Spicewood’s Solid Rock Brewing, one of the newest players in the central Texas craft beer arena, has started distributing their first bottle releases in recent weeks. Get the scoop on the new brewery, the bottle release of Roundhead Red and the current state of Texas craft beer in this in-depth Q&A with Solid Rock’s Steve Jones:
Bitch Beer: Can you tell me a little bit about your path to starting a brewery? What inspired you to start Solid Rock? Who was involved from the ground up?
Steve Jones: There are three families or couples involved in Solid Rock: the McCarthy’s, the Webbers and the Joneses. We were friends from a few years back, met at church, and we all shared a longtime interest in whisky, cigars and homebrewing. Steve McCarthy (aka “Beaker” since 2 out of 3 partners [are] named “Steve” [it] gets a bit confusing) originally considered starting a distillery. Curt Webber came into the picture about then–Curt has an amazing vocabulary of beer styles and years in the Navy and in the airline business offered plenty of exposure to a variety of brews. Anyway, a later conversation with a retailer friend convinced Beaker that his interest in brewing might be a better path than distilling. McCarthy knew that I had spent most of my career in the beer business and shared a passion for homebrewing and craft beer. It was a good matchup. This all happened about 3 years ago – sometime in February 2011, the 3 of us sat down over a bunch of our favorite beers and talked about how cool it would be to build a brewery (that wasn’t the first time I have had that conversation with friends over beers…). And you think about that – how many times have people mulled over that fantasy? But taking the next step, that’s the challenge. So, we decided to chuck it and see what happens. First goal was to begin brewing our recipes on a repeated, consistent basis. We collectively bought a Sabco RIMS system, which we still have today as our pilot brewhouse, and started knocking out 6 or 7 styles, one every week or so. Lots of carboys and corny kegs. We needed a place for all this stuff, so we bought some land near Lake Travis in Spicewood (4 acres with an extremely sturdy 4,000 sq ft steel barn that had been an ironworks/welding shop in its previous life)
BB: How would you describe the guiding philosophy behind the beers that you brew?
SJ: One of us (it might have been me but there WAS beer involved) said “we brew a beer that fits like a favorite pair of jeans”. Maybe not the perfect metaphor, but it says that we’re not out there trying to figure out what’s the most under-represented style and let’s brew it and sell it, we’re just brewing the beers that we liked as homebrewers. And we’ve taken steps to emulate on the 30 barrel scale what we brewed at the 5 gallon scale and on the Sabco. We’re currently developing a 28’ tall giant glass carboy for fermentation (no not really). Truth is, we have built this place with the intent of being a serious brewery making seriously good beer. For instance, instead of building a showcase tasting room, much of our budget went toward water – we operate off a well, the Trinity aquifer, and it’s really good, clean water, but we’ve spent a small fortune on an RO system that allows us to control exactly our liquor composition. That gives us as brewers another tool in the kitchen basically, since that ion count can promote or demote a number of things in your beer.
Anyway that’s getting too technical – basically our philosophy is, we’re guys from Texas–our palates were still attuned to English ales, milds, stouts–and we were just learning to appreciate west coast big hops/big beers. I think there’s a lot of that palate in Texas–beer fans who have moved away from the big industrial lagers, are ‘craft curious’, but are still developing an appreciation for the variety, individuality and expressiveness of craft beer. I think that’s where we fit–our red ale (Roundhead Red) is a malt-forward, lightly hopped Irish style ale that was the ‘return to’ beer during early tastings. People would try all the brews down the line, and many would return to the Roundhead. Our IPA (Dauntless IPA) clocks in low on the IBU level for the style, but that’s the way we’ve designed it–with a balanced malt backbone to support the Falconers Flight and Magnum hop notes. It’s really drinkable (sessionable?) but it can sneak up on you after the second one, so maybe sessionable’s not the right word. “One’s not enough and three’s too many” might be better.
