For a college campus, it probably wasn’t all that surprising a sight. An 18-year-old kid, kicking by on a Razor scooter, clad in his boxers.
As David Wedemeier, an upperclassman, watched the goofball go by, surely he wasn’t thinking about his future. Or how boxer boy might fit into it.
But fate is funny like that.
Back then, Wedemeier was the rush chair for his fraternity at the University of Texas at Dallas; Cody Martin — he of the scooter — pledged Kappa Sigma.
And a frat boy bromance was born.
“We drank a lot of beer in college together,” says Wedemeier, now 34, who along with Martin, 31, co-owns the successful Martin House Brewing Company in Fort Worth.
“David taught me the ropes in college,” recalls Martin, who looks the part with his brewer’s beard and ballcap. “One time he wrote a paper for me, on the Mona Lisa, in exchange for a case of beer.”
What kind of beer?
“Keystone,” they chime in unison, breaking into simultaneous grins.
Their beer palates have come a long way since college.
And in just less than 12 months, so has their humble brewery northeast of downtown Fort Worth.
Martin House sold its first keg to Flying Saucer on March 30, 2013. By June, the guys were selling their first cans at Central Market. Just nine months later, you can find Martin House on draft at more than 130 bars and restaurants across North Texas, or buy it in those distinctive cans at more than 80 area stores.
Drive down a stretch of South Hulen Street, and you’ll be able to pick up a four-pack at, say, Central Market, World Market, Spec’s or Total Wine. Stop by the brewery on Saturday afternoons, and you’ll find anywhere between 300 and 700 devoted fans drinking in the weekly tasting tours. Look in the beverage case on a late-night excursion to Velvet Taco and there’s Martin House Day Break, standing tall in its powder-blue can.
You could say the brewery came along at just the right time — the wave of interest in craft beer in North Texas is reaching tsunami levels. But Martin House has also managed to distinguish itself from the Rahrs and Revolvers of its world, not only by developing an impressive roster of beers but also by retaining a DIY, grassroots spirit (the brewery’s small, partly automated beer-canning machine is still loaded by hand, three beers at a time).
It just seems to fit perfectly into Fort Worth’s culture of cool — which may explain why the biggest band to ever come out of our fair city decided to turn to Martin House when it wanted to see itself reflected in a beer can.
The Toadies are marking the 20th anniversary of their most successful album, Rubberneck, this spring, and to celebrate, the band wanted to develop a craft beer that would capture its essence. (Or at least something the members could chug onstage and off.)
The result is Rubberneck Red, an American amber/red ale that will have its draft release Monday; it comes out in Rubberneck-inspired cans March 24. As a prelude, the band will play an acoustic show at the Martin House brewery Sunday. (Not surprisingly, all 500 tickets were snapped up in three minutes.)
At the Toadies’ urging, the beer will be released statewide after its North Texas debut, which has the guys working pedal-to-the-metal and pondering another big step in the evolution of Martin House.
“We’re acting a lot bigger than the brewery is,” Wedemeier says. “For a company with only five [now six] employees, doing a statewide distribution of a beer — and Texas is a big state — it’s gonna be quite a challenge.”
But Tony Drewry, a North Texas beer consultant, says Martin House is up to the task of handling its breakneck success.
“In a way, Martin House has seen some fast rise to some cool stardom,” says Drewry. “But I do believe that these guys are really grounded and they know what they’re getting into — whether they’ve figured it all out yet or not. I think that they are ably equipped for the ride.”
The adventure begins
On the banks of the Trinity, at the far edge of the property, a birdhouse stands tall, watching over the brewery. In a way, this tiny structure helped get Martin House off the ground.
When it came time to choose a name for the business, it wasn’t just about the surname of one of its founders. Cody Martin couldn’t resist the symbolism of the purple martin, a bird common in Texas.
