By Angela Rose | Nov 15, 2021
Beer, spirits, and hard seltzers
Farbstein's history in the brewing industry is a long and eventful one full of persistence, initiative, determination and -- at times -- near slapstick hilarity. After catching the homebrewing bug from a fellow lacrosse player at the University of Texas back in the mid 1990s, he doggedly pursued employment as a sales rep with one of the first craft brewers in the state.
"I had found out that Saint Arnold Brewing Company was going to expand into the Austin area," Farbstein recalls, "I called the owner every Monday morning at 9 o'clock for almost six months. Surprisingly, he took my call almost every time."
Farbstein's persistence eventually paid off. He met with the brewery's owner and presented a list of what he considered the top 100 potential accounts in the city of Austin. Saint Arnold hired him the following week for a salary of $16,000 per year.
"It's kind of funny, looking back at it," Farbstein continues, "but I think everybody knows that you don't get into making craft beer to make money. It's more of a passion industry where you have to be willing to work really hard."
Sometime later, Farbstein discovered a newer brewery, Real Ale Brewing Company, that was opened by the Conner family in Blanco in 1996. Full Moon Pale Rye -- the brewery's very first beer -- quickly became one of his favorites, and he was thrilled when he found himself hanging out with the owner of its distributor, Microbility Beverage, at a chili cookoff at Lake Travis where he was repping Saint Arnold.
"We ended up hitting it off," Farbstein says, "and within a week, I got a call from the owner, Chad Stoner, and he offered me a job as a sales manager making $32,000 a year with a company car. I had some great learning experiences with Saint Arnold and had helped them grow their brand fairly significantly in the Austin market. But I thought that it was important, if I was going to eventually become a brewer, to understand things from the distributor's perspective as well."
Farbstein was thrilled with the increase in salary and the possibility of a company car. "But I think the biggest benefit for me was that I could buy Real Ale beer at cost," he says. "I was becoming a very big fan."
The company car turned out to be a 1978 Pontiac LeMans with a severely dented hood and broken windshield. "The car had been stolen months before, and someone had broken the steering column," Farbstein says with a chuckle, "so I was driving around with a flathead screwdriver sticking out of the ignition. It wasn't 30 minutes into that job that I got pulled over in East Austin. The police officer saw that screwdriver and pulled his gun on me, put me in cuffs, and put me in the back of his car. I spent half the day waiting for Chad to get it all worked out."
Despite the rough start, Farbstein enjoyed a successful year and a half with Microbility, getting to know the founder of Real Ale, Phillip Conner, very well in the process. He spent his weekdays selling Microbility's portfolio to customers in Austin, San Marcus, and Georgetown, and his weekends in Blanco helping the Conners brew, bottle, and keg.
Then, in 1998, he learned that the Conners needed to sell. "I didn't wait two seconds to tell Phillip that I wanted to buy the brewery," Farbstein says. "I didn't have much money, but he was willing to work with me. Ultimately, we were able to work out an owner financing opportunity."
Farbstein sunk his life savings of $85,000 (grown from a $13,000 inheritance from his grandma when he was 12 through investment in Whole Foods stock when he was 18) into the purchase. The brewery was heavily weighed down by high-interest credit card debt and past-due bills, but a local Blanco bank took the cash and helped Farbstein secure a debt consolidation loan for $250,000, enabling him to pay off the debts and start buying brewing supplies again.
"When I took over, we were doing about 300 barrels a year on a 15-barrel brewhouse, which did about 500 gallons per batch," Farbstein recalls. "The next year we did 600 barrels. Then 900. Then 1,200. We were operating out of a 2,200-square-foot basement facility in downtown Blanco. It only had 7-foot ceilings and no floor drains. We were actually collecting the liquid that we drained off our tank into paint cans from Home Depot, then dumping them into 5-gallon buckets before carrying them to a drain."
In 2002, Farbstein had the opportunity to buy about five acres of land just outside the Blanco city limits. "It was very affordable because it had no water and no sewer at the time," he says. Fortunately, he was able to secure a $600,000 Texas Department of Agriculture grant known as the Texas Capital Funds Grant by committing to double the brewery's workforce over a three-year period and to increase overall wages in the area.
Once the infrastructure was in, it was time to build the new 7,500-square-foot facility and buy a larger brewhouse. "We found a used one from Harpoon Brewing Company," Farbstein says. "It was a 60-barrel, four-vessel system, and we got it running in 2006. It really gave us the opportunity to spread our wings and grow."
Real Ale went from brewing 5,000 barrels in 2005 to 11,000 barrels in 2006 at the new location. They had nearly maxed out the brewhouse's capabilities in 2016 when they hit 62,000 barrels of production. "At that point, we were ranked the 48th largest craft brewer in America, even though we only sold our beer in one state," Farbstein says.
Today, the Real Ale Brewing Company campus is a little under 25 acres in size with a little over 100,000 square feet under cover. The brewery's team is running a 120-barrel, five-vessel fully automated BrauKon brewhouse from Germany and is able to complete 10 brews each day. "We're producing between 52,000 and 56,000 barrels, and it has a capacity of 250,000 barrels," Farbstein says. "It produces incredibly high-quality wort for us to ferment."
While the Real Ale Brewing team brews best-sellers like Fireman's #4 (which makes up about 40 percent of their overall production) and Devil's Backbone (a Belgian-style tripel) on the big brewhouse, they test new recipes on a seven-barrel pilot system.
"Everybody likes our regular, everyday beers," Farbstein says, "but there is a high demand for these one-off experimental styles. The pilot system has all of the same technology as the main brewhouse, so if we hit a home run, we're able to scale up those beers pretty easily."
Challenges: "Staying relevant, forcing ourselves to innovate, and refining our processes," Farbstein says.
Opportunities: In 2013, Real Ale Brewing Company launched its own distillery, Real Spirits. They began selling Texas Hill Country Signature Malt Whiskey and Texas Hill Country Grain to Glass Gin in 2017. "We're essentially fermenting our own beer -- minus the hops -- with our house yeast and then extracting the alcohol to make the base for our spirits," Farbstein explains. "We've barely dipped our toe in, but it's a huge market."
Farbstein and his team launched another company, Real Premium Hard Seltzer, earlier in 2021. "We sampled about 92 different seltzers, found that most of them didn't taste very good, and spent about a year and a half developing our brand," he continues. "Thanks to 25 years of experience in the brewing industry, we were able to look very scientifically at the fermentation and create a proprietary process for creating an extremely clean wort. We're then able to layer natural flavorings on top without a heavy hand and have created more of a clean, crisp, and really refreshing taste."
Needs: "Keeping our employees happy," Farbstein says. "We joke that we're like the roach motel of breweries. People check in and they don't check out. I have two employees who have been with us for 19 years. I have about a dozen about to hit the 15-year mark. We want employees who want to stay, so we offer 100 percent paid healthcare and a pretty robust benefits program."