First-time visitors to St. Elmo Brewing Company can’t be blamed if they believe their GPS is leading them astray. Even Uber drivers have double-checked with the Austin brewery’s cofounder, Bryan Winslow, on the destination as they rolled past manufacturing businesses, metal-recycling plants, car dealerships, and repair shops.
“People are really surprised when they get here,” says Winslow, who also serves as a brewer.
What thirsty patrons find when they do arrive at the courtyard entrance of St. Elmo is a small brewery that feels like an oasis and is designed to be a neighborhood spot for the residents of this underserved brewery neighborhood, not too far from the airport.
The idea to open St. Elmo came when Winslow and Cofounder Tim Bullock were working at Austin Beerworks. It was a rewarding job, both say, and exciting to be part of a brewery that was seeing huge growth and quickly taking shelf and tap space through the distribution market. But the two wanted to do something smaller, more intimate. Rather than spread throughout the region and state, they wanted to focus on a neighborhood taproom. This was back in 2014, before taprooms became their own Brewers Association category but about the time that this current model was starting to take shape.
“We really wanted something local. There are some breweries that are big in distribution, and others have things such as pizza that bring people from all over,” says Bullock. “We wanted to localize it, and what we see from our data is that most of our customers come from this zip code or the one right next to us. That’s great because it’s the card we want to play.”
Both say they were fortunate working for breweries where they were able to learn firsthand skills that would eventually help them start their own business. In addition to brewing, Bullock worked in the sales department at Brooklyn Brewery and had experience running a taproom for another brewery.
They noted that it wasn’t enough to take what they learned at other places and simply apply it to their own spot. They needed to find ways to make it their own and to differentiate, to help stand out in a crowded field.
On the Side
One thing both co-owners were clear about from the start was that they wanted to make beer, and neither was interested in food service. However, they knew that food would have to be a component in their taproom.
Installing a kitchen for someone else to run wasn’t in the budget or the floor plan. “We enjoy cooking, but we aren’t chefs and don’t know how to run a restaurant,” says Bullock.
While many breweries open up a few parking spaces for a rotating fleet of food trucks, the St. Elmo’s cofounders had little interest in that. From having to manage a calendar plus website and social media updates to having to worry about the trucks deciding to leave early on any given day because they weren’t hitting sales quotas, thus leaving brewery patrons hungry and likely leaving sooner than planned, it was a headache they didn’t want.
So, they set out to find a permanent food-truck option—a vendor who would offer interesting food that could complement the beers, be located on the property, and feel like a part of the overall business but have autonomy. They interviewed multiple candidates who were interested in leaving the road behind and setting up a long-term relationship.
They landed on Soursop, which specializes in pan-Asian cuisine such as spring rolls, pho-topped tater tots, roti, and hot gai.
It’s not so much a food truck as it is a small kitchen inside a permanent trailer. Because it’s a stationary location, the restaurant is able to offer rotating specials—such as the lime + honey dry-spiced wings, hot mustard oil, sesame, sansho pepper, and nori they offered recently—a little more easily than their wheeling counterparts.
Branding a Location
In historical terms, St. Elmo is the patron saint of sailors and abdominal pain. His relationship to Austin is murky at best, but Winslow says that some research led him to a story about one of the area’s original settlers who had a fondness for the saint and worked to get what was then a fledgling town named after the saint. When the area was incorporated within the Austin city limits, it just became known as the St. Elmo neighborhood.
“For us, the brewery name made sense. This is where we are focused, it’s a cool name, a cool story, and it resonates with people,” says Winslow. “So we wanted to make our branding the same way. We wanted to keep it simple with our mark because it shows how we are personally. What you see is what you get. That’s us. Our beers are like that.” The brewery logo is a clean simple, flag-like affair with the words “St. Elmo” and three stripes. There’s no reference to a brewery, beer, or anything else.
“People don’t know at first look whether or not it’s a brewery, and maybe that’s not the smartest thing from a marketing perspective, but it has worked for us because people who buy our merchandise are asked about the logo and then talk about us. Folks from the neighborhood like to wear it. It invites curiosity.”
Beer for the Climate
What might be most striking for beer fans visiting from out of town is that neither New England–style IPAs nor kettle sours dominate the tap list at St. Elmo. Instead, the focus is on classic styles such as Kölsch, amber ale, American pale ale and IPA, and stout.
“The Kölsch is our flagship,” says Bullock. “It’s refreshing; it speaks to our climate.”
Going forward, they are adding more tanks for lagering, something Winslow hopes they can do more of and add to the beer list. These beers suit the climate, he says, and it’s what most of the customers ask for when they belly up to the bar.
They also know what certain clientele look for, which is why the brewery has frequent bottle releases that tend to skew toward the higher-ABV and -octane end of the beer spectrum. These include wine- or spirit-aged barleywines, imperial stouts, export stouts, and even coffee cream ales.
The majority of the beer that they make is served in house, but they do have some retail accounts that they service through self-distribution. Right now, it’s about sixty accounts, and Winslow says that is a comfortable place for them to be. St. Elmo doesn’t have designs on being the next big brewery in the state; they just want to get good beer to the people who want it and are part of the community.
Maintaining their current output and maybe working toward capacity is the current goal for the brewery. But quantity is not the metric by which they judge success. For them, in a constantly changing beer landscape where customer loyalty can be fickle and trend chasers are constantly changing the playing field, at St. Elmo the plan is to grow the small business to stay relevant, no matter the changing winds.
“I know the classic adage is grow or die,” says Winslow, “and that’s true in a lot of ways, but we’re not looking at ourselves that way because a neighborhood taproom is kind of different, with different challenges because people don’t always see us in the same way they see a bigger production brewery. So we are going to focus on engaging the community, working with local nonprofits that we care about, and taking risks from time to time.”
But the ultimate goal right now is to have the majority of the beer they produce consumed on site and make good refreshing lager beer, “which is a lifetime work of challenges to get it right,” he says.
The beer, both say, is the focus, and now 2 years in, they are working to get the other parts of the business dialed in with the right people in place so that they can focus more of their attention on their first passion.
“We just want to make great beer and have people come enjoy it at this oasis in the middle of metal yards,” says Winslow.