20 years of
Real Ale Brewing
In February, Real Ale Brewing became the site of a reunion.
Dozens of people flocked to the Blanco brewery at the invitation of owner Brad Farbstein, many of whom once worked there — like Dr. Dane Mosher, who developed the original recipe for Real Ale’s most well-known beer, Firemans #4, before getting his medical degree and becoming a family practitioner, or Trevor Nearburg, who remains in the beer industry and now acts as head brewer at Uncle Billy’s Brewery & Smokehouse.
At Real Ale's 20th anniversary party in April this year, most of the staff, nearly 60 people, posed for a photo in a marked contrast to the staff photo from 2005. Photo contributed by Real Ale
They came to celebrate, to swap stories and memories, to look back and marvel at how far their old workplace had come.
The brewery was two months away from turning 20, and while current employees brewed up this year’s special anniversary beer — the Full Moon Imperial Rye IPA, a throwback to Real Ale’s original flagship, the Full Moon Pale Rye Ale — the taproom was full of long-gone alums and familiar faces alike.
Threaded within each of the stories these folks told was a common theme: None of them could believe how much Farbstein and his beloved once-tiny brewery had accomplished. Real Ale, which is already planning an additional brew house expansion and is dipping into distilling spirits, now brews more than 61,000 barrels of beer per year.
That’s a lot, more than enough to classify Real Ale as a regional brewery in size. The number is even more remarkable given that all Real Ale’s beer, from Firemans to each small-batch Mysterium Verum offering, stays in Texas.
But Farbstein won’t say that he’s done it all himself. His wife, Gabe Gregerman, has been with him since before the brewery was founded; his director of brewing operations, Tim Schwartz, joined his side in 2004. Erik Ogershok, an off and on and most likely now off-for-good employee with Real Ale since 2000, has also helped make Real Ale what it is today.
Then there are the Conners, the family who started the brewery in 1996 with the dream of making good local beer at a time when Budweiser was still king. Phillip and Diane Conner, along with their son and Real Ale co-founder Charles, made the six-hour trip from Northeast Texas to join the reunion festivities in February and sat in appreciation at one of the long orange tables at the back of the taproom, so different from the place where they first made Full Moon.
At 20, Real Ale — the Austin area’s oldest brewery — has become one of Texas craft beer’s greatest success stories.
In 1996, the Conners squeezed Real Ale’s original secondhand brewhouse, from a 1980s-era Dallas brewery called Reinheitsgebot (in reference to the ancient German purity law stating beer should only be made with hops, malt, water and yeast), into the basement of Cranberry’s Antiques in the heart of small-town Blanco. Make no mistake: Real Ale’s quarters were a snug fit. “Dank, to say the least,” Gregerman remembers.
“We were literally tucked in a basement with 2,300 square feet of space, no floor drains and 7-foot ceilings,” Farbstein says. “It was pretty tight down there, but we made it work. In those days, like most brewers from that generation, we worked with what we had.”
He had gotten to know the Conners upon getting his own start in Austin’s fledgling beer industry, back when the only Texas beer people really knew about was Shiner Bock.
After getting hooked on home brewing thanks to a college lacrosse teammate, he peddled beers from Saint Arnold Brewing, another successful (and slightly older) brewery from Houston. It was during his time at a now-defunct local distributorship called Microbility Beverage, which focused on selling smaller craft brands — like San Antonio’s short-lived Frio Brewing and Yellow Rose Brewing — that he met the Conners.
“During the year at Microbility, I sold their entire portfolio, including Real Ale,” Farbstein says, noting that the Conners’ beers consisted of the still-produced Full Moon, Brewhouse Brown and Rio Blanco Pale Ale. “Then, on weekends, I would go and help the Conners brew and bottle and keg in Blanco.”
Although the Conners had originally hoped to set up shop in Austin— even back then, “the hoops you have to jump through are just astronomical,” Phil Conner says — their choice to move it to Blanco turned out to have an important perk: their proximity to the Blanco River. Winding through the Hill Country, it’s got a special ingredient that has formed the backbone of all Real Ale beers.
“The limestone that’s in the water, you don’t think of it as imparting a flavor profile, but we think of it as the foundation for all the chemical reactions that happen when you add the malt and hops in the boil,” Charles Conner says.
His father echoes: “The craft brewing thing felt like half science, half an art form. It was sort of like voodoo.”
This 1996 photo shows Phillip and Diane Conner in the original Real Ale Brewing facility, which they founded that year and then sold to Brad Farbstein. Contributed by Real Ale Brewing.
