened up The Granary 'Cue & Brew,' a brewpub and BBQ joint located in the shadow of the former Pearl Brewing Company. Tim takes care of the food and Alex makes the beer.

"Some of the first beer that was brewed in San Antonio was brewed in this surrounding area," said Rattray. "So it's kind of cool to be the first place back here brewing again in over a decade of no beer being made."

Rattray doesn't just sell his own beers at the Granary. You'll find plenty of other handcrafted brews made in San Antonio and Texas.

"We have about seven other beers that we serve here on tap or on cask and those are either from San Antonio, Austin, and Houston," said Rattray. "We really love Texas beers. We really want to promote that,"

While craft beers are becoming extremely popular across the country and the rest of Texas, it's only been in the last few years that there's been a craving for more local craft beers.

"People have rediscovered beer and I think a real key component is that restaurants have started focusing on doing draft beers, or just having a really nice craft beer selection," said Rattray. "I think people are just getting excited about beer and realizing there is so much depth of flavor there that just hasn't been available up until recently, so I really think it's going to stick around."

Craft beers aren't new in San Antonio, the Blue Star Brewing Company has been making brew for 14 years and Freetail Brewing Company opened its beer taps four years ago.

But the last few years have seen several other brewers enter the market, including Ranger Creek Brewing and Distilling, The Granary and Branchline. They'll soon be joined by two more.

The Busted Sandal Brewery is set to start selling its beer by May and Alamo Beer plans to open its production facility next spring.

You might think all these brewers would be highly competitive, but they're all helping each other out.

"I felt San Antonio could support more than one and what we found out is it can definitely support more than two, so it's exciting to see all these new guys popping up," said Scott Metzger, founder and CEO of Freetail Brewing Company. "We're always willing to help each other out and we're friends with the other brewers."

In his four years in the beer business, Metzger has seen beer drinkers' tastes evolve.

"Consumers are reaching out, trying to find out what's new, what's local, what's different," Metzger said. "I think if you look at the foodie movement or the wine movement, those are indicators where the craft beer movement is going to go. People don't want to drink the same thing every day of their life."

One thing keeping the craft beer movement from really taking flight is the state's alcohol laws. Under current laws, Rattray and other brewpubs can only sell their beers where they are made. They can't bottle them up and sell them at a retail store.

Likewise, Ard's Branchline and other microbreweries can only sell their beer to bars, restaurants and other brewpubs. Ard and other Texas producers have to give away beer at their facilities; He can't sell you a pint at his tasting room. Instead, he charges visitors $10 for a logo beer glass and fills it up for free after a tour of his facility.

Scott Metzger believes the laws are outdated and give out of state beer makers an unfair advantage in local stores.

"You can find beer from brewpubs in Colorado or California, but you can't find any beer from a Texas brewpub," Metzger said. "I can sell more beer in Texas if I moved out of Texas, and I don't think any Texas businessman should ever have to say that."

Metzger is leading a lobbying effort to get Texas lawmakers to support four new bills that were introduced this legislative session. Senate bills 515-518 would lift many of those restrictive laws and create a more level playing field.

"They would really open things up for craft brewers in the state and give us the kind of rights that brewers in other states can already take advantage of and are actually using to compete against Texas brewers," said Metzger.

There's also the economic impact of the craft beer industry to consider. Metzger, who is also an economics professor at UTSA, conducted a study last year looking at the effect of the laws on the industry.

The study found that the Texas craft beer industry had a $608 million dollar economic impact in 2011. Meztger's study predicted that number could balloon to $5.6 billion dollars and create up to 50,000 new jobs in the first 8 years of the laws being changed.

There have been several other beer laws introduced in recent sessions, but none of them even made it out of committee to get a vote. Metzger said lawmakers are starting to come around with 14 of 30 senators signed on as joint or co-authors of this years batch of beer bills.

"Eventually this is going to happen. It might be 2013 or it might be 2033. I definitely hope it's 2013, but eventually this will get done," Metzger said. "What helps us is that it's an easy sell because it's just good economics."

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