By Michael Hutchins
Despite lower than expected turnout for its first year, brewers, distillers, winemakers and local business leaders still found reason to toast the success of the Texoma Craft Beverage Conference. The conference, which was coordinated by the Texoma Craft Beverage Alliance, showcased the products of the local breweries, wineries and distillery to a wider audience in a two-day event Friday and Saturday.
“What we did this year was get out the message about our craft beverage industry here in Texoma,” Denison Chamber of Commerce President Anna McKinney said. “We got our name out there and now they know more about us, our region and our local industry.”
While initial estimates for the conference and lecture attendance were between 100 and 200 people, McKinney said initial registrations came in below what was expected. As a result, many of the lectures were rescheduled for future events, while the other planned events, including hands-on intensive classes and the annual Munson cup wine making contest, went on as scheduled.
McKinney said timing had a lot to due with the lack of interest in the lectures. McKinney believes that news of the conference got out too late, and that officials with the TCBA will need to start marketing for next year’s events earlier. Additionally, late spring rains were a hindrance to the conference, McKinney said, as many local wineries and growers were forced to refocus their attention on preserving their crops amid flooding and heavy rains throughout the state.
Among the weekend’s festivities were a set of three intensive lessons, with small classes, on the finer points of wine making, distilling and brewing, coordinated by local craftsmen from each respective industry.
Gabe Parker, owner of Homestead Winery and Ivanhoe Ale Works in Denison, hosted one of the classes at his winery in Ivanhoe. While a small group of four gathered to learn about wine making, Parker focused on the business side of the industry, including how to start up a winery.
“When asked what piece of equipment you need to buy first, most people will say a press or such,” Parker said. “My answer would be a cash register.”
Parker said the business side of the industry is as important as the craft itself. To be successful, Parker said one must also understand the business side of making a productive winery. For many of those in attendance, starting a winery is a second or third career, Parker said, noting many in attendance had degrees and education in their trades.
“They are simply looking for a how-to in starting their winery,” said Parker.
Meanwhile at Ironroot Republic in Denison, while the focus was on the art of making distilled spirits, equal attention was paid to the science involved in the process. Among those in attendance was Jennie Barr, who came from Austin to attend the conference.
“For me, I know so little about the distilling side of the craft beverage industry,” Barr said, adding she is more familiar with wine and craft beer. Barr said she was unaware of how much engineering and chemistry was involved in production.
With distilled spirits, Barr said, there are many products that are entirely distinct from one another, ranging from brandy and whiskey to vodka and gin. While there are many varieties of wine and beer, they still have many similarities with one another, she said.
For his lesson, distillery owner Robert Likarish discussed the nuances of production, including how the size of a barrel can affect the taste of the product. The condition and care of a barrel can also affect the flavoring, he said.
Other factors that affect the taste include the proof of the alcohol, Likarish said, adding that certain chemicals are soluble in water. As the water is removed, certain chemicals are removed with it, enhancing certain flavor characteristics in the spirit.
Compared to the other industries, Likarish said much of the art of distilling is kept in house and passed on to the next generation.
“You can’t go online and find that,” he said. “Being able to talk about the types of alcohol coming off isn’t something you see often.”
Likarish said he was surprised to see wine fans in attendance in his class, noting they are usually distinct from one another. “Honestly, we had more questions and love for brandy than any other spirits,” he said, describing it as “the next evolution of wine.”
At Sherman’s 903 Brewers, attendees were able to tour the brewery and get a hands on demonstration of the process of turning grain into a variety of beers.
Blake Lovell, who said he has considered opening a brewery of his own, said he has toured a number of local breweries, but nothing as in depth as his experience at 903. Lovell said his interest in craft brewing over large-scale brewers comes from the uniqueness of each product.
“There is a lot more personality in craft brewing,” he said. “There is a lot of experimentation involved. It might work, it might not. It is all about that experimentation.”
For Ron Brown, who was visiting from Oklahoma City, the variety of flavors that can be achieved is the main appeal of craft brewing.
“I have friends who would never try this,” Brown said over a beer that included toasted coconut. “They stick with Bud, Coors and that flavor profile.”
Brown said he is considering opening a brewery back home. While there are several breweries in the area, he said there is always room for growth with the experimental nature of the industry. Brewery owner Jeremy Roberts said he hopes people would take that from his lessons at the brewery.
“I think this is for people who are truly intrigued by the business behind the scenes,” he said. “Hopefully it does inspire people who want to start their own.”
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