I recently had the privilege of interviewing Shannon Carter, the Founder of Shannon Brewing. Shannon Brewing makes wholesome fire brewed Irish ales in Keller, TX (in the Dallas-Fort Worth area). Shannon and I had a wide-ranging conversation, exploring topics like the inspiration and uphill battle required to start a brewery, experimenting with new beers at a commercial brewery, the difference between homebrewing and commercial brewing, and how the scientific method is incredibly important in managing a brewery. Enjoy!
What Inspired You To Start Shannon Brewing?
Short version: Well that’s easy, I like beer!
Longer version: When I was a soccer player at Missouri State, I met a couple of other guys from Europe and from Africa and we all started brewing together on this little kit and we didn’t know what we were doing. We just started making really good beer, beer that I’d never had before. It was hard to find home brew information since it was the early 80’s. So I just got addicted back then and as I went through my professional career, I was able to get in touch with a whole bunch of professional brewers and made friends with them and they got me into their breweries, allowing me to go with them and so I built a great love of brewing and craft beer.
There’s a different culture in Ireland than there is in America. In America we have a culture of drink while in Ireland we have a culture of drinking. The Irish beers are lower in alcohol because if we’re going out for a pint in Ireland, we‘re actually going out for 6 or 8. So you don’t want to get pissed over the course of the night, you want to be able to go to work the next day.
So that was kind of why I started brewing Irish style beers and beers from the UK. As American beers became more and more aggressively hopped, more alcohol I realized that my style of beer which was really approachable Irish, English and sometimes German beers were sort of disappearing from the craft beer scene. I mean, I love a good 100 IBU IPA, but I’m all about malt too..
Another thing is my grandfather was a brewer in Galway City, Ireland. Each village had their own brewery and it’s hard to know whether he was the commercial brewer or a home brewer. The lines are kind of blurred. I think he probably sold his beer but I don’t know if he had a pub or anything else. I have some notes on the brewing system he built and I built my fire brewed home brew system based on his notes. Then I went and built this commercial fire brewed system based on that home brew system and therefore based on my grandfather’s notes.
Fire is so old that most brewers have gotten away from it but you can still find fire brewed systems in the UK and in Ireland but they are pretty rare because mostly everybody uses steam. We had to custom engineer ours and have it built to our specifications, since nobody builds them anymore.
The original fire brewed homebrew system I built is actually still used as our pilot brew system in our brewery.
On Drinking Stouts In The Texas Heat
I love stouts, and being an Irish brewery we need to be able to do stouts well. I wanted to make a stout that would be true to our Irish heritage but I also wanted to make a stout that I could drink when it’s summer.
For me, when I want a stout, I want a stout. I don’t care if it’s 100 degrees outside, it’s still a cold and refreshing drink. Yes, it’s a bit thicker so some people say ugh it’s too hot for a stout but why can’t you drink a stout in the summer? I do!
We were considering making our stout a seasonal but the demand has been so strong for it that the stout is a year-round beer for us.
The Difficulty of Starting A Brewery
We sold our first beer about 20 months ago, towards the end of 2014 but it was actually a five year process between making the decision to start and selling our first beer.
People say breweries are popping up everywhere, and they kind of are, but if you start looking, a lot of the breweries that are popping up now they are really hyper local breweries, they are not national breweries. And it’s hard to launch a brewery with any kind of scale. It takes money, it takes the right resources, knowledge, I’ll mention money again. It’s a ton of money. It’s difficult to get the licensing, the city council approval, everything. It’s a mess.
Some of the guys that I know, and they’re my friends, it’s a pretty tight community and I see guys launching 3, 5, 7 barrel systems. And like man, that’s going to be tough, unless you’re a brewpub or destination and can supplement income from food or something, it’s going to be a tough road because tap handles are hard to get, shelf space is hard to get…
Getting Beer Into Restaurants
It’s a negotiation process with a lot of the pubs and restaurants that do rotating craft beer taps. If you have the velocity on your your rotating tap, then they’ll give you a permanent tap. But you have to earn it. It is really easy to go out and get these rotating taps. And they’ll give it to you, no problem, and then they’re like ok thanks, and then they’re onto the next thing.
