Pickle beer helped build Martin House Brewing. Located near downtown Fort Worth, the brewery recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, during which time it has grown to become one of the largest independent breweries in Texas and the largest self-distributor. The brewery makes the usual suspects, including an IPA, a Pils, and being the Lone Star State, a Bock of course. But it was a simple and unsuspecting collaboration with a location pickle brand that really helped Martin House grow.
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The brewery specializes in what owner Cody Martin calls a “microseasonal program,” where it releases a new beer for full distribution nearly every week. The pickle beer was just going to be another in a long line of releases, not a big deal. The idea came from the brewery’s marketing guy. He went to college with a woman who was handling the marketing at a nearby pickle company, called Best Maid, and the two thought it might be fun to collaborate on a beer for the one-off microseasonal program. “Pickle beer was just going to be one of those, right?” notes Martin. “It was going to be we make anywhere from 3000 to 6000 cases and throw it out in the world and see what happens. That was what this was gonna be, just a flash in the pan.” It was not just a flash in the pan.
“The response we got was immediate and incredible,” Martin recalls. “I mean, to the point where we got death threats when we ran out. People wanted to slit our throats when we ran out of this stuff. So we decided to keep it around a little longer and it became obvious that this is going to be something that’s a lot bigger.”
For the first year, Martin worried that interest in the beer would fizzle after the initial burst of consumer excitement. He had the same worries the second year. Consumer interest kept building. “I was definitely skeptical at first,” Martin says. “I think that was a big part of why it was so successful. It got picked up on news outlets everywhere totally organically. We didn’t do any marketing really. And it just snowballed from there. Everybody was coming in for interviews to talk about this crazy pickle beer. This is the craziest idea anyone’s ever heard of. And that push got people to try it.”
Seven years later, Martin’s Best Maid Sour Pickle Beer is the company’s flagship and best selling brand and the brewery is expanding its distribution to other states, including Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska. “I was blown away, it’s the first time anything like that ever happened to us,” Martin says. “It just blew us up. We grew 84-percent. It got us a lot of visibility with chains. That’s how we ended up in Walmart. So it really opened up a lot of space for us. It has got a lot more people to pay attention to the weird things we do.”
Martin believes his pickle beer is the first one to achieve widespread commercial success and volume. “I wouldn’t say were the first but I would say were the first commercially successful one,” he notes. “There have been many, many, many to follow that haven’t stuck like ours. I have a few theories on why that is. I think that a lot of people followed when they saw the success of that.”
The secret to the success of Martin’s Best Maid Sour Pickle Beer is simple: pickle juice. I think it’s the difference between the successful ones and the non successful pickle beers,” Martin says. “We have this awesome pickle company and I think our branding and packaging and our ability to put interesting things into the market and sell them is unique to us. But as far as the liquid in the can, I think the way we won is because we didn’t try to recreate a pickle, we just put pickle juice in.”
Every week Best Maid sends an 18 wheeler filled with 1000 gallons of pickle brine three miles down the road to Martin for the beer. “We have a dedicated tank for pickle brine, which I don’t think any other brewery in the world has,” Martin laughs. The brewery starts with a gose base, its Salty Lady Gose, and then it blends chilled, carbonated Best Maid brine into the beer before packaging. “That’s really all there is to it,” he says.
Martin advises brewers thinking of brewing a pickle beer to not overthink it. “We didn’t try to recreate the flavor of pickles, which I think is what a lot of people are doing or they’re doing a little bit of pickle flavor and some other beer,” he says. “Martin House promises that when we say a beer tastes like something, we promise it tastes like that. Instead of trying to recreate it using cucumbers or dill or whatever, pickle brine tastes like salt and vinegar and the only way to get that flavor in the beer properly is to use a whole lot of pickle brine. It’s not us trying to recreate pickle brine.”
In terms of the market, Texas has a special relationship with pickles and pickle beer and its demographics also help sales, Martin believes. He points to strong sales among Hispanic consumers as well as in South Texas, El Paso, and San Antonio. But it’s not just limited to a single market or region. “It’s adventurous beer drinkers that like pickles,” he says. “It certainly has a novelty to it. And a lot of people just drink them every now and then but there are an incredible number of people, more than I would expect, that drink a six-pack on the weekend, which seems like a lot even to me, but I’m glad that they enjoy it.”
Martin House has also brewed more than 20 pickle beer variants, including extra sour ones, whiskey and rum barrel aged pickle beers, hot and spicy versions (the second most popular), a Bloody Mary version, and a quirky local favorite, the Kool Aid pickle beer. “Kool Aid pickles are kind of like an old school thing in Texas,” he says. “This is a thing from childhood where people will add some packets of Kool Aid to a jar of pickles. And you let it soak and it gets this sweet fruity flavor with the pickle. That really inspired the fruited pickle variations, which we’ve done with watermelon, blue raspberry, and Tropical Punch. And those are always popular. I have to admit, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to work but somehow it does.”