But despite their success at making beers that early converts like Farbstein liked to drink, Real Ale Brewing proved to be a difficult business both financially and physically for the Conner family, with a lot of back-breaking work for an outcome that just wasn’t enough. “I had some health issues, and I just wanted out,” Phil Conner says.
They had gotten valuable help from Farbstein as well as from Schwartz, who worked at the now-closed Bitter End Bistro & Brewery in downtown Austin in the 1990s and provided Phil and Charles Conner with yeast cultures. In February 1998, the family patriarch reached out to Farbstein one last time for advice: “Phil asked if I could help them find someone to sell the brewery to, and I immediately said, ‘I’m your man,’” Farbstein says.
He had gotten an inheritance from his grandmother and managed to turn the $13,000 into $80,000 after a stockbroker friend gave him a tip “to invest in a hippy grocery store in Austin called Whole Foods,” he says. He used that money to purchase Real Ale from the Conners later that summer and pay off some of their debt.
Despite having to give it up, Phil and Charles Conner still have good memories of their two years at the brewery.
“The basement where we used to brew was a biker bar called the Mole Hole, with low ceilings and no windows,” Charles Conner says with a smile. “Even after it closed, the bikers would still come by in a big group. They thought the idea of our brewery sounded cool, but then we gave them some beer and they said, ‘What is this crap?’”
The bikers’ reaction to Real Ale mirrored a lot of people’s attitude toward the flavorful brews that pioneering facilities like Real Ale had started producing. In the 1990s, there weren’t many places willing to take a chance on the adventurous young breweries. Brewpubs — which flourished after a change in Texas law making them legal but then largely failed — at least had a ready-made restaurant space at which to sell their beers.
“Most bars had only two or three beer taps for craft in 1998,” Farbstein says. “The ability to sell craft beer in that day and age was definitely an uphill battle. It took us the first 11 years for us to sell 5,500 barrels of beer. Some of the more recent entries into the market are able to do that in the first couple of years.”
Still, he and his tiny staff persevered. In the early days, he helped to foster the brewery careers of guys like Greg Miller, now at Colorado’s Avery Brewing, and Woody Wiedeman, now at California’s Green Flash Brewing. They had to do everything by hand, as Mosher — Real Ale’s first employee in 1999 — recalled at the February reunion.
“It would take four hours to grind the grain for every batch,” he said. “We’d fill heavy-duty trash cans, nine with 100 lbs. of grain, and load them up a flight of stairs and get them into the mash tun. Then we’d use a shovel and a rake to mix it all up by hand. It was very hot and sweaty work.”
Real Ale's staff in 2005, which included owner Brad Farbstein, and brewers Tim Schwartz and Erik Ogershok, was much smaller than it is today. Contributed by Real Ale.
He created the Firemans #4 recipe, the beer that helped bridge the seemingly impossible chasm between craft beer drinkers and those who still preferred Budweiser.
Firemans #4, Farbstein says, has been a longtime partnership between Real Ale and Greg Mundy, the owner of Firemans Texas Cruzers, an Austin bike company. (The 4 refers to the fact that Firemans was the fourth year-round Real Ale beer.) Farbstein and Gregerman have their theories about why Firemans #4, a 5.10 percent ABV blonde ale that accounts for more than 60 percent of Real Ale’s total volume, turned out to be the beer that would change Real Ale’s fortunes.
“It was a very well-made beer that was approachable,” Farbsteinsays. “It also had such an iconic, interesting (tap) handle. Greg and I came up with it at his shop one day when we took a greasy sprocket off one of his bikes.… We went to Breed & Company and bought a brass number four, like the kind you put on the side of your house (for your address), and took some drywall screws to attach the number four through the chain ring and into the red tap handle.”
Because the sprocket-clad handle lacked the words “Real Ale” or “Firemans #4,” bar patrons were “forced to ask bartenders what it was,” he says. “And presumably they would give a sample, and it would turn out to be approachable.”
Sales — and production — took off. It remains the bulk of Real Ale’s output and allows the brewers to release more creative but less lucrative beers like the barrel-aged and wild ales of the Mysterium Verum series.
A Firemans #4 blonde ale is poured at the tap room at the Real Ale Brewing Company in Blanco on Thursday, June 23, 2016.
A year after Firemans #4 first was released, Schwartz — who had spent nearly 10 years at the Bitter End making the beer program there more consistent — joined Real Ale with considerable brewing chops and the desire to help Farbstein with his next big project: moving out of the basement of the antique store and into a facility they would design.
“There was just no room left to brew. No room left to do anything else,” Gregerman says. “At the same time, we didn’t even really break even until 2004 or 2005.”
