Sawbriar Brewery and craft beer’s next wave

Jessica and John Paul outside the site of Sawbriar Brewery, their microbrewery concept launching this fall. Photo by Allison DeHart

John Paul wants nothing more than to focus on making the best beers he can.

So when he was faced with the often confounding legal codes defining beer production in the state of Louisiana — Title 26 of the Louisiana State Law, enforced by the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control — it was a no-brainer; he and his wife/business partner, Jessica Paul, would apply for a microbrewery permit.

The state issues two types of permits to beer producers: The microbrewery permit allows the sale of beer for on-site consumption or as a packaged product for home consumption, but prohibits the brewer from selling to distributors for sale and consumption elsewhere, such as other bars or retailers; the more standard brewery permit, while allowing for up to 10 percent of monthly production to be sold on site, is primarily meant for larger-capacity brewers to sell most of their product to distributors for purchase and consumption elsewhere. While the latter has no annual cap on barrels produced, a microbrewery permit caps annual production at 12,500 barrels (one barrel contains 43 gallons of beer).

For Paul, operating as a microbrewery means avoiding the logistical hassle of the standard production brewery.

“On the microbrewery side, we don’t have to worry about all that. We can focus on making a quality product, developing a loyal group of fans, and focus on the local community. It’s better as a business and as a maker of great beer,” he says.

Microbreweries are really taking off,” says Cory Koch, executive director of the Louisiana Craft Brewers Guild.

Paul will open Sawbriar Brewery in Downtown Lafayette this fall, in a long-vacant building at 124 S. Buchanan St. The building is undergoing a $500,000 renovation, which includes air conditioning repairs and a reskinning of the interior, by the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority, the owner of the space. In a five-year agreement, the LPTFA will lease the building to Sawbriar rent-free for the first year, raise rent to $5,000 per month in its second year, $6,000 per month in its third year, and $6,500 per month in its fourth and fifth year. After that, a new contract will have to be negotiated, according to Rebekke Miller, program coordinator for LPTFA.

“Microbreweries are really taking off,” says Cory Koch, executive director of the Louisiana Craft Brewers Guild. There are currently 12 breweries in the planning stages of opening in the state, and “a lot of them are looking at the micro route,” he says. “They’re having success. Manufacturing is a big venture. It costs more to start as a manufacturer. You need more space and more equipment, a canning facility. With a microbrewery, you can grow into that but don’t need it all at once. The rate of return on investment I think is leaning toward the micro route. It’s the way to go right now.”

Craft brewing had $740 million in economic impact across the state of Louisiana in 2016, according to the Brewing Association, a national trade group that advocates for and tracks statistics on the American brewing industry. Fifteen breweries have opened in Louisiana between 2012, when there were just eight, and 2017, which closed the year with 33 breweries operating — a growth rate of more than 300 percent in just five years. Louisiana brewers now produce 215,168 barrels annually; that’s two gallons per Louisianan over the age of 21.

“That number makes the industry in Louisiana look a lot bigger than it actually is. It’s not a number we like to tout,” says Koch. “We’re doing in-house numbers now, but that makes it look bigger and more robust than we are. If we were a $740 million industry we’d have a much louder voice than we have.”

Koch says that number includes packaging and cardboard and all sorts of ancillary impacts not directly related to brewing. He notes that there are 500 jobs in breweries in the state: “That’s people directly employed at the breweries by craft brewers.”

An abandoned warehouse owned by LPTFA gets a facelift to accommodate Sawbriar Brewery.

There are 11 microbreweries and 22 breweries in the state right now. In the past 12 months, two manufacturing breweries switched status to microbreweries — Great Raft Brewing in Shreveport and Flying Heart Brewing in Bossier City. “Those two were just being distributed in their region and didn’t break through to the rest of the state,” Koch says.

Microbrewery permits also allow for the sale of limited amounts of food on premises — up to 25 percent of sales — but, Paul says, that will not be a major focus for Sawbriar.

“We are allowed to sell food, we can have a restaurant component, but we’re not doing that,” he says. “There are plenty of great local restaurants around us. We don’t need to compete with that.”

Instead, Paul says, Sawbriar may, on a limited basis, invite food trucks, as well as welcome Waitr and Grubhub deliveries.

“I’m an OK chef, but I’m not making a restaurant. I’m making beer,” he says.

The challenge, especially with the microbreweries, says Paul, is that there’s “a lot of grey area in the code.”

The permit also allows for Paul to sell other brewers’ beers on his taps, enabling customers to sample single styles of beer across a variety of brewers. It will expand the range of available beers in Sawbriar’s taproom while also improving the beer connoisseur’s experience, he says.

The challenge, especially with the microbreweries, says Paul, is that there’s “a lot of grey area in the code.”

“There have been some disagreements in the interpretation of that law. It’s been a mess at times. But the Louisiana Craft Brewers Guild has worked collectively to get clarification from the state, and together we’ve worked with them to evolve the laws to be better for the state, the people of Louisiana and the breweries, without creating an adversarial relationship. We don’t want that at all,” Paul adds. “Every brewery owner I’ve talked to in the state has been doing their best to stay within the laws, and there have been some good improvements, but we’ve got a little ways to go.”

Paul points out that Sawbriar is still in the middle of the process of getting local and state permitting completed, but that its federal permitting — the TTB permit, which allows the federal government to collect taxes on alcohol — was completed within six weeks.

Earlier this year the Pauls launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the taproom and bathroom upgrades. With less than a week left, the campaign still falls more than 50 percent short of its make-or-break fundraising goal. But, says Paul, that won’t stop them.

“That will make life challenging, but we’ll find a way to get the doors open.”