Pursuing Independence

by Matt McGinnis • Photography by Alison Narro

Just three days before the grand opening party for Independence Brewing Co.’s new tasting room, heaps of dirt and concrete lie mounded on the floor next to the unfinished bar that’s in the process of being adorned with reclaimed longleaf pine taken from an 1800s-era cotton gin in Coleman, Texas. A huge gash has been ripped in the floor to install a new drainage system—a modification required by bureaucratic finagling from the City. Yet, Amy Cartwright, president of Independence Brewing, looks absolutely unruffled as she surveys the mess with the ticking of the clock pounding in her ears. It’s a composure that’s been honed over a decade of facing the daily challenges of running one of Austin’s first craft breweries, and she’s undoubtedly learned how to roll with the punches of change in the market and growth of the brewery.

Amy and her husband and business partner, Rob, have witnessed firsthand the explosion of the local craft beer industry since opening their brewery in 2004. In the first five years of business, Independence Brewing attempted to sell beer to Austin consumers who either weren’t familiar with craft beer, or perceived local beer to be inferior to beer from out of state. “When we first started, everybody thought we were crazy,” says Amy. “There was doom and gloom in the industry. At the time, brew pubs like Yellow Rose and Balcones Fault had closed. Southwest Brewing News ran a story saying ‘Is Craft Beer Dead?’ Only a handful of bars in Austin had more than five taps and they were dominated by Budweiser, Miller and Coors products. Live Oak, St. Arnold and Real Ale were the only craft brewers going on.”

Grit, determination and passion got them through the early days. “There is a poem by Arthur O’Shaughnessy,” Amy notes, “that says, ‘We are the music-makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams ….’ I would always tell people that when they asked me why I wanted to be a brewer.” But the market conditions for craft beer have changed dramatically in the past five years. The surge of support for local breweries in the U.S., and particularly in Austin, has increased the demand for Independence Brewing’s beers so much that it’s undergone a massive expansion. The tiny 15-barrel brew system that the Cartwrights previously used simply couldn’t keep up. “We scrabbled together everything to start the brewery,” says Amy. “Rob did the construction and put the first brew system together. It was challenging to brew with it and it was hard to grow with that system. We added fermenters and brew shifts to grow, but that wasn’t enough.”

Over the past two years, Independence Brewing has doubled the space the brewery occupies in a large industrial building on the East Side, and installed a gleaming new 60-barrel brewhouse system. It was a long and involved process to get up and running, but it was worth the wait. “Now we are able to brew like we want,” Amy says. “We built it the way we wanted, with the right instrumentation, to help us consistently make good beer. Before, we were eyeballing everything like a chef without a recipe. Sure, we measured our ingredients, but we didn’t have the precise sensors and thermometers to give us the ability to control each process. When our brewers successfully transferred to the new system, it was seamless and the beers improved. I’m proud of the team for that.”

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Along with the increased interest in craft beer has come an insatiable appetite for a wider variety of flavor profiles. People are better educated about beer styles and are eager to try new ones. And Independence isn’t resting on its laurels. “When we first started,” says Amy, “we had Bootlegger Brown, a pale ale, and Freestyle, a filtered wheat. We discontinued it, but I bet it would be popular now with people drinking session beer and embracing lager traditions. Over time, we added to our lineup with everyday beers and fuller flavor beers like Stash IPA. Rob used to call Stash our ‘Shut the fuck up beer’ because it’s what he would give people when they would ask for a bigger beer than an amber.”

Independence now brews six beers year-round and four seasonally. In the past few years, the brewery has introduced White Rabbit White Ale and Power & Light Pale Ale—both proving extremely popular. Soon, they’ll release Red Bud, a Berliner Weisse-style with lemony, tart flavors. They’re also installing a smaller, 3.5-barrel system for pilot projects that will only be served in the tasting room. Amy doesn’t think the exploration of new beer styles will take them too far afield, though. “I catch myself thinking about how to stay true to my own vision and not getting caught up in any trends,” she says. “I don’t want to put out thirty releases.”

While the brewery has grown and the beer lineup has evolved with the changing market, the vibe of Independence Brewing still feels just as South-Austin-chill as it did 10 years ago. The Cartwrights have shaped the character of the brewery, but Amy insists the personality is molded by the entire team. “As our team has grown to twenty-three people, the brewery has just gotten better,” she says. “We have some amazingly talented people working here. We have a common idea and a shared creative vision that everyone can get behind, while letting individuals make their mark. The original beers were developed by Rob, but now Brandon Radicke, our head brewer, has a strong influence on the direction of the beer. Max Saballett, who used to work for four-star Michelin restaurants and is a bad-ass chef, assists the brewers immensely with the brewing process.”

It’s clear that Independence Brewing is evolving in the right direction—they’ve won a prestigious Good Food Award three years in a row and they continually draw huge crowds in their newly opened tasting room. Cheers to change and perseverance.