So while Schwartz, Ogershok and various other Real Ale employees began releasing new brews, including the sublime Sisyphus Barleywine and the bright and bold Lost Gold IPA, Farbstein, Schwartz and Todd Ehlers, who has long been involved in the Austin beer industry, now at Oasis, Texas Brewing, began designing the brewery of their dreams. Located slightly outside of Blanco, it would be a place that Real Ale could grow into.
“We were a good team,” Schwartz says. “We did it all ourselves, so it took about six to eight months longer than we expected for everything to get installed. It also cost a lot more. But we knew every little nook and cranny.”
In the mid-2000s, as Real Ale Brewing expanded and settled into the two-story facility at 231 San Saba Court, where the brewery remains today, Texas’ beer scene was growing, too, in both size and adventurousness.
“Brad, Erik and Tim all feel Texas hasn’t represented what we can do yet,” Brian Peters, who followed in Schwartz’s footsteps at the Bitter End and now works as one of the head brewers at the ABGB, said in a 2008 American-Statesman article. “We’re trying to bring Texas beer to the level of what people around the country think of when they think of Colorado and the West Coast. There’s no reason we should be second fiddle to anyone.”
Peters was right — “Erik and Tim could brew circles around anybody.” Together, they brewed beers that have won awards and helped to put Real Ale Brewing on the map. (So far, Schwartz says, Real Ale has picked up medals five years in a row at the Great American Beer Festival, one of the most beer prestigious competitions in the U.S.)
Real Ale head brewmaster Tim Schwartz, then-assistant brewmaster Erik Ogershok, and owner Brad Farbstein seen on July 18, 2008.
And when Ogershok left last year to pursue another opportunity in Houston, Schmitty, who goes by one name, took over as head brewer after having worked his way through the ranks over the past eight years. “Turnover here is low,” he says.
Numbering closer to 60 employees now, Real Ale Brewing has become a leader in the industry in many ways. Farbstein and Schwartz were instrumental in helping to get the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, which officially launched in 2009, off the ground as more than a business entity. The guild has become an educational resource for both veteran and green brewers alike, Amy Cartwright, co-founder of Independence Brewing, says.
Barrels full of aging beer at the Real Ale Brewing Company in Blanco on June 23, 2016.
“They sort of built a foundation for the rest of us,” she says, noting that in part because of the influence of the guild, Texas has loosened laws allowing for the proliferation of breweries and brewpubs.
Cartwright and her husband, Rob, opened Independence in 2004 and saw Real Ale as an inspiration in those early days. “We would see them, and it was like looking in the future and seeing what we could do,” she says.
But as established as Real Ale has become, the brewery is still making changes to improve its standing in the beer world. Last year, the new taproom opened with plenty of seating and views of the large, updated-but still-secondhand brew house; plus, Real Ale unveiled a new, more unified look for its branding.
“Many people who drank Firemans had no idea we made it, so we saw the rebranding as an opportunity to connect them with the rest of the beers we make,” Farbstein says.
Ask him what his plans are for the next 20 years, and they most likely won’t include spreading Real Ale out of Texas. He’s wary of the environmental impact of shipping and, besides that, likes the idea of local: that beer tastes best fresh from the source. And Texas, he says, is a very big state, with “more opportunities for us to expand. It’s not the way every brewer does it, but we do it the way we feel is the right way. We just hope the industry as a whole continues to grow.”
Check out these other Real Ale beers
Hans’ Pils: Named after the owners’ German shorthaired pointer, Hans is modeled after the pilsners of northern Germany: crisp and brightly hoppy. Find it in cans just about everywhere.
Four Squared Dry-Hopped Pale Ale: Originally Real Ale’s 16th anniversary beer, Four Squared became a popular year-round offering thanks to the notes of tropical, juicy citrus yielded from dry-hopping.
Sisyphus Barleywine: At a boozy 10.50 percent ABV, this big beer — with hoppy flavors balanced by the rich toffee characteristics of the malt — is perfect for a nightcap.
Brewers’ Cut: This series of small-batch beers often turns into bigger projects, depending on how popularly received they are. The offerings have included a Blackberry Saison, spicy and fruity, and the ESB, made with locally malted Blacklands Malt.
Gose: A subtly sour wheat beer, Real Ale’s version has fresh lime juice to pair with the hints of coriander and slight saltiness typical of the German style. It’s a summertime offering.
Mysterium Verum: The barrel-aging wild side to the brewery is going to be more widely produced. Look for bottles of this series — one of the first up is the tart and fruity Scots Gone Wild — this fall.