Uncle Billy’s, under new ownership, will expand by contract brewing at Celis

Uncle Billy’s is no longer a brewpub in the hopes of making cans of its beer more widely available across Texas cities like Austin, San Antonio and Houston and has begun the process of moving much of its brewing operations to North Austin’s soon-to-open Celis Brewery.

Photo by Matt McGinnis. Uncle Billy’s, at 1530 Barton Springs Road, is becoming a production brewery that will begin to have a lot more experimental releases on tap.

But that doesn’t mean much will change about the Barton Springs location where people have been coming since 2006 for beer and barbecue. Uncle Billy’s Brewery, as it’s now being called, is a “taproom-restaurant” still offering food, although it can’t sell wine, liquor or beer from other breweries any longer, and people will no longer be able to pick up six-packs of Uncle Billy’s beer to go.

These are a necessary sacrifice for the growth of the brand, Rick Engel, who opened the brewpub in Austin 12 years after opening Houston’s first (now defunct) brewpub since Prohibition, said in an interview.

“You have to decide what you want to be when you grow up with the way the laws are,” Engel said. “You start out as a brewpub, and if you want to get into distribution and expansion of the beer beyond the way the limits are, you have to go to the next tier, which is what we did.”

His Austin brewpub became the first in the state to start distributing to other restaurants and stores after a 2013 Texas law loosened up this restriction for the state’s brewpubs. But when Uncle Billy’s began canning, Engel didn’t realize the expansion in production would ultimately not meet demand.

Solving that problem has meant sacrifice on his part as well: Engel is no longer tied financially to Uncle Billy’s and has sold the business to Bob Leggett, CEO and founder of Artisanal Imports, one of the largest importers of Belgian beer in the U.S. Engel owns Ski Shores Cafe and various locations of Little Woodrow’s, retail establishments in the eyes of the law, and would have been in violation of the three-tier system by also having a manufacturing brewery.

Leggett, who remains at the head of his import business, had been looking to have a local beer he could add to the Artisanal portfolio and was put in touch with Engel for something much bigger. Importing beer and making it at the same time isn’t prohibited, and he jumped at the chance to take on a new project.

Yes, Texas law is complicated.

That’s why Engel worked closely with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission when he realized he wanted to take Uncle Billy’s more widely beyond the four walls of the business. He found the solution he was looking for by moving the bulk of production to Celis Brewery, which former Uncle Billy’s employee Christine Celis is opening in tribute to her father, the venerated Belgian brewer Pierre Celis.

All of Uncle Billy’s beer for distribution — currently, the Green Room IPA, Barton Springs Pale Ale and Lazy Day Lager — will be made at Celis, while the Barton Springs location of the brewery will continue making small-batch suds for enjoying on-site. Uncle Billy’s head brewer, Trevor Nearburg, had been trying to make enough of the brewery’s three canned mainstays while also producing a small roster of brewpub-only releases, a balance that didn’t always pan out.

“We’ve been at our 4,000 barrel capacity for almost 18 months,” Engel said. “But Celis has a much bigger barrel capacity, at 50,000. Celis will be brewing original recipes from Pierre and some other ones Christine’s developed with Daytona (her daughter), and there’s a regional brewer, Atwater, brewing out there as well in addition to Uncle Billy’s. There is plenty of capacity and growth for all of those brands.”

The founder of Uncle Billy’s, Rick Engel, is no longer the owner because of the way he decided to expand the brewery. But he remains the proprietor of other local businesses like Ski Shores Cafe.

New owner Leggett sees the Barton Springs location becoming a sort of “testing ground” for beers that may eventually join the three canned products beyond the brewery, and Nearburg is excited to expand his boozy repertoire.

“The beauty about taking production volume out of this facility to a place that is made to produce volume is that it will free up the brewers here to be creative, to make new things — stuff maybe they’ve wanted to make but haven’t had the time or the brewing capacity to do,” Leggett said.

That might eventually apply to other alcoholic beverages as well. Another future plan is for Uncle Billy’s to apply for a distiller’s permit and maybe even a winemaker’s permit, to bring back some of the drinks the brewery has had to abandon in its quest for greater distribution.

In the meantime, Leggett is just trying to transition Uncle Billy’s to a much bigger Texas footprint and getting customers across the state primed to the idea of having it available at more retail locations like HEB. The beer industry veteran certainly knows how to sell beer, having been involved in that side of the business since 1977. He was one of the first Shiner Bock distributors and began his import company in 1978 (a career move that eventually led to his meeting Pierre and Christine Celis at Hoegaarden in about 1986).

For Engel, it didn’t take long to see that Leggett was the right man to grow Uncle Billy’s into a much bigger brand. Engel will simply be a customer at the brewery now but believes the change was necessary.

“It was a big decision to make, but it was the right thing to do for the brand,” he said. “For me, it’s not about the money. It’s about the success of the brand and being able to watch it grow from what it was 11 years ago. It’s a dream to see your beers hit the market outside of your establishment and have people keep buying it.”

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