Family. Country. Great Beer.
Inside the story (and magic) of Texas’ 12 Fox Beer Co.
Their friendship was formed in the place where young men are expected to grow up fast. Back in 1994, Aaron Luelling and Joe Hogge met at basic training at Fort Sill, a US Army base in Lawton, Oklahoma, 85 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. Forming what would end up being an unbreakable bond, they soldiered through their military training, eventually ending up together stationed in Bamberg Germany. It was there—the place often referred to as the Motherland of Biers—that their palettes were introduced to the sweet sanctity of German beer.
After leaving the service, it would be several years before Luelling and Hogge caught up again. This time, Luelling’s passion and talent for home brewing became his calling. While living in Las Vegas, Luelling was working as a CPA by day and moonlighting as a home beer brewer at night. His hobby quickly caught the attention of fellow brewers when he started receiving numerous accolades and awards for his work. In one competition, in Corona, California, Luelling walked away with the “Best of Show,” besting the other 272 entries.
The sidebar to this story is that with each brew Luelling made, he would send a sample to his old friend Hogge to try out. And the idea hit them. Why not start their own brewery? Making the move from Vegas to Texas (after intense conversations with his family), Luelling and Hogge eventually opened the 12 Fox Beer Co. in 2019, creating a Cheers-like atmosphere that the locals of Dripping Springs, Texas cannot stop talking about.
We sat down with Hogge to get his insights on how the duo turned a hobby into one of Texas’ most sought after beers, and what the future holds for today’s ever-changing craft landscape.
What are some of the adjustments you made with/to your business model surrounding the recent state of events?
Coming from an Army background and a military family, our business and daily life model has always been to improvise, adapt and overcome. That is exactly what we did with the onset of the recent state of events. We found ourselves tuning in for updates on a regular basis, so we could assess the situation, reconvene and make our next plan of action.
Our most important focus was additional sanitation efforts and focusing on what needed to be done to continue serving our community in a safe and effective manner. In an effort to continue being considered an essential business, we quickly opened a market carrying products from several local businesses, as well as fresh produce and pantry staples from Sysco and Restaurant Depot. The gesture was an effort to make sure our customers and neighbors would have access to fresh products and not have to wait in a long line at the local grocery store to get what they needed. Essentially, we saw a problem within our small community and found a way to fix it.
Another huge pivot was changing our hours of operation. We went from only being open on the weekends to opening seven days a week. We are under a year old, and we wanted to make sure we could continue paying all the bills a new business faces as well as make sure our neighbors had food readily available.
We also stuck our necks out and doubled down on purchasing a Growler machine so we could can beers to go on demand. We knew we were throwing the dice by spending money on the brink of the unknown, but it was a gamble we felt safe taking. This purchase was one we do not regret. Offering to-go, canned beer actually made our sales go up during the month of April. We attribute this to our customers showing up for groceries and taking four to six beers home.
What kind of conversations are you having with your customers?
The same ones that we all have had. The majority of our customers are actually retired and have been through much scarier times than this. Most are veterans have been through multiple wars and plagues. They are of the age that where they are supposed to be hunkering down, when in fact, they were following the recommendations.
Other conversations included: When will this end? How are you holding up? Can we help in any way? What made you decide to stay open? Why did we close down the entire country?
What role should a brand play in being a leader in a distressed market?
I think we should lead from the front. I would not ask you to do anything I would not do myself. The Army taught us that people need a strong, focused leader who keeps the wellbeing of all involved in consideration, then moves on with their mission without hesitation.
What is the best piece of advice you can offer to other brands in how to deal with the unthinkable like this?
Everyone is different. We all come from different backgrounds. You have to do what you think is right for you and your business. Unthinkable times like this require you to think outside of the box as a business owner and consider business decisions that make you a little afraid or uncomfortable. But if you believe your only option is to close the doors and hope you can make it through the unknown, you have to be alright with the end result.
We live in a free country. That means we have the freedom to choose our own destiny. But it does not mean we have to fold without considering a Plan B or Plan C that can open the doors to a different avenue of income for our business and enables us to survive—even in a pandemic.
We are all small business entrepreneurs, which means we are accustomed to taking chances on ourselves and our businesses. We encourage our peers to research their options, find opportunities and, most importantly, improvise, adapt, overcome.
Give us a snapshot of today's craft spirits market from your perspective.
The market is a continuously growing unique platform that involves a combination of business smarts and quite a bit of art for your craft. I often compare brewing to cooking—you can give 100 people the same recipe and all of the end products will turn out differently. The most important aspect of this market is finding your niche—producing top quality products that make you proud to serve and create a way to help your business stand out from the rest.
