Bartol talks about the building blocks of a brewery, his favorite craft beer flavors, and Texas’ oldest craft brewery’s hometown feel.
Saint Arnold Brewing Company has the prestigious reputation as Texas’ oldest craft brewery. Started in 1994, Saint Arnold has been creating high-quality traditional craft beers, from the malty Fancy Lawnmower, a German-style Kolsch, to its summer crowd favorite the Summer Pils, a golden Munich-style helles, with its audience in mind. Recently, C&I talked with founder Kevin Bartol on starting a brewery and what makes Saint Arnold stand out from other American craft beers.
Cowboys & Indians: What made you interested in the craft beer business?
Kevin Bartol: I loved the product and loved the business. When we started in the early ’90s, we looked around and saw that [breweries] were starting up in Colorado and on the West Coast. Texas is the second largest beer consumption state behind California and it’s the highest per capita, so we thought it was a great market that didn’t have a special Pabst Blue Ribbon or craft beer. We thought it was a good business opportunity.
C&I: So you didn’t start with the home-brewing process?
Bartol: No, but Brock [Wagner], who I started the company with and who runs it now, he had home-brewed once or twice in college, but we weren’t frequent home-brewers. We weren’t hobby brewers. We approached it as a business. We liked craft beers like Sierra Nevada, drank them, and said, “Well, hey, we like these. Probably other people will buy them. And there’s nothing in Texas.” So we approached it like a business and not like a hobby.
C&I: How did you come across the name Saint Arnold?
Bartol: We had thought up a bunch of names that other people have taken like “yellow rose” and I said, “You know, consumer products work well when they’re named after people because people identify with people.” Think about Tony the Tiger or Aunt Jemima. Things like this. And I said, “Well, hey, I wonder if there’s a beer saint?” We went to St. Mary’s Seminary [in Houston], looked it up, and read the legend of Saint Arnold. We were trying to think about what to name the company and we ran across the legend of Saint Arnold. Turns out he’s a true saint. We thought it was really kind of interesting and neat and said, “Well, we’ll name it that.”
C&I: What distinguishes Saint Arnold from other craft breweries?
Bartol: Every company is different. Every company has a different sort of focus. I think, first, we’ve been around longer, so we’ve been a little bit more established. We always said that our goal was to become a local institution. We didn’t say we wanted to be like a bar where everyone hung out. We didn’t say we wanted to sell a bunch of beer and bail out after five years. I think it was the idea that we were going to build this company to last for a long time. We didn’t set it up to sell, and we didn’t set it up to be a sort of quick money maker. We set it up to be a long-term really good company. That was our goal.
C&I: Did you have any specific influence over some of the flavors? Do you have a favorite brew?
Bartol: Yeah. We test-brewed all the beers. We started out with the styles that we thought the market liked. And we liked them. We didn’t want to make anything gimmicky. We never made fruit beer or weird kinds of beers, we just stuck with the traditional styles and tried to make them really well. After, we would bring people in and have them test sample on a blind basis and rate them. We tried to do things that had good, positive ratings, but not a lot of negative. Some things that we would make would have high positives, but really high negatives too. You know, people either loved them or hated them. We just tried to make things that most people liked and not many people hated. And, since I haven’t been in front of the company, we’ve made new beers, but I think they have stuck pretty much to that outlook.
C&I: Do you have a favorite brew?
Bartol: I like the original Amber Ale and the Summer Pils. Those are my two favorites.
C&I: Any plans to get back into the craft beer business?
Bartol: For me? No. They’re doing a good job running the company. I’ll just stay an owner.
C&I: What accomplishments within Saint Arnold are you most proud of?
Bartol: One of the things I am really proud of about the company is that we said we wanted it to be a local institution, and I think we’ve succeeded in that. If you look at the number of charities we’ve helped, it’s thousands. We used to have the letters and we used to hang them on the wall and we were up to like 500 letters up on the wall within three years. So since then, it’s been thousands and thousands. I also know three people who have gotten engaged at the brewery, you know? [Laughs.] And I know people who have had their weddings there. So it’s good. It’s a local institution, and I think that’s neat. And I’m just proud of them because they’ve always made a good product and never got away from that. It’s always been product first.
For more information on Saint Arnold, visit the brewery’s website.
Come back for continuing C&I American Craft Beer Week coverage.