How you make that a permanent handle…you’ve got to blow them away. That’s the challenge. You have to have the velocity that warrants a permanent handle. And actually a lot of the brewers that are coming out now they don’t realize it, they think is going to be pretty easy to go out and get handles. And it is, but then you are gone. And then you start to sell it again – basically being put on a treadmill and trying to do more and more to stay in the same place.
So we’ve been pretty good at driving demand and developing enough of a following to warrant permanent handles.
Where is Shannon Brewing’s Beer Sold Today?
Of course we’re selling in the Dallas-Fort Worth area but we’re also down in Austin, we’re in San Antonio, we’re signed with 3 distributers now, and we signed up 2 more distributors that will start up this year. So we’ll be all the way up in Amarillo and all the way down in San Antonio, and then we’ll have another distributor that will connect all the dots in between, so that’s probably 600 or 700 miles. It’s a large geographic area that is sparsely populated until you get into Dallas-Fort Worth, of course there is Austin, about 1.2 million; San Antonio is about 8 or 9 million. And then we plan to be over to Houston next year.
Tell Me How You Arrived At Making Fire Brewed and All Natural Beer?
We’re all natural everything: non-GMO grain, whole cone hops, we have our own spring water, we develop our own yeast culture, and we are fire brewed. We never filter, we never pasteurize, and so time is really not on our side. We have to wait for time and temperature to make the beer the way we want it. We are going to bring a centrifuge to help with that, but that’s a huge investment. But we will do that because is the right thing to do for our beer and it allows us to stay true to our all natural, unfiltered, unpasteurized beer.
As I was putting together a brand strategy for the brewery, I wanted numerous points of differentiation, and so one thing I really wanted to do was bring to market as natural of a product as I possibly could. As a homebrewer you can brew an all-natural product all day long and it doesn’t really affect your pocketbook that much, because you are not brewing to save money, you are brewing because you like your beer.
And I wanted to bring a natural product to market and how I could do that, was it cost feasible, etc. And so yeah, our hops cost us more, the grain costs us a little bit more, the water costs us a lot more, because we are sitting on a spring. But there are some cost savings associated with that too, I mean we only have to filter our water, we don’t have to change our water chemically, so no chemical cost, but the savings don’t cancel out the cost. But we think it’s worth it since the spring water is an amazing base product to start.
When I was doing that brand strategy I knew I wanted it to be a wholesome natural product. Initially, I was actually going towards organic beer and I stopped short of that for a couple of reasons: number one was in my market research people didn’t really care about having organic beer. I mean it wasn’t a brand differentiator that people would’ve cared about. When they’re drinking beer they want a great beer, they don’t really care if it is organic.
These brand decisions even drove our real estate choice. By having that as a mantra and defining character it made me go out and look for a natural water source, it made me go out and look for the whole cone hops, the non-GMO grain, etc. And if we say we’re going to make the most natural beer that we can possibly make then that means we’re not going to filter. And it is so much better when you don’t filter, but it does make it more of a challenge.
On All-Natural and Fire Brewed Beer In Moderation As A Healthy Beverage
Since we keep our beer unpasteurized and unfiltered, the micro-organisms like yeast stay in it and you get a probiotic beverage. Beer is 90-95% water and since we start with spring water that has mineral content, you get calcium – although it’s not like you’re taking a calcium pill or anything. But you also get anti-oxidants from the beer, especially from the whole hops we use.
So yeah, beer is actually in my opinion, in moderation as good or better than a lot of beverages that are out there. Certainly better than drinking soda.
While we’re on the topic, this perception is starting to change but it’s funny that some people would choose a mixed drink that has 50 grams of sugar in it over a beer because they think beer will make them fat.
Did Shannon Brewing’s Beers Come From Homebrew Recipes?
Almost all of our beers, I’ve brewed before. When you’re home brewing you can do some fun stuff, and just kind of go, oh I wonder what that is going to do, and you just kind of toss it in there.
But as a commercial brewery, if we want to document this as a possible future recipe, on a 1 barrel pilot system we have to take copious notes. This past Saturday, we fire brewed a Wee Heavy, which I’ve brewed before but I’ve never taken the amount of notes that we did on Saturday. So depending on how that turns out then we’ll scale it to our larger system.
