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Micro- to middle-brew pubs kicking up dust need to cling to that vision thing



Those who have caught the fever for brewing beer often become like little kids picking what they want to be when they grow up. And like most youngsters who want to be firefighters, ballerinas, astronauts, or benevolent dictators, home brewers aren’t quite sure what it takes to achieve the dream until they are in deep.

So you want to start a microbrewery or brewpub? There will be plenty of people rooting for you, especially your friends who think they’ll get to drink for free, but there is much to consider before taking the plunge.

In June 2010, 389 people reported to the Brewers Association, the largest association of brewers in the United States, that they were working on opening a craft brewery. The number of new breweries that actually opened over the next year was 165, bringing the total to 1,790. As of mid-2011, there were 725 breweries in the planning stages in the United States, according to the Brewers Association. “There is a growing interest in establishing new breweries,” said Brewers Association Director Paul Gatza when the latest statistics were released this summer. “It seems like every day we are hearing about a brewery in planning. Will they all make it? No. But many will if they produce high-quality, interesting craft beers and can get them to market through self-distribution and beer wholesalers and beer retailers.”

San Antonio and South Central Texas are no exception.

Blue Star Brewing Co., a brewpub in the Southtown/King William area of San Antonio, has been in business for 15 years. In that time owner Joey Villarreal watched two microbreweries and two other brewpubs come and go as he weathered the storm that weeded out so many craft breweries in the early years of the movement. The addition of a bike shop, party space, movie nights, a free bus to Spurs games, and mule-like stubbornness kept the place open through it all.

Scott Metzger’s dream started taking shape years ago with an affection for home brewing and craft-beer drinking in ski country. But it took definite shape the day after Thanksgiving in 2008 when he opened the doors at San Antonio’s Freetail Brewing Co. It took a loan of more than $1 million and glitches aplenty to make it come to life. Now at the beginning of its fourth year of business, Freetail has become a statewide phenomenon with crowds coming for beer, pizza, or both at the North Loop 1604 establishment. Although a $4.5 million plan for a second location in downtown Houston didn’t pan out because the financing didn’t materialize, the brewpub is expanding in the space it has now.

Metzger is adding a bottling line at the brewpub that can fill and cap more than a thousand 22-ounce bottles of beer an hour. State law, which he and others have unsuccessfully attempted to change, doesn’t allow brewpub beer to be sold on store shelves. But Metzger said he hopes more people will buy the beer to take home from Freetail in the future.

The Filling Station, which is slated to open in early 2012, is taking the small-investment, small-batch approach to starting a brewery. The South St. Mary’s establishment is being set up inside a 300-square-foot location recently vacated by a popular sandwich shop of the same name.

The founders, a seasoned home brewer from Southern California and the owner of the sandwich shop now in a larger space next door, plan to make beer in batches of about a half barrel at a time in hopes that the combination of low overhead and downtown’s density of craft beer lovers will make ends meet.

Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling Co., San Antonio’s only microbrewery, just celebrated its first year in the beer business and has created quite a buzz. The founders include three USAA marketing department employees and a full-time head brewer. Brewer Rob Landerman has been able to take some risks in making craft beer that will get the attention of craft beer seekers, but the regular offerings like Oatmeal Pale Ale, Mesquite Smoked Porter, and La Bestia Aimable caused the owners to lay out money for more equipment only a few months in to keep up with demand. While beer so far has been the bread and butter of the operation, diversification with small-batch bourbons — the first of which was released in November — is meant to put the “brewstillery” in the black.

Even in a mid-sized city like New Braunfels, entrepreneurs are going out on a limb with a brewpub and two to three microbreweries under construction in a town that already has one brewery. “It’s a risky industry. It’s very competitive,” said Jaime Martinez, a senior certified business advisor at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Small Business Development Center. “I still like these kinds of industries, but it’s tough. They have to figure out what differentiates them from the competition.”

Freetail’s Metzger said how big you start out is less important than being true to your plan. “You have to decide what is the je ne sais quoi of your brewery and stick with it. If you’re going to be a lager brewery, be a lager brewery. If you’re going to be a brewery that makes funky beers, stick with that.” Metzger said. “People are willing to give you time to grow into your britches. But make sure you’re well capitalized and don’t over-extend yourself or you’re going to have to compromise. You have to be true to your vision.” D

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