A ‘Craft’ Course in Texas Beer

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There has been a culture of brewing beer in Texas since waves of German and Czech immigrants landed on the third coast in the 1800s. What began as a trickle in the 1840s and ‘50s had become a flood by the 1860s and ‘70s, with 58 breweries operating in Texas in 1876. Most were small-scale operations that served a local following in the German communities surrounding Austin and San Antonio.

In the decades leading up to Prohibition, the local brewing industry suffered a major blow at the hands of larger national and regional brewers. With the aid of an ever-expanding railroad network, brewers could now ship their perishable products to markets far and wide. Enter the era of the big brewers, many of which still dominate the market: Miller, Pabst, and, of course, Anheuser-Busch, owns so much of the Texas beer market that 51 percent of every unit of beer consumed in Texas is alleged to be a Bud light.

With Prohibition in the 1920s, most of the small Texas breweries closed. Some were able to switch gears and stay afloat by producing soft drinks or processing dairy, but the vast majority did not survive to see Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. At the dawn of the repeal, there were only a handful of players remaining in the brewing industry, as most of the small producers could not afford to weather the “dry” period. One notable exception was the San Antonio Brewer’s association, makers of Pearl beer, which flourished in the middle part of the 20th century. Pabst acquired the brewery in 1985 and later moved their operations to San Antonio, where the historic Pearl brewery still stands, although as a mixed-use retail and residential development. (it should provide some comfort to “PBR” aficionados that Pabst was once a local brew!)

Just twenty years ago, it was illegal to operate a brewpub in Texas, and there was little in the way of a craft brewing community. That all changed in 1993 when the Texas legislature passed h.B.1425, “an act relating to the establishment of a brewpub license.” entrepreneurs and beer enthusiasts went wild, and with the opening of Waterloo Brewing at the corner of 4th and Guadalupe in Austin, Texas saw its first brewpub and the dawn of an exciting time for craft brewing in Texas. Breweries and brewpubs popped up all around Texas, notably Celis, Bitter End, and Live Oak in Austin, and St. Arnolds in Houston. As with all things that were big and bright in Texas in the late ‘90s, the golden age of craft brewing wouldn’t last, and when the dot- coms collapsed, so did a few dozen of Texas’s fledgling craft brewers.

Not all was lost, however, and followers of the local food and beverage movement may notice that the sun is once again shining bright on Texas beer. Live oak Brewing in Austin survived the shakeup, expanding its reach to major markets across Texas. Live oak cofounder Brian Peters went on to brew beer at the award-winning Bitter end in Austin’s inchoate Warehouse District and has since opened not one, but two, Uncle Billy’s Brew & Cue locations. Real ale Brewing in Blanco, headed by former Bitter end brewer Tim Schwartz, has made a household name of its fireman’s number 4 blonde ale. The Divine reserve limited editions from Houston’s St. Arnolds are so sought after that they sell out the second they hit the shelves.

The last few years have seen an explosion of Texas breweries, with independence, 512, Jester King, thirsty Planet, and Circle Brewing opening in Austin, and more on the way. In 2010 Austin beer enthusiasts opened Black star, the first member-owned cooperative brew pub in the country, and we will soon see the opening of twisted X, the first Mexican-style brewery in the U.S., as well as a sake brewery (though sake is often thought of as a wine, it is technically a beer). If beer enthusiasts have their way, we may also soon see the passing of HB 660, a piece of legislation that would allow brew- pubs in Texas to sell their beer in bottles to wholesalers and distributors in Texas. You can currently only get brewpub beers at the brewpub itself, and out-of-state brewpubs such as Colorado’s Breckenridge Brewery have better distribution in Texas than the local outfits do. Texas has long been one of the leading markets for beer in the U.S., and we may be on the verge of seeing the lone star state emerge as a major production center as well. (Note: lone star Beer was formulated by a German, Peter Kreil, in 1940. it is now owned by Milwaukee-based Pabst Brewing)

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