How Does Shannon Brewing Decide What The Next Experiment or Seasonal Will Be?
We get inputs from everywhere, customer feedback, anecdotal comments, and a lot of it is in my head. There’s a list down outside on the brewery door so everyone can give input and we get anecdotal feedback there.
The test badges will go through a flow chart which basically goes like this: is this a potential commercial beer or seasonal, yes or no. If yes, then send it through a sensory panel, and the panels are people here at the brewery. Then, did it pass the sensory panel? If no, go back. If yes, put it on tap and when people want to try something new give them a taste of the beer, and say hey would you mind rating this? And is that scientific? No but we get solid feedback from people who know our beer and beer in general.
On Using The Scientific Method To Manage The Brewery
I grew up in the creative services industry. My role in that was as the brand strategist that led creative. I had a scientific method for creative that was very, very popular, which actually became the IP that I sold to another company.
I am a big believer that if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it. And I always told my artists that if you can’t measure your creativity, then you can’t manage it, and so if you don’t want to measure your creativity then don’t be a commercial artist.
If you are a commercial anything, you really need to be able to measure your commercial output in some way, and a lot of that is built on metrics, based on website traffic or hits to the website, or sales, or some other metric. But building in a scientific method in creativity is the only way I could look our client in the eye and say yes, you made more money than if you hadn’t hired us.
What Are Some of the Future Experimental Brews You Have Coming Up?
We’re in the process of trying out a Salted Cucumber Kolsch – I’m excited about that one. We’re going to do our Double IPA again and switch our bittering hop over to Admiral and see what that does for us.
I’m also excited about seeing if we can take our Irish Red to being gluten-free.
What Are Some Stumbles or Failures You’ve Had Along The Way In Starting A Brewery?
You can’t be an entrepreneur if you are scared of failure. But if you’re going to fail, you might as well fail fabulously and fail forward. So you go all in. You have to march forward, in the darkness, and hope you don’t fall off a cliff.
That being said, hope is never a strategy. So get to where you can light your path. But there will be times you have to make a leap of faith. For Shannon Brewing, we made a mistake with our packaging early on. We packaged in bottles and since we had live yeast in there, the beer was going to continue to ferment. We had a strong warning on our packaging – Keep This Beer Cold. But people didn’t follow that and we had some of our bottles actually break from the pressure. We learned that consumers don’t follow directions. So then, we switched over to cans.
Why Cans Over Bottles?
Cans are so much better for the beer. It’s impervious to light. And here’s the case in a nutshell: What’s the best beer you can get? Draft. What’s draft packaged in? A keg, which is a great big can.
People who complain about the taste of beer in cans probably are drinking straight out of the can instead of pouring it into a glass. When you drink from the can, you’re putting your mouth right on the aluminum so of course it’s going to have that taste. Pour your beer into a glass, be civilized, release the aromatics, and enjoy a great tasting beer.
That said, if you’re out on the lake or something, feel free to enjoy one of our beers straight from the can. I do!
Is Brewing An Art or A Science or Both?
Both. It’s part science, part art, but it’s more janitorial than either of those. About 10% of what we do in running a brewery is brewing, 10% of brewing is actual brewing, and 90% is sanitation.
What Are Some of Your Favorite Beers Not Made By You?
Every March, I take a group of tourists to Ireland with me. Believe it or not, there are some unknown breweries over there brewing some great beer that I always look forward to trying. It’s usually some of the smaller ones. There’s a brewery out there, he does amazing stuff called White Gipsy. There’s another one in West Cary, Ireland on a 3 barrel system that grows her own ingredients right there at the brewery and makes great all-natural beers. I’m usually not drinking any of the big commercial brews. But I really look forward to the beers people bring in – I love trying people’s homebrew.
This guy the other day brought in a blueberry lager, which on the surface you think is going to be terrible but it was AMAZING. And those are some of the things you can do in homebrew that you can’t do as a commercial brewer because if I did that, I’d need like 10,000 pounds of blueberries or something.
You can learn more about Shannon Brewing’s Irish beer, process, and ingredients on their website or by watching Wholesome, a documentary about the brewery and unique fire brewed process. If you enjoyed this interview, make sure to sign up for Brewmaster’s Reserve for exclusive brewmaster content and discounts from our partners!