If you’re a craft beer fan who lives in or has visited the South, you’ve likely pulled up a barstool at a Flying Saucer. This year, the vanguard chain of craft beer bars celebrates 20 years since the opening of its original Ft. Worth location—which was intended to be the only location. Beer fans can now peruse the taps at any of 16 Flying Saucers, from North Carolina to Texas, all owned by a trio of guys who are as committed to beer in 2015 as they were in 1995. But, as co-founder and partner Keith Schlabs knows well, the beer landscape has changed in those two decades. As craft beer finds its way into airports, stadiums and corner taverns, is there still a need for a chain of dedicated craft beer bars? Don’t doubt it.
DRAFT: How did one Flying Saucer turn into 16 locations?
Keith Schlabs: My business partner will tell you that I never wanted to grow; I just wanted one little beer join in Ft. Worth and 10 months later we did a second in Addison, Texas. People were excited about craft beer so we just kept going. We have 16 Flying Saucers and five other concepts: Rodeo Goat, which serves local beer and burgers, Meddlesome Moth, which we opened five years ago in Dallas, and a couple other nicer restaurants that have maybe 15 taps each. It’s been fun to see higher-end diners drinking craft beer.
How did the idea for Flying Saucer begin?
I was a young restaurant manager out of college, managing the first brewpub in Dallas. It was fun because it was a full-on restaurant with an interesting menu, and the craft beer was something I knew a little bit about. But the customer excitement, the stories, the camaraderie [around craft beer] was really cool and wasn’t something I observed in the corporate restaurant world. After a year and half, I thought that I could raise some capital and build a brewery. So I started searching for space in the Ft. Worth market and ran into Shannon Wynne. He said “Let’s build a tap house. Let everyone else brew the beer.” That day changed my life, and his, and Larry’s. Larry Richardson is our other partner. Shannon is the visionary, Larry is the operations, and I’m the beer guy.
What was the beer scene like in Texas in 1995?
It was sparse, to say the least. We started with 65 or 68 handles in Ft. Worth. Seven of those were Rogue Ales, plus we had a hell of a lot of Breckenridge. We always tried to be fiercely loyal to local breweries, but they weren’t always up to snuff. We wanted to support them, and we tried our ass off to do so, but a lot of them came and went at that time. So we utilized a lot of imports. Wow, thinking about how many import handles we had back then versus today is just kind of a reversal of what’s happening now.
Was there consumer interest in better beer then?
The original Flying Saucer building was a historic landmark built in 1889; it’s right in the center of downtown Ft. Worth and everyone walks by it coming to work. I remember the day that we took the paper off the windows and opened the door, we had a line of people around the block waiting to get in there and talk craft beer.
How has beer changed in these 20 years?
When we started, brewers were trying to make beer really true to style, relying on European counterparts, and really working hard to make their ESB similar to Fuller’s or something like that. I think that they were not pushing the envelope on styles. That’s changed, and evolved into “extreme beer.” I think we’re seeing it come full circle again back to more sessionable beer. And we have less reliance on imports now. Beer is flying so quickly; it’s hard to keep up and hard to please everyone. I saw some statistic like a new brewery opens every 14 hours.
Is there still room for craft beer bars in 2015, when more mainstream bars and even stadiums and airports stock craft beer?
We’ve always been proponents of other restaurants and airports picking up good beer. I want Oskar Blues on every golf course in America. It helps everyone. The Whole Foods by my house has 40 people at the bar drinking beer on a Friday night. The movie theater has badass beers. It’s exciting. People are moving in around us, sure, but what are you going to do? You put your head down, do your thing, keep it fresh, keep going. When we get into a dense population of craft beer bars, it really seems to help us, not hurt us. I will tell you this, we gotta stay on top of our game, doing events outside the box because everybody wants what’s new. That said, I’m about being loyal to the people and breweries that got us here. I’ve never opened a beer bar without Sierra Nevada on tap. That pale ale was my gamechanger back in 1991.
What’s ahead for Flying Saucer?
We are constantly looking for new properties to do another Flying Saucer. We’ve had a few things in the works; there’s nothing that I can announce at this moment. We’re going to try to be smarter, pay close attention to which beers are coming into the market, and really show the respect and love to the brands that deserve it.
Do you like keeping your bars within the South or would you expand to other regions?
We don’t like the cold. I would love, love, love to be in San Diego or somewhere like that but there are certain laws and rules of engagement that we’d have to brush up. But I think Texas is good for us. Some of our best properties are here at home.
[Responses have been edited for length and clarity.]