One of the tenets of the Martin House brand is “adventure with friends.” The purple martin is known for its aerial acrobatics (adventure), and Cody says, “It’s also the only bird that’ll live in a house with other bird families. If you ever see a birdhouse like that, it’s meant to be for martins. And each martin family will have a hole in the house. Other birds don’t like to live like that, with neighbors.”
Turns out, the brewing Martins don’t mind close quarters either.
Before they launched their brewery, they lived together in a house in Flower Mound — six adults, two dogs, a one-legged parrot and a series of contraptions that made it seem like their seventh roommate could’ve been Rube Goldberg. They had two huge refrigerators in the dining room; hoses and tubes running through the living room, into the kitchen, onto the back porch and into a self-built, automated fermentation tank; and parts and pieces lying around and on the couch. Meanwhile, the six adults sat around watching Game of Thrones, drinking Cody’s homebrew.
David’s wife, Jenny, says her mom used to jokingly call it “the commune.”
After college, Cody and David remained friends but took divergent paths: The former went the corporate route, which eventually made him miserable. Martin pursued engineering, but it was a simple birthday gift from his wife, Anna, that really stoked his creativity: a homebrew kit.
When the couple moved in with the Wedemeiers and another couple into that house in Flower Mound, the foundation for Martin House really began to take root.
“[Cody] would come into my bedroom every night: ‘Hey, man, what’dya think about this thing on the business plan?’ ” David recalls. “I was like, ‘It’s not gonna work. Well, maybe it could work. What if we did this?’ ”
Gradually, Cody’s enthusiasm grew too infectious to ignore.
One day, walking along the Trinity Trails together, David and Jenny made a big decision. If David could raise the money, he could quit his telecom job and join Cody.
And, in two months, he did — tapping into the good will (and pocketbooks) of friends and family.
Within three or four months, the business plan was solidified, and they brought on their friend Adam Myers, a civil engineer, to head up construction and become the third founder.
Cody scouted and found the building while riding his bike on the Trinity Trails — and it definitely suits the scrappy brewery. The front office is decorated in frat-house chic: bikes propped against the wall, stray brown coffee table, all sitting behind a mammoth brown beanbag chair. In the brewery proper, someone recently pulled in an old canoe with broken cane seats.
“We’ve tried to clean it up a little bit,” David says. “When we first got here, the whole thing was this weird, Kafkaesque conglomeration. There were different floors — disgusting carpet.”
But all the guys are eager to lead visitors over to the brewery’s most awesome fringe benefit: three bay doors that open up to a postcard view of the Fort Worth skyline.
Inside, it still leans more primitive than gleaming, but those familiar with the Martin House story know it’s impressive. “They built that brewery from scratch with their bare hands,” says Drewry. “They did almost all the work themselves.”
By the sheer force of big dreams and elbow grease, what started at the commune in Flower Mound had been transformed into a bona fide business.
And the beer was about to flow into Fort Worth.
In with the pros
One of things that makes the Martin House operation work so well is the yin and yang between Wedemeier and Martin. They complement each other in business. Wedemeier, clean-shaven, preppy and gregarious, is the classic sales guy, relishing the social aspect of the job and comfortable in a spokesman role. The bearded Martin, on the other hand, is quiet, confident and matter-of-fact, which belies his mad-scientist brain, constantly buzzing with recipe ideas.
The first two commercial beers for Martin House were the refreshing River House Saison and the Imperial Texan, a hard-core hoppy double red ale with a whopping 9 percent alcohol by volume. They sold the first kegs on the same day, to Flying Saucer. (They’ll mark their one-year anniversary with a party there March 30.)
It didn’t take long for Martin House to make an impression on local bartenders.
Chris Evans, beverage manager at Live Oak Music Hall in Fort Worth, remembers his first taste of Martin House: the Pretzel Stout. (Yep, it’s made with crushed sourdough pretzels.)
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ve heard it all now,’” said Evans, who admits he really wasn’t a huge stout fan until he tasted the Pretzel Stout. “I was just amazed. I tasted the salt, the way it was brewed with pretzels, so it’s got the flavor profile of a really nice baked pretzel. Then the chocolate and coffee notes like a typical stout, and a pretzel finish.”