BB: Can you tell me a little bit about the beers you have on the market right now? Which are you releasing in bottles?
SJ: We just entered the market last week with Roundhead Red in 12 oz six pack longnecks; we will begin kegging Roundhead in early February. Dauntless IPA will be out in February, and during that time we’ll also scale up a beer we marketed in small batches last year called Cho’ Sen Golden Ale, a brew designed to pair with rice dishes and sushi. Solid Rock Cornerstone (our cream ale/kolsch style) will follow. All these will be packaged in the 12 oz longneck and in 1/6 bbl kegs. We’ll also begin a seasonal stout rotation brew later in the year.
BB: Where is your beer available right now?
SJ: We’re just starting distribution as we speak, so we’re spreading out from our home base – there are several accounts in the Bee Cave, Spicewood and Lakeway area that carry our beers: All Star Burger, Zingers, Lakeway Market, Lakeway Liquor, Lone Star Trading Post and Carmelas – over the first few days. And now, HEB’s Mueller, Hancock, Anderson Mill, Circle C, Bee Cave and Southwest Parkway locations.
BB: What size system are you running on?
SJ: There are virtually zero used systems on the market above 17 barrels, so we had a custom-made 30 barrel system built in Washington state by Marks Metalworks. Our capacity is 180 barrels in fermentation and we have a 60 barrel brite tank for finishing.
BB: How do you feel about the current growth in the Texas beer scene and where would you like to see it headed?
SJ: The trend toward more interesting brews in Texas has been going on for better than 20 years, and it’s a consumer-driven trend. It’s not like the big breweries slowed their efforts or pared down their advertising budgets – people were just starting to try something different. But craft market share was always tiny compared to the bigs. Think back to 1991, 1992, 1993- some of the regional craft breweries were coming in to Texas, and then there was the advent of brewpubs in the state at the same time-these things introduced us to beers that were not just yellow and fizzy, but actually had some body, some flavor, some personality. Guys like Pierre Celis and Billy Forrester and Steve Anderson were doing things in the beer market that no one had done in Texas in generations, if ever, and people were noticing. You look at the selection in a supermarket today compared to what it looked like back then or even just 10 years ago and it is just amazing. No doubt I would like to see it continue to head in a direction of constant improvement in quality and selection. That’s going to have to come from the consumer as well: as long as new breweries continue to launch and survive battles against enormous marketing budgets, and consumers continue to learn about beer and be discerning in their selection, then there is still room for growth for craft beer in our state. I think there’s a lot of room. Just look at where we rank in breweries per capita, and consider how many craft fans are moving to Texas, thankfully many to Austin, and I don’t see that trend slowing a whole lot in the next ten years.
BB: What are Solid Rock’s plans for growth (when you see yourselves expanding into new markets, etc.)
SJ: Maybe we’re weird, but our business plan has no exit strategy and no plans to expand beyond 10,000 barrels per year. We feel like we can support our dream by brewing really good beer for our neighbors locally, being the village brewery if you will, and just staying put in central Texas.
BB: Are you currently offering brewery tours/ taproom hours?
SJ: Not yet, but we will do tours in the coming year, and we have a room in the barn designated for future taproom use. It’s currently doing duty as our walk-in cooler. It eventually will be one very well-insulated taproom. It will maintain a constant temperature like a German lagering cave.
BB: Anything else you’d like to share about Solid Rock?
SJ: Not specifically about us, but just to acknowledge the Texas brewing community–fellow brewers in this state (and I guess all over the US) are quick to reach out with technical assistance and referrals, and even provide materials and equipment, to one another even when we’re going after the same shelf space or tap handle out in the trade. Folks who have been brewing for 15 years are willing to answer the innocent questions of newbies (of course they’re probably getting a good laugh out of some of that). Anyway, it is just plain rare to find an industry or market, whatever, that is so collaborative while being competitive at the same time. It’s just really cool to be involved in this community. Just keep drinking good beer!