- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
Two friends from middle school reconnected recently and realized they have something in common besides just where they grew up: John Stecker and Devon Ponds are both opening their own breweries, on opposite sides of town.
Whereas Stecker and 4th Tap Brewing Co-op’s other co-founders have finally gotten their beers onto the market and have an up-and-running taproom in North Austin, Ponds and his business partner are further out from realizing their dream. Their East Austin brewing space still needs renovations and proper permitting from the city. But that’s where Stecker comes in — he’s letting the Friends & Allies Brewing team make beer early in the 4th Tap brewhouse.
With this arrangement, which is possible thanks to a relatively new Texas law that allows for what’s called an alternate proprietorship, Friends & Allies might have a beer or two out as early as the end of this year.
Here’s a look at the two breweries and their plans for attracting Austinites to their beers.
Pursuing ‘a sense of ownership’
As former head brewer at Black Star Co-op, Stecker’s business partner Chris Hamje has seen firsthand how well the cooperative business model works.
He, Stecker and their other 4th Tap co-founder, Mike Olfers, wanted something similar but slightly different for the brewery they’ve now opened on Metric Boulevard, not far from other northern breweries like Austin Beerworks, Circle Brewing and Adelbert’s Brewery. (Beer crawl, anyone?)
“We’ve chosen a worker-owned brewing cooperative because we believe the packaging guy is just as important as the head brewer for the quality of the beer,” Stecker said. “We want employees to feel invested in where they work, to feel like they have a career and not just a job, which will hopefully make the beer better. That’s our thinking behind why we chose worker versus community-owned.”
“It’s about a sense of ownership,” Hamje added.
And a sense of community. They plan to open at 8 a.m. every day, selling Cuvee Coffee to the people who work in the area and have no other good coffee options. Their taproom — a large, warmly lit mix of wood, tile and metal — is in stark contrast with the industrial facility it’s housed in, and they hope it becomes a place that draws in those same crowds and other thirsty Austinites for a beer at happy hour.
Right now, they offer three mainstay brews on tap and in cans: Renewal, a tamarind wheat ale; Long Walk, a grapefruit IPA; and Sun Eater, a sorghum-based gruit. The Sun Eater, a dry and herbal brew that’s disarmingly easy to drink, was made with only Texas-grown ingredients, including lemon peel, rosemary and dark brown sugar, so it features no hops or malts. This gluten-free recipe hadn’t been one that Hamje or Stecker imagined they would regularly brew on 4th Tap’s 30 bbl system, but “it kept coming up during our market testing,” Stecker said.
He and Hamje got their start as many professional brewers do. They homebrewed together, to the point that friends, family and, eventually, complete strangers would request their beers for parties, weddings and other events. And the two friends would oblige.
“We would always say ‘of course’ because we love serving beer; that’s the biggest high for us,” Hamje said.
Joining a ‘community of makers’
After meeting in their old apartment complex and bonding over a hobby of homebrewing, Ponds and Ben Sabin worked for various breweries here and in California before finally deciding to join forces for their own brewery.
They found an old food distribution facility at Springdale Road and Airport Boulevard, and although it’ll take until next spring or so to be a working brewery, getting Friends & Allies beer to Austinites ahead of time is important to both Ponds and Sabin.
“It’s helping us get our story out earlier, using one beer to introduce our brand and our brewer and what he can do,” Sabin said.
That story is tied to the duo’s past working at other breweries: Sabin as the sales guru at Thirsty Planet, Ponds as the financial manager at San Diego’s Port Brewing and the Lost Abbey in San Marcos, Calif. Before that, he had gotten into the industry at South Austin Brewery.
Their head brewer, Nathan Crane, has also come from Port Brewing and the Lost Abbey — which means that Friends & Allies beers will lean toward hoppy styles. The mainstays include a West Coast-style IPA, a Belgian table beer and a session IPA that will be first brewed at 4th Tap on a 60 bbl system just for Friends & Allies’ use. (Making beer on a separate system but same facility as 4th Tap is part of the alternate proprietorship deal.)
The ultimate goal, of course, is opening their facility on the east side. Ponds and Sabin chose that side of town because it’s surrounded by a creative, health-minded community. Next door is an upcoming rock climbing gym called the Austin Bouldering Project; Austin Eastsiders, Springdale Farm and Daily Greens are nearby.
“That’s why we call ourselves Friends & Allies,” Ponds said. “We’re going to be in a big community of makers on the east side. Coffee roasters, other breweries, farmers, artists, metal workers. We want to incorporate them like a family around our business.”