Going Back to School for a Really Good Beer Farm Ale Brewing keeps things small and local to insure the highest quality ingredients, while supporting other local businesses in the area, and hiring employees for their potential, not necessarily their experience.
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Behind the Review host and Yelp's Small Business Expert, Emily Washcovick, shares a look at this week's episode of the podcast.
Thinking about brewpubs and draft houses can conjure up images of dark, woody interiors with long bars and rows upon rows of taps pouring every kind of beer imaginable.
Farm Ale Brewing is not one of those places, and that's a great thing.
Housed in an old school building in Eola, Texas, just east of San Angelo, Farm Ale Brewing blends the history of the building with a limited selection of quality craft beers, canned and distributed from inside the schoolhouse. The history of the building is just as important as the beer, according to Farm Ale's brewmaster, Chris.
"A lot of what we're trying to do is not only be a brewery, but we want to bring the school back and kind of restore some of its former glory because it was one of the bigger schools in the area way back in the day," he said.
"And I've had people out here who actually graduated from out here, and we can walk them through the building, and they'll say 'Oh, this was the science room. This was the home making room. This was math. This was English.' We've got old pictures of graduating classes from 1938 hanging on the walls in the hallway. We're trying to bring it back to where people can come out and drink a beer in their first grade classroom."
That dedication to the history of the building isn't lost on its visitors, including reviewer Joshua H.
"As somebody who does food and travel blogging with wine, beer, and food as the primary features, I'm always looking for the unique, novel, new, and just different types of things within that domain. And that's basically what I found when I saw my first advertisement for Farm Ale Brewing. That it's very different. It's not being done like any other brewery or alehouse that I've been to. Not only where it's at, but just the very deep historical nature of the location. And it's not just about going to have good beer. There's so much else around it that made it a really unique story and experience for me to go and do a blog feature on.
"The schoolhouse that it used to be, the history that it has, the upgrades that they're doing on it now, what it's being repurposed for as, a beer-making facility, the tours that you can get with Chris himself, the food that they have in their old classrooms. The whole thing is just a very unique, one-of-a-kind experience."
In addition to the unique location of Farm Ale Brewing, they also stand out because they dropped another traditional aspect of an alehouse—the many, many kinds of beers available. Farm Ale has purposefully kept operations small, concentrating on the quality of their product rather than the quantity.
"We can our own beer here. So we not only make it here, we can it here, and then we distribute it out. We did 70 cases just this morning," said Chris.
"We just don't have the in-town, easy access that a lot of places have, to where you can do a ton of different types of beer. And you'll actually have the people walking through saying, 'Oh, hey, I want that.' So we keep it small. We keep it simple. And by simple, it's not just having only a few beers on tap. We keep the recipe simple as well. I do not use anything artificial in our beers. It's completely natural. We have the grain, we have the hops, we have the yeast, and we have the rain water that we collect here onsite. We do not bring anything that would give an artificial flavor."
Chris is very careful about his recipes and the quality of the ingredients he uses in his beer, which might lead you to think he's a career brewmaster—but it's quite the contrary. He's a military veteran with 24 years of service, who just started brewing beer when he came to work for Farm Ale.
"As far as bringing my previous experience, it's really the work ethic that the military instilled. I find it very hard to say no to something if there's any possibility that I might be able to do it. I love a challenge, and that's really where it came from," he said. "When Jason approached me, asking me to be the brewmaster, I looked at him, I said, 'Jason, I've never brewed before.' He's like, 'I'm not worried about it. You'll learn.' I was like, all right, let's go! Cause, I mean, you can't grow if you don't try something outside of your comfort zone. And that's really something that was instilled in me by the military, throughout all the challenges that they threw at me over the 24 years that I was in."
Chris has made sure to take a chance on hiring others, just as Jason took a chance on Chris. And it pays off, according to the brewmaster.
"It's always been my opinion that if you are always only looking for the right person, you're going to pass up a lot of people who could be that right person in the future. There are so many people that are overlooked in this world and again, it kind of goes back to the military. I developed so many people into who they are today. And I might look back at it as like, oh, I hope I didn't screw them up too bad. But I can see that they're doing really, really well.
"And that's what I love here is we take people who might not have been given a chance somewhere else. We give them that chance. We let them blossom into the people who they can be rather than the person that they are right now."
