Less than two years ago, Southern Star was a new brewery outside Houston that few had heard of. Inventory was piling up on the warehouse floor. Dave Fougeron, the brewery’s co-founder and brewmaster, was volunteering to pound the pavement for his distributor. Now, Southern Star’s killer recipes have caught fire, and, Fougeron says, “I can’t make beer fast enough.”
1. Today, your wallet; tomorrow, your heart
In the beginning, there was swill. Isn’t there always? Excluding the foul yellow stuff floating around Texas A&M parties, though, Dave Fougeron’s first taste of beer—real beer—came from overseas. Imports were tasty, but they were also expensive. So when a friend was moving and offered Fougeron his old homebrew kit, Fougeron jumped. “I was doing it as much for a hobby as to save money,” he recalls. “I was brewing the beer I wanted to drink.”
2. Away with that college degree
For a while, homebrewing was a great hobby, but nothing more. He graduated A&M with a degree in wildlife and fisheries science, and figured that was the field he’d be working in. Until he tried to find work. “Nobody was hiring people with degrees in wildlife and fishery science. I was sort of floundering for a bit.” He was about to ship off to game warden school in Nevada when he got a phone call from St. Arnold Brewing in Houston. They wanted to pay him to brew beer for them.
3. No way? Way!
Fougeron hadn’t expected the call from St. Arnold. He’d dropped off his résumé on a whim, thinking, “It’d be cool, but there’s no way I’m going to get that job. I had no idea what being a professional brewer entailed, but I thought, why not?” Fougeron signed on as an assistant brewer, knocked out his first batch of all-grain (“My first all-grain batch was 30-barrel batch. I don’t think my boss knew that”), and worked his way up the ladder to head brewer. By 2007, it was time to branch out. “Every brewer who works for somebody else wants to do their own thing someday. I can do whatever I want to here. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
4. The can makes the man
Why does Southern Star can its beer? There are several reasons, but they stem from one unassailable fact: “First and foremost,” Fougeron declares, “it’s because cans are awesome.” He tells a story about his first encounter with Surly Furious: “I took a drink of it, and I looked at that can and said, ‘That’s awesome!’ Just the shock factor, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’” Plus, Fougeron’s cans are made locally, they require minimal packaging and they’re easy to move around the brewery. Awesome stuff, all around.
5. Come out swinging… carefully
An awesome vessel needs a worthy companion. When Southern Star launched, Fougeron says, “I wanted to come out swinging.” He debuted with Pine Belt Pale Ale, a strong Pale that nearly borders on an IPA. The statement in those tallboy cans was strong, but it wasn’t reckless. Before Fougeron and co-founder Brian Hutchins had conceived of Southern Star, they decided they wanted to brew a killer Pale. “We made it, took the keg to the garage one night, and we ended up drinking 5 gallons in the night. Like, ‘Holy crap, where’d it go? This is good!’” The pair wound up brewing 17 test batches, trying to top that recipe for production. They couldn’t. So they ran with it.
6. Lighten up, without compromise
Southern Star’s top seller, Bombshell Blonde, was “sort of a fluke,” Fougeron says. It was a request for an account, “and people started drinking it. Lots of it. I can’t brew enough.” The beer is a volume driver. It also boasts what few Blondes can: body, haze and layers of intense flavor. Bombshell is brewed with two-row and Vienna malts, and Sterling hops, “but it comes off as being more complex. There’s nothing really special about the ingredients. What makes it special is the simplicity. Especially in lighter beers like that, people tend to put too much stuff in them. So your palate almost gets overwhelmed. You lose depth by putting too much in it.”
7. Floor them
One of Fougeron’s bolder steps: Trying to bring a bit of Bamberg to southeast Texas by releasing a Rauchbier brewed with 100-percent Weyermann Rauch malt. “It was really good, and it actually gained a cult following, but when it came out, everybody’s like, what the hell was that? There were no specialty malts. It looked like Budweiser. So imagine the shock when they got that. It goes beyond being smoky. It tastes like ham. The most interesting reaction was when one guy asked me if I dry hopped it with bacon bits. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not.”
8. Make it great, whatever it is
Fougeron calls his Buried Hatchet Stout his “crowning jewel.” It sprung from an urge to experiment with brown malt. “It’s a really, really old-style malt that they used to make Porters out of 150 years ago. The Stout, if you hold it up to the light, it’s a ruddy brown-red. It could be sort of an Imperial Stout, it could be a foreign-style Stout, or it could be a giant Porter.” He worries less about the name than the taste. “It’s 50 IBUs, but it’s a soft bitter. There’s nothing harsh in that beer at all. It’s rich, smooth, creamy, coffee and chocolaty. It’s 8.5 percent, and it drinks like it’s 5 percent. I made a really, really good Stout, because I like really, really good Stouts.”
9. Open it up
Fougeron may be the brewmaster, but he’s not possessive about his system. He uses Southern Star as “a training ground” for local brewers looking to start their own breweries. And even though he’s brewing at capacity, he made it a point to save room in the fermenter for an entry into the upcoming GABF Pro-Am competition. It’ll be a Saison, brewed by two Austin homebrewers. “I don’t care if I mess up capacity or not. I wanted to do the Pro-Am this year. If that means we’re a little bit short on Blonde right now, we’re a little bit short on Blonde.” It’s all in the name of spreading the gospel of beer. “A lot of the time, when people come in, mine is the first craft beer they’ve had. I want to open up their palates, because there’s all these great beers out there.” ■