Different kinds of spirits in Orange County
Last updated 5/2/2012 at Noon
Small is beautiful when it comes to some handcrafted alcohol producers in the county.
Orange County has a burgeoning business with a small scale winery, vodka distillery and beer brewery. And though they’re small at the moment, the sky may be the limit for some.
Piney Woods Wine
Piney Woods Country Winery and Vineyard is the oldest producer of the three.
Owner Alfred Flies, 88, began a second career with the winery 27 years ago after owning a carpet and drapery business for many years. The business lies off of Interstate 10 near Adams Bayou. He has continued to add acreage to the vineyard over the years.
Things have changed for Flies since he opened in 1985.
“We ship a lot of wine on our Internet web page,” he said. “Thirty stores in the state carry our wine including Spec’s. There’s plotting the plant to the harvest, aging and bottling. It’s a complete operation here. It’s one of the oldest wineries in Texas, the sixth oldest. We are pioneers in Texas wines.”
Flies said nature has supplied him with the grapes needed to make wine — the red and the white muscadine grape. He added no other winemakers have a complete list of wines using the muscadine as Piney Woods has done.
The proof, furthermore, is in the pudding.
Piney Woods has been successful with their muscadine formula, winning awards in competitions at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo including the best wine in Texas award.
“We feel we’re up there in quality,” Flies said.
In addition to making the wines with the muscadine grapes, the winery also makes wines using blackberries, blueberries, peaches, pecan mocha, oranges, ports and a cherry-chocolate flavor.
Flies said when the cherry-chocolate wine was first introduced, people went crazy for it. There were calls from all over the state requesting the wine. There was even a separate category established at the competition for chocolate wines due to its popularity.
The chocolate-cherry from Piney Woods won two gold medals in the livestock show competition. In fact, the white muscadine won two gold medals and a special big collector’s bottle was produced of the white muscadine that was sold at auction for $34,000.
Flies has also been honored four times for his contributions to the Texas wine industry, by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. He has also received over 70 wine competition medals, six belt buckles representing three International Best of Class Awards and three Texas Best of Class awards.
He was honored, too, to be selected as one of 14 wineries to have two Dallas-Fort Worth hotel meeting rooms named for his winery.
Piney Woods first designer wines made was the pecan mocha and it “took off big” too.
Flies said many former military men who served in Germany enjoyed his fruit wines because they are popular in Germany and not easily found in the states.
One day, Flies estimates there will be seedless muscadine table grapes and be recognized for making wine just as well as cabernets and others that are now recognized. They are a native grape to Southeast Texas.
Muscadines are also popular in South America.
Texas wines, however, are having a tough go of it because of a malady named Pierce’s Disease is striking vineyards.
With Pierce’s Disease, the grapes may be fine the first year, but the vine will die the second year and become useless. The grapes must be pruned and the dead ends must be cut off.
For example, the Hill Country lost all of their vineyards to the disease.
Flies first experience in making wine was when he was a boy growing up in Oklahoma. His father would make plum wine from the wild plums that grew from a tree in the yard. Flies’ uncle handed down the recipe to him for making homemade wine.
Years later, Flies would purchase fruit that was going bad. He would trim the fruit and make wine with it. He would also scour the libraries for information on making wine.
When Flies retired at age 65, wineries and vineyards were just beginning to take off in Texas and he thought making wine would be an interesting hobby.
His first vineyard was a lot on Park Avenue he cleared. He eventually sold the property to a church for them to build on.
He relocated to the Interstate 10 property with the proceeds from the sale and bought eight acres of land. He was soon licensed by the state.
What originally started as a hobby grew and grew into a profitable business.
“I already owned a business and I knew the only way is forward or you’re out,” Flies said. “We’re homesteaded now. The city and the county have always worked with me. There’s not many counties in Texas with a good winery in operation for over 20 years. People will stop here from the highway. We bring in a lot of money and taxes to the city.”
Flies, though, is about to give up the winemaking business for good.
His son-in-law helps with the vineyard and Flies will still work there and supervise, but he will also be looking for a buyer at the same time.
“It’s listed for sale. The buyer must live on the property and keep up the quality of the wine. We’ve added vineyards and it would be a good value for someone,” he said.
“We’re known by all the other wineries. People know our name and what wines we make. There are 200 wineries now in Texas, but some are just mixed wines. Only 50 of them have vineyards, at the most maybe 75 actually produce wine for the market.”
The Original Texas Legend Distillery
There’s quite an interesting business on Simmons Drive that may be in operation soon — a vodka distillery in the heart of Orange, Texas.
The Original Texas Legend Distillery, LLC is waiting for the complex licensing procedure to conclude before they’re in business though they will not be open to the public. Owners Thomas Germann, Ben Higgs, and William Manning have converted a former convenience store for their base of operations.
Germann said he began the distillery by himself but it was too much and he needed help. He works at another job with Manning for the past six years and he was the first person Germann called.
“We’re both inventive, we work through problems and he’s as tenacious as I am,” Germann said.
The partners realized they needed a building because the law forbids distilling at home. It takes $250,000 to start a distillery in Texas. One also has to have equipment in place to operate before a permit is granted.
“It’s backwards as far as business goes. It’s a big investment to start,” he said.