Everyone is different. If you are focused on growing your community and your business, you will not have time to worry or think about what everyone else is doing. I might sound like a broken record, but you need to do you.
What is likely to happen next?
For the most part, I think things will go back to the way they were, but there likely will be a few new restrictions to work through. People will still want to come out for the experience of going to a brewery so they can sit in the Biergarten and drink craft beer (in a glass) with their friends and family. We will keep our tables separated, and continue to clean the bar top and credit card machine between patrons.
The Army taught us that people need a strong, focused leader who keeps the wellbeing of all involved in consideration, then moves on with their mission without hesitation.
What trends are defining the space?
Although the trends of fruit-flavored, low calorie beers are still in full effect, we believe there will always be a space for high quality traditional brews. We also foresee the desire to support your local brewery taproom. Creating a social environment that encourages your customers to choose your place over others is extremely important. Think Cheers in 2020—people want a place to call home. If they do not feel comfortable in your place, they will find somewhere else with the right welcoming vibe.
What is your story from a brand perspective?
We picked our name because my business partner Aaron and I met in basic training during the summer of 1994. We were 12 Foxtrot's (Combat Engineers). This sent us to Bamberg, Germany, where we fell in love with traditional German brews. Prior to Germany, we were young privates who drank whatever was the cheapest at the class 6 each weekend.
Upon returning to the States in ’98 and ’99, we were in different places and both missed the German beer we had come to love. I returned to Texas with my wife and started drinking Shiner Bock, while Aaron turned to home brewing.
Fast forward to a few years ago when Aaron started winning home brewing competitions, I asked him to mail us some beers. As soon as I opened the beer and smelled it, I was back to Private Joe in Germany at a bar just outside the base. When I tasted it, all I could say was, “Wow. How did he do that?" It was the best beer I had tasted since returning back to America. The beers he sent planted the seed for what would eventually become a joint venture to create 12 Fox Beer Co., on a beautiful backroad outside of our small hometown in Dripping Springs, Texas. We opened on Memorial Day weekend in 2019 and have since made a unique splash in the local beer market.
Walk us through your branding strategy.
Our branding strategy is multifaceted. We knew we wanted to create a brand that people will recognize and want to support—not overly patriotic, but still clear that we are soldiers and proud of it.
For merchandising purposes, our brand needs to appeal to both men and women, and should we decide to consider distribution in the future, we need it to be recognizable in the wild world of can art. One thing we all agreed on is that we did not want to have a cartoon character just because we have Fox in our name. It was important to include our personal taste and infuse it with clever ways to represent the Fox reflecting the artistic area where we live then finish it with a timeless nod to our service. This transformed into a logo suite that we will continue to use for many years.
What is the biggest issue today related to the marketing/sales side of the craft beer business?
Social media is how we market, so you must have someone who is on top of this every day. We all pitch in when we can, but to have someone who is up to date with what people are doing and searching for is key. As a small brewery that is self-funded, we do not have big money to invest in this, so having that person is key.
What is the secret to creating a branding story that consumers can buy in to?
Tell the truth. People want to know what, when, where and why. They like to hear how you started and what made you do it. We just tell them what really happened and they love it. You just need your story.
What is the one thing that every craft beer brand should be doing in the way of marketing?
Be on top of what you want to do. There are so many good beers out there now and more are coming, so you better be relevant and make sure you take care of your base customers. When you do, as we found out, they will take care of you. One question I get from our locals is that when we grow big will we still work the taproom? When small breweries get bigger, they start to add employees and the owners never go back to the taproom. They love your story and supported us while we were little, and watched us grow. So we will never forget them. To me, that is the fun part.
What do you see as some of your biggest opportunities moving ahead?
To start doing all the beer fests. We were all lined up to do them this year with our new 5bbl system we put in over the holidays and then they were all gone. I cannot wait to show everyone who we are and the beers we make.
What is the biggest item on your to-do list right now?
To get the other 10BBL tanks in place so we can keep up with demand. We sell out fast, which is the best and worst problem to have.
Sitting down with Joe Hogge, co-founder, 12 Fox Beer
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Being at the taproom and interacting with our customers, and watching people try our beer for the first time.
What was the best advice you ever received?
I would have to say “to follow your own path and do the right things in life" I know that sounds easy, but when you really think about it, it is not the easiest decision sometimes. Just because everyone is taking a left turn does not mean you have too. Most of the time, the easy road is not the best road.
What is the best thing a customer ever said to you?
It is not what they say, it is the look on their face the first time they try our beer.
What is your favorite brand story?
I think it is the whole story. There is not just one thing that makes us, us. It is all the little things that make the story and how they all came together to make a new story.
How to follow 12 Fox Beer
12 Fox Beer Co.
Dripping Springs, Texas