Despite the triple digit heat, there’s no place a Texan would rather enjoy beer than outside. The disdain for air conditioned beer appreciation might perplex visitors, but it’s a tradition that goes back to the state’s early influx of Germany and Czech immigrants that long ago perfected the art of the biergarten.
Today’s crop of craft brewers might not have a direct lineage, but that hasn’t stopped them from carrying on tradition. It also helps that Texas’s wide open spaces offer plenty of creekside opportunities to enjoy a light lager with your feet in the water.
Plus, there’s these things called music festivals. SXSW and Austin City Limits dominate national attention, but the glut of visitors leads many Austinites to look forward to the smaller events as well.
Austin Eastciders, Karbach Brewing Company, and Big Bend Brewing Co. are mainstays at most of these outdoor festivals. Read on to learn more about three great Texas breweries and their stories.
When Karbach launched in 2011, they were only the second craft brewery in Houston. Since then, the city’s turned into a beer boomtown with over 40 and counting.
As the trailblazers, Karbach has seen exponential growth, expanding from seven employees to 200. Beers like Love Street Blonde, Hopadillo IPA, Sympathy for the Lager, and Weisse Versa Wheat are now staples on taps across the state, and like so many craft breweries these days, they’ve been absorbed by Big Beer: AB-InBev’s The High End group purchased the brewery in 2016, but according to David Graham, brand manager and cicerone, nothing has changed.
“I have a unique perspective being the first Karbach employee,” says Graham. “I always say the proof is in the beer, if you come by the brewery you’ll see that it's the same people making the beer from four years ago. The main resource we've taken advantage of is just having direct conversation with the huge brain trust of the other breweries in The High End.”
That growth might’ve seemed impossible to owners Ken Goodman and Chuck Robertson, who began their journey into the beer world in 1982 by launching a beer distribution company in College Station. They knew the business side, but not the brewing side, so teamed up with Eric Warner, former CEO of Flying Dog.
It shows that Texas brewers have gone a long way in a short time.”
Thankfully for Karbach’s fans, the company's growth hasn't changed their core mission. From day one their goal has been to brew balanced beers that account for Texas’s uniquely brutal climate. That means a sessionable slant, but not without complexity. .
Now their bigger beers mostly live on-tap in small batches at their expansive brewery biergarten, which can hold up to 2,000 patrons and boasts a food menu with everything from Thai fried chicken to fish and chips. They even hold music festivals of their own like Karbachtoberfest, four weekends starring the likes of Bun B and Bright Light Social Hour.
“Texans want drinkable beers, and that's in of itself a very impressive thing about craft beer here. Lighter styles are just as a matter of fact harder to do, you can't hide flaws in a more sessionable beer. It shows that Texas brewers have gone a long way in a short time,” says Graham.
When Austin Eastciders opened their new 33k-square-foot cidery in June of 2016 they naturally threw a party. Barbecue and live music drew in a crowd of over 500, which was great exposure, but not so great for their air conditioner. By the time Sweet Spirit took the stage, the thermostat read 95 degrees.
Somehow no one seemed to mind.
People typically connect cider with autumn, not scorching summer heat, but that hasn’t stopped Texans from fueling one of the biggest new brands in the industry.
Founded in 2012 by an Englishman who wanted to bring his favorite beverage across the pond, the city embraced their original Gold Top variety faster than it could be produced. Several expansions later, the brand continues to operate at max capacity armed with a fleet of 6,000 gallon fermentation tanks. Now, they distribute their five flavors (Dry Original, Texas Honey, Pineapple, Hopped, and Blood Orange) to twelve states.
Traditionally with cider you’d have a hard time drinking four, unless you have an insulin shot ready.”
Craft beer drinkers have long had disdain for ciders due to the sugary nature of many legacy brands, but today’s modern cider makers break those sweet stereotypes. The Dry Original tastes closer to a champagne than a dessert wine, and even less bitter flavors like Blood Orange and Pineapple don’t include any headache-inducing sweeteners. The goal, like with many Texas brewers, is to focus on sessionability.
“To be fair, when you’re at a barbecue with your friends in the backyard, you might drink four beverages. Traditionally with cider you’d have a hard time drinking four, unless you have an insulin shot ready,” says Dave Rule, VP of Marketing.
The brand plans to offer their regular line-up of ciders at the festival, but also plan to meet the medieval theme with a bolder, more vintage flavor aged in bourbon barrels. So not everything will be as sessionable as the Blood Orange, but a large component of their line will always be aimed at the outdoors.
“What’s the best scenario for drinking an alcoholic beverage? It’s not polishing off a six pack at home, it’s being with friends, having fun, listening to live music," said Rule. "It’s getting outside, together.”
Big Bend Brewing
West Texas is a special place. From the natural glory of Big Bend National Park to the head-scratching art oasis that is Marfa, the western edge of the state offers city-loving Texans an escape that feels far removed from the hustle of larger Texas cities.
The only problem? No craft beer.
The tiny town of Alpine has a population of just over 5000 (and just 12k in a 150 mile radius), so there’s never been a huge community to serve, but that didn’t stop Big Bend Brewing from launching in 2012 to great acclaim.
“It's a small population that hasn't historically been exposed to much craft beer. We've always strived to make great beer accessible, and one of the early feedbacks we got was that this is all fine and good, but I just want to drink a nice light cold beer,” says Mahala Guevara, Vice President of Operations at Big Bend.
The solution was their Tejas line inspired by beloved Mexican beers like Modelo Especial, but crafted without the adjuncts. Head Brewer Jan Matysiak sticks to traditional German lager brewing techniques (he studied at the University of Munich) that result in a fuller mouthfeel and less sweet taste, but still pair well with a plate of sloppy enchiladas. Even for their bigger beers like the La Frontera IPA or Number 22 Porter, the goal is to remain accessible.
“90 percent of people out there drink shitty beer,” says Jan Matysiak. “Everybody should work to convert these people and bring them home into the holy land, so we work to keep our beers approachable. You don’t have to be of a certain mindset or character or coolness to appreciate them.”
That non-pretentious style has endeared Big Bend to their surrounding community who regularly gather at a tasting room with a view of the Davis Mountains, but it’s also earned them serious love throughout the rest of the state. As a result, they’ve managed to reach their maximum brewing capacity while selling smaller batches of more experimental beers including their love letter to West Texas, the Spontaneity Wild Ale.
“We’re always saying we want to bring a little bit of West Texas to the rest of the state, this beer actually does that. It’s 100% fermented with bacteria and cultures native to our backyard,” says Jan Matysiak.
For beer snobs, taking in the aromas from a snifter of wild ale is an activity in itself, but most Texans aren’t interested in beers that require studious attention, something that Mahala always keeps in mind.
“The Tejas line is specifically beer for while you’re doing something else. Are you tubing the river? Camping? Going for a hike? We want to make beer that’s appropriate for all the things we love to do.”