In spite of his original lack of experience, Chris brews a really drinkable beer, created not for the self-proclaimed beer snobs, but for the everyday beer drinker. He's avoiding the trends in the industry and instead forging his own path in beer making.
"A lot of craft breweries have the stigma around them where they have to go hops, hops, hops. More hops is better. Whereas in my personal opinion, I want to taste the beer. I don't want to taste the hops. And so we'll get a lot of people out here, even with our IPA. They're telling me they're not an IPA drinker, but they love our IPA. And people argue that it's not technically an IPA, but I'm still giving them the flavors. I'm giving them the aromatics without that kind of kick to the face or the lingering aftertaste. And a lot of people expect that, and so I kind of considered a gateway IPA or an IPA for people who don't like IPA.
"I've only been brewing for one year. I've learned everything I know here talking to other brewmasters in the area. We just did the first ever Fredericksburg Craft Beer Festival. And I got to meet a bunch of brewers from the larger breweries in Texas. And they're like, 'Oh wow, that's awesome. Who taught you?' I was like, well, you know, I ran through it three times, and I've just kind of figured it out from there.
"I still have a ton to learn. But it's neat to see people come in and actually enjoy the beer. The premium that Josh mentioned earlier is actually the first beer that I created on my own. And again, the hops are super, super low. It makes it very drinkable for a large audience."
If keeping the beer menu simple works, then it follows that the food menu might be kept simple as well. While keeping the quality high, working with a smaller menu also allows Farm Ale Brewing to be very purposeful about the ingredients used, not just for their quality, but for the impact those choices have on the businesses around them.
"We actually do here what we call source verification. So we know exactly where that beef came from. We don't go to Sam's and get it. There's a little place in Marfa, Texas called Marfa Meats that we get all of our meat from, whether it's the hamburger, the steaks, the pork chops. And we can trace back every ingredient that we use, not only in our beer, but in our food to where it came from," said Chris.
It's a mandate that comes down from the owner of Farm Ale Brewing himself.
"That is a huge priority of his because in his kind of the way he's grown up in the business world, he wants to not only make his own business successful, but he wants to make the smaller businesses around his area successful too. So we use as much from this area as we can. If it's not from a farm, we have our own garden here that we will pull from and cook it in the restaurant, and then he will use whatever he can from the local area."
The attention to detail and quality shows in the food served at Farm Ale Brewing, according to reviewer Joshua.
"I would say that the quality of what they have is definitely second to none. It's not just good food for a bar. It's just dang good food period. Whether it's the meatloaf, the fried fish, a good Smashburger. Their fries are great. Their nachos are insane. And I think by going with that, they're definitely more on the hyper-local side, keeping it as close as possible. You're tasting what's available in the area. You're actually getting a taste of what's right there. Even their menu itself, it's written on a chalkboard, and it's usually six, seven items long, which tells me we're going to do six or seven things really dang good every time and not worry about trying to please everybody with everything. We're just going to do a few items very good, every time. And that's how it's been.
"No detail is left untouched. Let's make great beer in a good venue, but then have average food. That does not seem to be the case. Everything is well above average. Everything is impressive."
And as if the food, history, and quality of the beer isn't enough to keep people coming back, the customer service offered is worth a return visit.
"It's something that's a shared characteristic of all the employees where you can tell you are welcomed when you walk in, and they're happy to have you back. They're ready to see what you're up to, how you've been, what they're doing, what's coming up. I mean, it's really like just coming back into literally the school house and you just pick up where you left off. You know, it's that welcoming, friendly feeling where you feel like you belong there. You're one of the group or one of the crowd that's got something special there.
"They're all in their own unique ways doing that. You know, it's a handshake, a pat on the back, just asking you how things are. 'How's your son? Where's the wife?' That goes a long way in such subtlety, but it goes a long way to making you want to return again."
Your small business might not be brewing beer, but every business can use some of these takeaways from the success of Farm Ale Brewing:
- It's ok to do a few things, and do them really, really well. Farm Ale keeps the food and beer menus limited, rather than trying to please everyone with a lot of things done only moderately well.
- Hire people for their potential, not necessarily their actual experience. You'll be able to train them yourself and develop quality employees who are loyal to you and your business.
- When using historic spaces, it pays to honor that history. If you stay true to the original purpose and the people who built it, your space adds to the charm of your business, making it memorable.
- Your business can support other small businesses. Using local suppliers for ingredients and inventory will build your business and theirs at the same time, creating a winning formula for both.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Chris and Joshua, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.