Everyone knows that the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. But in Los Angeles, few people know that March 2nd is Texas Independence Day, declaring independence from Mexico in 1836 and creating the Republic of Texas, or that I am a Texas native. So please indulge me as I celebrate this holiday with a Texas craft beer.
When it comes to craft beer states, Texas doesn’t enjoy the many brewing freedoms that others like California do. Bound by archaic state laws that make it difficult for craft brewers to find success, small breweries in Texas struggle not just to find the right recipe for a good beer but also to produce beers that the state will allow while contending with distribution laws that favor the big guys. However, the folks at Independence Brewing Co in Austin are working hard to change all of that.
Founders Rob and Amy Cartwright started Independence Brewing in 2004. Armed with a passion for craft beer, a skill for home brewing and experience working at various brewpubs, they set out to fill a large void in the city.
Rob began home brewing on his own as a student at the University of Texas but he learned how from his mom. Growing up in Victoria, Canada, where taxes on alcohol made it very expensive to buy, she often brewed her own beer and made her own wine. He parlayed that experience into a position as a brewer for a local brewpub. Likewise, Amy also learned the business by working at a local brewpub.
Before opening their own brewery, they decided to visit other small breweries to do some research. Traveling through Colorado, they talked to brewers and brewery owners about the challenges of opening and running a brewery. “Ska Brewing in Durango and Oskar Blues were both very helpful,” says Amy. “Both were in growth transitions, in bottling and production and showed us a lot about the business of brewing.”
But when they finally decided to start Independence, they were faced with a whole new challenge. “There hadn’t been a new brewery or brewpub in the greater Austin area for over 10 years,” says Amy. “When we started, the city had to have meetings on what needed to be done and what paperwork had to be completed.”
Once the red tape was finally cut, the official brewing commenced. Their initial lineup consisted of the Bootlegger Brown, Independence Pale and Freestyle Wheat Beer, all still popular today. But it’s the Austin Amber that is their top seller and the one that people identify with Independence Brewing.
However, with laws that prevented them from selling beer onsite, they had to find new ways to promote the brewery. One of their strategies for success isn’t likely to be found in most business models.
They gave beer away for free. And they still do.
Every first Saturday of the month, they open the brewery for a couple of hours and let people try the beer for free. “We enjoyed visiting other breweries,” says Amy, “and we wanted people to visit ours. So we picked one day a month when we knew people could visit us and try our beers.”
Half pints of three different brews are available and as the crowds have grown so has the entertainment. Food and music usually find their way to the event as well. “The first Saturday has taken on a life of its own,” says Amy. “Its like a tailgate without any sports.”
Independence is also working with other breweries and brewpubs in the area to change the laws in Texas. Lobbying with 512 Brewing and Saint Arnold, both in Austin and Real Ale Brewing in Blanco, they want breweries to have the right to charge people for the tour or sell a visitor some brews and turn the tasting room experience into a revenue generator. Right now, visitors can’t buy direct from the brewery, be it a six-pack or a growler fill.
Even with laws that do not favor their growth, they have done well in a short time. In six years, they have grown from husband, wife and their dog Jasper to a staff of nine and recently added another dog, Indy, to the family. Independence brews are now available in over 200 bars, restaurants, grocery and convenience stores in the greater Austin-San Antonio area.
Currently, Independence Brewing does NOT distribute or sell their beer outside of the Austin-San Antonio metroplex so if you want to get some, you gotta go. And if you do, stop by on a first Saturday. Trust me, it’s worth the trip.