Good ideas always seem so obvious in hindsight. Take University Brewing, in Houston, Texas' first and so far only brew-on-premise. A few years ago, Ed Lee, an attorney, and Peter Gerrer, a banker, were enjoying a few pints at The Gingerman, Houston's celebrated beer bar, when Lee happened to mention "these things out in California. Some of them are brewpubs," he explained, "and some aren't, but you can come in, brew your own beer, bottle it, and take it home." As luck would have it, Gerrer knew the concept well, having lived near a BOP for several years in San Diego.
There were no BOPs in Houston, though. None in Texas, for that matter. As it turned out, while the 1993 law that legalized brewpubs in the state didn't specifically forbid BOPs, it didn't explicitly condone them. And since most of the state's brewers were just happy to legally run a brewpub, no one had pushed the issue. At least not until Lee and Gerrer came along. Since brewpubs were (and are) allowed, under certain circumstances, to sell bottles of their beer to go, Lee and Gerrer thought there should be no reason a customer couldn't brew the beer himself, bottle it, and take it home. Another of those simple ideas, but it took almost two years for them to get the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) to agree. Once the approval came through, the now-three partners (Ed's wife, Katy Lee, had joined him and Gerrer), were ready to go.
University Brewing opened in May of 1997, and that same month James Hudec joined as brewmaster, bringing significant brewing experience to the table. "I went to college in Georgetown, Texas," Hudec says, "30 miles north of Austin, and I started working at Hill Country Brewing, which makes Balcones Fault beer. I'd been homebrewing, but that was my first brewing job. My senior year of college, I quit working there so I could graduate, and that June I left for Germany, where I got a brewer's apprenticeship. It was at a little microbrewery/brewpub in old city Nuremburg. I worked there as a brewmaster's apprentice for six months. I got back to Texas and immediately started working as an assistant at Two Rows, in Houston, and then, a few months after that, I got the job here."
It's turned out to be quite a job, too. In addition to helping the customers brew their own, Hudec is in charge of keeping as many as 17 house brews on tap at any given time. "Right now," he said in early February, "we have a steam beer, an Elyssa's Journey IPA, a Marv Albert bitter (probably the most popular right now), a Bohemian lager, a hoppy Cascade Grande pale ale, a Burniston's Best bitter, a Liberty Amber that's kind of malty with all Liberty hops, a Maple Leaf red, a really great brown ale, a Munich dark bock, Adrian's ESB, Third Coast IPA, a Belgian wit that's made with orange peel and coriander with Belgian yeast. And I always have two beers to go, which I bottle and design a label for. Right now, one is an American pale ale, a hoppier version of the Cascade Grande, and an oatmeal stout." Hudec believes that with so many house brews, University Brewing is "actually the biggest producer of different styles of beer in the U.S."
To brew that many styles and still have space for customers' brews, University Brewing has six 20-gallon brew kettles ready for action. There are usually three or four house brews in the works, with the extra capacity dedicated to customer use. "I don't do anything the customer can't," Hudec says. "I brew 15-gallon batches for the house, and the customers brew 15-gallon batches. It's all the same. Fifteen gallons gives some head space in the kettles, and when I rack it off, I rack it into regular kegs, so it can't be more than 15.5 gallons. Usually, though, we lose about a gallon when we rack, so there's about 14 gallons in the keg. Then, when you put it all into 72 22-ounce bottles, that's a little less than 14 gallons. I like to have a little leeway like that, because when people come in to bottle, they like to drink a little bit of their beer, and they'll also lose some due to foaming and spillage. But you do get six cases of 22-oz. bottles."
Contrary to some expectations, experienced homebrewers aren't who you'll find at the brew kettles, according to Hudec. He says, "The people who come in here and brew are usually either thinking about getting into brewing and want to come in here and try it first, to see if they really like it, or they're a group that wants to come in and brew a batch just for fun." As a result, Hudec keeps the brewing process as easy as possible, to make sure even the shakiest first-timer brews a quality beer. "It's really simple," Hudec explains. "Either I'll be here, or one of the owners, while you're brewing, to watch and help. I have the process broken down into steps, to where you're mashing your specialty grains into a mash basket, holding it at a certain temperature for a certain period of time. then you take that out, add your malt extract and bring it up to a boil, then add your hops. When you're done with the boil, we have a glycol chiller to chill it down, then you put it into a fermenter, and that's pretty much it. I try to take as much of the burden away from the brewer as possible."
Maybe the trickiest part of the operation is staying within TABC regulations. Customers are legally prohibited from even using their own bottles for their beer. All bottles must be purchased from University Brewing, with the government warning and company name silk-screened on each bottle. Customers do get to design and print their own self-stick labels for their brews, though.
But the customers' creativity isn't limited to the labels, Hudec says. "One summer," he laughs, "a guy came in and brewed a chile beer. I have a pre-Prohibition lager recipe, a light pilsner made with corn so it's real sweet, and we started with that. Then he came back two weeks later, while it was conditioning in the cold room, and dumped in two pounds of raw jalapenos that he had blended together. He let that sit there for another two weeks, then he came back and bottled it, and it was so hot... But he loved it."
As it stands now, University Brewing is strictly a brewpub/BOP, with no food service aside from delivery (pizza, salads, subs, pasta) from the neighboring University Pizza, but that's not really such a drawback. Small and cozy, University Brewing is content right now to concentrate on the beers - theirs as well as their customers' - and that's what really matters.
University Brewing, 3841 Southwest Freeway, Houston, TX 77027, 713.626.0888.
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