Evans also quickly hit it off with the Martin House crew.
“It was such a treat to meet someone [David] who was so happy and passionate about beer in Fort Worth,” he says. “I’ve gone to the brewery, and they acted like they knew me for years. I hung out and played hacky sack for two hours and drank beer.”
But for most of the past decade, the craft beer conversation in North Texas began and ended with one name: Rahr. And it still casts a big shadow.
The family-owned brewery south of downtown is the proud papa of a burgeoning craft-beer scene here that includes the likes of Peticolas, Community and Deep Ellum Brewing in Dallas; Revolver in Granbury; and Lakewood in Garland. Every few months, it seems, news of another start-up brewery breaks.
“I think the success that Martin House is having is a great sign of what’s going on in Texas from a craft beer standpoint,” says founder and president Fritz Rahr. “The craft beer segment in Texas is growing exponentially. When we started back in 2004, it was incredibly difficult to sell a craft beer in North Texas. Austin had its craft beer scene already, and Houston was developing theirs, but for us up here, it was really nonexistent.
“So in a period of really just a few years, it’s incredibly encouraging to see how a market can go from almost nonexistent to as strong as it is.”
By virtue of being the first brewery to open in Fort Worth since Rahr, the new beer on the block generated plenty of buzz and good will. But it still had to carve out its own niche. And Martin House came out with cans blazing.
“A lot of breweries will keg beers for a long time before they ever package anything where you can buy it in a grocery store,” says Drewry. “And part of their original plan was to begin packaging within a couple months of opening. That’s not very common.”
In addition to the Imperial Texan, the Pretzel Stout and River House Saison, Cody developed the approachable Day Break “breakfast beer,” which he wanted to resemble a bowl of cereal; hence its milk, honey and four grains. That gave Martin House a powerful lineup of year-round beers that could compete for space on DFW’s overcrowded tap walls.
“Day Break is the ‘brunch beer’ at the Bearded Lady,” says Drewry, whose girlfriend, Shannon Osbakken, co-owns the Magnolia Avenue-area gastropub. “We can’t not have that beer.”
“The beers that are really blowing off the shelves right now are beers made with honey, because they add a little sweetness to it, and that’s not something people are used to in their beer,” Drewry adds. “[Revolver Brewing’s] Blood & Honey, I would argue that it’s one of the bestselling beers of all craft beers in Texas in general, and especially North Texas. Many of the bars I work with, they call it Blood & Money.”
Another Martin House calling card, according to Live Oak’s Chris Evans, is consistency.
“A lot of craft breweries, when they first get going, they have a lot of fermentation issues, and there may be a different look to the beer. I’m not gonna mention the brewery, but … [one in Texas] has been very inconsistent, and I stopped carrying their beers. They had a fun start, but I think they bought bigger equipment and when that changed, they had to really step back and re-create these recipes.
“Where Martin House has never had to do that. You’re not losing any flavor, you’re not dealing with any filtering issues, no sediment or anything like that. … They know how to sell in mass production. I was really proud of them when they sold to H-E-B and Central Market, and they produced all those cans just for Central Market.”
You hear tales of the craft beer community really being a community. And the Martin House guys tell the same tales.
“Yeah, we just saw Fritz [Rahr] on Tuesday,” Cody says, adding that there’s a monthly North Texas craft brewers guild meeting that rotates from brewery to brewery.
David says Rahr actually helped them get started. “He gave us free bottles so we could bottle our samples, and gave us tips and coaching, and,” he added, laughing, “some other stuff I wish I would’ve listened to a little bit more carefully when he was telling me.”
But you have to wonder what goes through Fritz Rahr’s head, when, for instance, you’re the established local craft brew that has made it big statewide but lately has maybe been taken for granted as the next new thing comes along. Especially when the next new thing is a bunch of guys who opened just up the road from you.
