Craft brewers, distillers dump millions into local economy

Charles Tate, owner of Tate Distillery in Waco, checks one of his 4,000-gallon vats. (Photo by Paul J. Gately)
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) A Waco distiller says local beer and whiskey makers currently are on a path to profit and state law changes in effect Sunday will only help the industry dump an estimated $10 million into the local economy.

“Craft breweries and craft distilleries have become a huge business in Texas and that product affects the retail and wholesale markets, transportation and the tax rolls at state and federal governments,” Charles Tate, owner of Tate Distillery in Waco, said.

There are three commercial breweries in the city and on Sunday each will celebrate a change in state law that clears the way for those brewers to sell their product for off-premise consumption.

Texas House Bill 1545, which passed the most recent session of the Texas Legislature and which takes effect statewide on Sunday, means “Texas will finally join the

other 49 states of the U.S. in allowing off-premise beer sales from manufacturing craft breweries,” the Texas Craft Brewers Guild (TCBG) website says, but it didn’t happen overnight.

“Versions of the bill were brought before legislators for seven consecutive sessions (14 years) before finally passing in June 2019. This long-awaited victory opens new avenues for Texas brewery success, deep in the heart of craft beer.”

“That’s good. It’s very good and it will keep us steadily growing,” David Stoneking, one of the owners at Brotherwell Brewing company, at 400 East Bridge Street, in East Waco, said.

He and his partner began their effort about a year and-a-half ago, installing several large stainless steel tanks for holding both cold and hot water, a heated vat for cooking the water and grain mixture down, then pulling off the liquid and continuing the process, adding hops and yeast before pulling off the finished brew and filling kegs.

Brotherwell is celebrating Sunday with specials on growlers, big steins that hold 64-ounces of beer, and if customers order one, they get to keep the stein.

Just getting legal is an issue because licensing requires permits from the city, the county, the state and federal governments and just stepping through that process can be a nightmare.

“It’s hard work,” Stoneking said, “because we (the two of them) do everything from manufacturing, distribution and now retail sales.

Before the new law, brewers could only sell their products through bars and restaurants where it was served on tap or through other liquor and food retailers in cans or bottles and at the brewery the products could only be given away, not sold.

Brotherwell doesn’t can or bottle any beer right now because they don’t have a canning machine, and Stoneking said, “they’re expensive.”

But necessity breeds invention and today there are mobile canners who will come to a brewery, unload their canning equipment in the building, go through the canning process, clean up the mess and drive away leaving the filled cans behind.

“The beer world is very much fun,” Stoneking said with a grin.

There’s no doubt the craft industries, whether brewing or distilling, are lively and growing segments of the local

market and when Garrett Seeley and his wife Margarita recognized that, they had the foresight to open a store that markets to craft brewers.

“We cater mostly to home brewers, but we also have things the commercial craft brewers use,” Seeley said.

He’s a home brewer, himself, who works at Texas State Technical College where he teaches students to repair extremely sensitive and complicated medical equipment.

Margarita (an appropriate name for someone who works in the craft beverage industry) also works at TSTC where she teaches in the audio/visual and media department.

“You’d be surprised how many home brewers there are around here,” Seeley said, “and there are three commercial craft breweries running now, one about to start up and one planned to start up later this year.”

The large number of start-ups, both here and across the country, inspired others to get in on the trend, too, like Tate, who at his copperworks makes cooking vats that are as large as any in the United States, 4,000 gallons, not only for his own distillery but for others.

He’s not alone, because Todd Gillespie, at Stampede Stills, in Hewitt, makes hand-hammered copper distilling systems for anyone from the extremely small home distiller to a major operation.

“We sell stills all across the country,” Gillespie said, “We’re taking orders right now four months in advance.”

Craft beers are making a big splash in that national overall beer sales declined in 2018, while both volume sales and retail dollar sales of craft beer increased.

“Texas now has more than six times the number of active beer production licenses than at the beginning of the decade, signaling one of the biggest trends in food and beverage,” the TCBG association website says.

However, Texas still ranks 30th in economic impact per capita and 46th in number of breweries per capita in the U.S., because restrictive laws surrounding alcohol sales hindered the rankings, the association says.

But “With the passage of the “Beer-to-Go” bill, more entrants to the craft beer scene are expected, increasing competition and revenue for craft breweries across the state.”

“It’s a whole renaissance,” Seeley said, “a return to a simpler way of life.”

The Seeleys have their eyes on that whole thing and at their shop on New Dallas Highway they not only sell goods for home or craft brewers, but they have a line of products that keep that renaissance focus.

“We roast our own coffee and now we’ve introduced a line of craft-brewed soft drinks,” Seeley said.

The couple’s craft-brewed root beer “is just like that root beer we used to get at the drive-in movies,” Seeley said, “The soda line is named Drive-In.”

Root beer is the only drink they produce right now but a cream soda and other flavors will come on-line soon, he said.

Tate in 2004 started up Balcones Distillery and it quickly grew into a favorite brand in Texas, nationally and internationally, then years later he split away and formed Tate Distillery, which is in the process of making whiskey now.

Today he’s still hammering on those huge copper stills, but when they’re done and the fires are lit, he’ll soon be turning out craft distilled product that he said both he, and Waco, will be proud of.

But what made Tate, a successful educator with advanced degrees, decide to walk away from one career and dive into another?

“I’m fascinated by fermentation,” he said, sitting inside the office at his Steinbeck Bend distillery, “I mean, you take something like corn, mix some sugar and moisture in, cover it up and regulate the temperature for a while and later, when you open it up again, it’s become something else. It’s fascinating.”

Tate attacked the mission to make first quality spirits with unbridled enthusiasm and he exhibits the same spark today.

“There is no limit to this market in Waco right now and the vitality it brings can lift us all up,” Seeley said