The business obtained their federal licenses for distilling and now they’re waiting on the State of Texas for their license. They started eight months ago.They hope to be distilling by July 4th when they get their second license.
They said several regional liquor stores are already interested. Twenty five percent of alcohol sales are for vodka.
“We will work through the process. If we hit a wall, we’ll work through it. We might be small but we do things right,” Germann said.
One advantage the partners have is Germann attended law school and he understands all of the legal language and terms of the licensing process. They have also been reading blogs from other distillers who have failed in business so they can avoid the same pitfalls.
They chose the Simmons Drive location because the east side of Orange was hit hard by Hurricane Ike and the price for the property was good. Also, the distillery wanted to help in that part of the city. The city in return was supportive and the business wanted to give back.
He added most distilleries in Texas are around Austin.
Germann visited several distilleries in other areas and he became fascinated by the process. Yet, he couldn’t find any books in Texas on the distilling process due to archaic laws from Prohibition. It was like solving a puzzle and he was determined to find the information.
“I wanted more and more,” he said. “I met a man from Australia who had 50 books from the 1700s to 1940. I could now grasp what I was doing. I received training in Colorado and I learned the difference between a commercial and a batch distiller. There’s a noticeable difference. With us, a live person is involved in the process.”
Music legend Shake Russell, who is also a friend of Germann’s came up with the name Troubadour for the vodka. Everybody liked the name and it fits the 1800s persona of the product. Just as the vodka is a handmade process, the bottle’s label is a throwback and printed by hand. Each bottle is also signed by the distiller.
It will be made from red winter wheat. Germann learned about the wheat on a trip to Downslope Distillery in Colorado.
The winter wheat pulls the extra sugar for a natural sweetness and smoothness.
Germann said they want to be “conscientious distillers” and promote responsible drinking with a higher-end product.
Five percent of their profits will also go to to a veterans’ group named Fallen Heroes Survivor Foundation. The organization helps military families who lost their husband/father in war with everyday needs.
For instance, once the soldier dies, the family can no longer live on base and the paychecks stop. The organization helps with expenses and their immediate short-term needs.
The distillery would also like to host some type of music event in the future to revitalize that area of town and bring back tourism to Orange.
Also in the future, Germann may be interested teaching a class on how to run a still and he’s writing a book titled, “How to Start a Distillery for X Amount of Dollars.”
“If more people make craft products, it can only get better. The veil comes off,” he said.
Texas Big Beer Brewery
Nestled in the country off of Highway 62 between Mauriceville and Buna is an unassuming metal barn, but it’s what is inside this barn that makes it special.
This barn houses equipment for a beer microbrewery.
The property is owned by John and Tammy McKissack of Vidor — the Texas Big Beer Brewery. He began brewing several years ago and now he’s brewing a Belgian blonde ale at his microbrewery.
McKissack became involved in the microbrewery movement after he read “The Joy of Brewing.” McKissack, an engineer, said the science of brewing got to him.
“I began brewing in 2004. I would enter competitions and I would win medals. I made the Samuel Adams finals,” he said. “I started home brewing with a pot. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
He and his wife have also been judges in beer competitions.
To his knowledge, he and Cornell Brewery in Bevil Oaks are the only microbreweries in Southeast Texas. There’s one in Conroe and most in Texas are in Austin with 25 of them.
“We (craft brewers) need to band together because we’re so small and try to help each other out like giving recipes,” McKissack said. “Brew pubs are huge in Texas. The big breweries alcohol contents are four percent to five percent while ours is 10 percent in a 22 ounce bottle. They’re (big breweries) are losing market share in the U.S. to craft brewers.”
McKissack said his beer was so immediately popular, he sold out of stock in one day. In fact, a man in Pennsylvania wants McKissack to send some of his beer to a local distributor there for sale.
He described his beer as big and malty, made with a lot of ingredients, golden in color.
“You can drink it with a friend. If you drink it slow, it evolves into several beers,” he said.
Currently, McKissack still has his day job but he can foresee the brewery “overwhelming” him and it becoming a full-time job. In addition to Tammy helping out, his son-in-law also helps everyday.
There are also tours of the brewery on Saturdays. McKissack brews up homemade cream sodas for children. There were 51 in attendance on the last visit. He added he can’t sell his beer to the public at the microbrewery, however.
Obtaining a license was a 19-month process for Texas Big Beer Brewery through the federal and state government.
He said though it was a long process, state agencies were helpful. The feds also require a four-year surety bond and they tax $7 a month.
“I want to pay a lot of taxes though because that means we’re selling a lot of beer,” he said.
Eventually, the McKissacks plan to move permanently to the farm/brewery McKissack’s goal is for the farm to be entirely self-sustainable.
For instance, he stocked his pond with tilapia and he will feed grain from the brewing process to them. He will also feed his livestock, chickens and crawfish with the grain.
Future plans are to expand operations with John handling the beer brewing and Tammy staring a winery and a meadery.
McKissack will be a self-distributor because he will brew less than 75,000 barrels per year, according to Texas law.
He’ll market Southeast Texas first, Austin and San Antonio next, and Dallas-Fort Worth last.
Another project McKissack would like to try is brew a wheat wine similar to one a home brewer in Michigan makes. He said if he gets anywhere close to the Michigan brewer’s results, he has done well.