Rahr confirms those wicked rumors of collaboration and support.
“I’m exceptionally happy for Martin House and the things that they’re doing,” he says. “We just absolutely love them, and we think the best of them.”
Still, beer is big business. And there is competition.
“There’s always gonna be the competitive edge, because we’re all in the business to succeed and hopefully make money enough to survive on. But then again, seeing another craft brewery succeed is only good for the craft beer industry. It might not be so good for the majors — the Bud, Miller, Coors — but for us, a successful craft brewery in the Metroplex means that more people are getting turned on to craft beer. And that means potentially more sales for us to people that may have never tried craft beer.”
The more people experiment, Rahr says, the more it cultivates a craft beer culture in North Texas.
“The success of another craft brewery is actually more important to us than the failure. Because if a brewery fails, and they’re putting out really bad beer, that can create problems for everybody else in the perception of what craft beer is. Seeing Martin House succeed, seeing Lakewood, seeing the guys at Deep Ellum and Community, and hopefully Rabbit Hole and others that are opening up — we hope they do succeed, because that means that they’re doing things right, and they’re creating a stronger marketplace for all of craft beer.”
Toadies frontman Vaden Todd Lewis says he’s not really even sure how the idea of a Rubberneck beer came about.
“It was just one of those things where the guys were all just sitting around talking — and drinking beer — and it evolved into this idea,” he said. “That’s how a lot of things happen in this business, I guess. It’s a good thing that we remembered it.”
When it came time to partner with a local brewery, the band went with the less-obvious choice.
“I talked to some of my beer snob friends in Fort Worth and they directed me that way,” Lewis said. “And I had had some Martin House before and I really enjoyed it. I was peripherally acquainted with Cody.”
The Imperial Texan, the hoppy, assertive double red ale with 9 percent ABV, was a favorite of Lewis and drummer Mark “Rez” Reznicek, and it became the launching point for the Toadies’ boutique beer.
“But I personally would like to drink more than two of them without slurring,” Lewis laughs. “Sessionable! That’s a word I learned in this whole process.” (Check out a fun “behind-the-scenes” video the Toadies made at Martin House, and our cool interactive graphic that explains how Rubberneck Red is made.)
Cody says Rubberneck Red is so similar that they call it the Imperial Texan’s little brother. “Everything is dialed back just a little bit, so it’s a little less intense. I think it was actually a really good idea, that particular style of beer. Something like the Imperial Texan but a little tamer is a really good style to have. It kind of fires on all cylinders.”
Lewis says the partnership has been “a smooth operation. They’re very laid-back, but still getting things done.”
But the Rubberneck Red release, and its statewide distribution plan, will test the limits of this little brewery that could.
“These,” Wedemeier says, gesturing to the fermentation tanks, “will stay tied up for a month or two with the majority Rubberneck Red brews.”
The brewery only has a 120-barrel capacity of fermentation, so the brewers have been busy building up inventory before the new beer launches next week.
“We’re taking on a huge task, but that’s kind of the history of the brewery itself,” Wedemeier says. “Three guys built the brewery on our own. We obviously didn’t build the boiler, but we installed all this stuff on our own. We’ve always just been able to take a huge, enormous task that you shouldn’t be able to do with three people, and just kind of did it and grinned.”
But the old college buddies are hardly bent on beer domination.
On their wish list: Finish the deck. Eventually buy the building. Get more fermentation tanks.
Wedemeier, a new father, has reasonable goals for Martin House. “My ideal size is just a lifestyle that allows me to be able to work a reasonable schedule, have fun with what I’m doing and make a comfortable living. Once we reach that size, I’m perfectly happy,” he says.
“I don’t have any grand ideas of conquering the United States or anything. I like to go to my customers and hang out with them and have a beer. Having friends for your customers is really cool.”
(Click above for an interactive graphic that explains what goes into Rubberneck Red, and how it comes together.)