Best known for its River Walk and The Alamo, San Antonio hasn’t exactly been at the top of most people’s travel bucket lists. If you live out of state, chances are the only reason you visited was because a convention brought you there.
But all of that is changing. The 300-year-old city (yes, it’s the same age as New Orleans) is evolving into a vibrant cultural destination celebrated for its culinary boldness, not just its historic missions. At the heart of this renaissance is Pearl Brewhouse, or what used to be.
Built in 1894, Pearl’s Brewhouse was the largest brewery in Texas by 1916. When Prohibition came along, it was the only operation in San Antonio that didn’t shutter. This was all thanks to a force named Emma Koehler, who took over brewery operations after the President of the San Antonio Brewing Association, her husband Otto, was shot and killed. The murder happened when an argument escalated out of a love triangle he was having—you can’t make this stuff up—with two other women named Emma.
At a time when few women held high-ranking positions, she kept the brewhouse in business during dry times by selling near beer, ice cream, and soft drinks, even using her own money to pay her employees. A famous photo from September 15, 1933, shot a minute after midnight, shows 100 trucks and railroad boxcars loaded with Pearl beer at the moment Prohibition was officially lifted.
Pearl changed hands a few times over the years, its last owner being Pabst Brewing Company. In 2001, brewery operations finally ceased when Pabst moved it to Fort Worth, leaving the future of this city landmark uncertain. “Most developers looked at this site as a terrible investment,” says Elizabeth Fauerso, CMO for Pearl, the 22-acre site’s second act. “The Pearl Brewery for so long was this central, cultural pillar in San Antonio. As everything declined and the brewery emptied out, it was just this abandoned site and for some people it really felt like this major loss for the city. That part of the city, the midtown, had been gutted out. Once a central bus district with density and store fronts, by the 90s it was really empty.”
Ignoring admonitions to steer clear, Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury, CEO of Silver Ventures private equity firm, saw potential, purchased the land, and devised a lofty plan to revitalize the area. Inspired by many visits to Mexico, Goldsbury envisioned a vibrant central plaza energized by food that would serve as a gathering place for San Antonians and visitors alike. Paying homage to its past, the new district was named Pearl. “From the beginning there was a core vision of bringing this place back to life so that it’s meaningful again for San Antonio,” says Fauerso.
Over the course of 13 years, Pearl has slowly transformed into a bustling hub that hosts a full lineup of community events and celebrations—from al fresco yoga to an annual Día De Los Muertos festival—and offers more free programming than anywhere else in the city. There are independently-owned boutique shops, like Dos Carolinas, which sells handmade guayaberas, a traditional shirt of the Yucatán and Cuba that’s designed for hot weather. At the center of activity on Saturdays and Sundays is the Farmers Market. The year-round market features truly local produce from family-owned farms within a 150-mile radius. Beyond the usual fruits and veggies, shoppers can pick up beignets, grass-fed meats, hot sauce, and goat milk soap.
The backdrop of the market is one of nostalgia for San Antonians: the old Pearl Brewhouse. While most would have torn the brick building down, Silver Ventures took on the lengthy and painstaking process of redeveloping it into a 146-room luxury hotel, one of the first in the city. Hotel Emma opened on November 12, 2015, the anniversary of the day that its namesake Emma took over as President.
Hotel Emma has been integral in modernizing San Antonio and turning it into a travel destination. One of only three 5-Diamond hotels in all of Texas, it’s the top hotel in the state on TripAdvisor and came in at No. 4 in the country in 2018. “It’s really changed the perception of San Antonio. We were never known as a luxury or top-tier city. Many years ago there was a Four Seasons, but it closed quickly because it couldn’t sustain the rates; it just wasn’t getting that crowd,” says Bill Petrella, president and general manager of Hotel Emma and former chairman of San Antonio’s Hotel Association. “We are now attracting that crowd. It’s really changing the perception nationally and internationally of San Antonio. Developers are looking at our city in a different way and you’re starting to see a luxury movement in this city.”
In the process of designing the industrial-chic hotel, many brewery elements were preserved and repurposed. One can’t miss the trio of spent grain hoppers that tower outside. Guests enter through the original loading dock gates and the lobby, set in the Engine Room, features original machinery, piping, and other pieces of equipment. At Sternewirth Tavern, Emma’s bar, a pair of Pearl tanks have been converted into banquette seating.
If visitors get a whiff of hops, it’s not the ghost of Pearl’s brewery past, for Pearl is actually still brewing. Within the very same walls, Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery crafts inventive beers with produce that’s often sourced right from the farmers of Pearl’s market. The Uncommon Texas Ale is brewed with mint; In the Arms of Morpheus chocolate stout was made with 250 pounds of blackberries; THOT—not what you think; it stands for That Heirloom Over There—is a tomato gose; and Koalas, Cocker Spaniels & Unicorns contains 300 pounds of cucumbers. SABA Copper Alt, a German Altbier named for the San Antonio Brewing Association, is inspired by Pearl’s original 1894 recipe and poured exclusively at Sternewirth.
But while Hotel Emma may be the crown jewel of Pearl, its 19 restaurants, plus two bars, coffee shop, and ice cream shop, are its heartbeat. There’s an eclectic and diverse representation of cuisine and dietary practices (often creatively infused together) from Peruvian-Asian to kosher-vegetarian. One of Pearl’s most successful concepts is Cured. Set in the brewery’s executive offices of Pearl's President—checks are cleverly presented in original time cards—the crux of the menu is an impressive selection of organic, locally farmed and cured meats, displayed in a giant meat locker that greets patrons at the door. But its name has a double meaning, for chef/owner Steve McHugh is a cancer survivor. McHugh was nominated for the James Beard Award "Best Chef: Southwest" for the last three years.
You won’t find a single chain at Pearl and the district has built a reputation as an incubator for fresh concepts like Cured, especially in the Bottling Department. Housed in a replica building of the brewery’s original bottling department that burned down in a fire, this food hall allows emerging chefs to experiment and take a risk by starting small. A melting pot of offerings that includes ramen and doughnuts, many Bottling Department vendors have gone on to open their own brick-and-mortar. “Pearl is a very inspirational space where the chefs have been allowed to pick and choose what they want to do,” says McHugh. “I never got pushed in one direction or the other, which is why you see so many diverse concepts there. Chefs are really allowed to show their personalities and be the chefs they want to be.”
Fueling Pearl’s foodie fire is the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio, which planted its flag at Pearl in 2008. With two other locations in California and New York, San Antonio was a surprising choice. “At first they were kind of skeptical. San Antonio was really not on their radar,” admits Fauerso, but the CIA was sold on an opportunity to fully represent the diversity of the industry, focusing on the large proportion of Mexican and Latin American immigrants working within it. “Sixty to 70 percent of workers in kitchens nationwide are either Latin American or Mexican immigrants. We want to shift the dynamic from that population working minimum wage in the food industry to creating a career path in the food industry. The goal is to invert that situation, have head chefs that represent the true composition of the population, and start to change that through education.”
The proof is in the Pearl that San Antonio has evolved far beyond Tex-Mex. In 2017, the city got the recognition it had been seeking when UNESCO named San Antonio a Creative City of Gastronomy, an honor that is currently held by 26 cities around the world San Antonio joins Tucson as the only U.S. cities on the list. The designation is a nod to a city’s cultural heritage as it relates to food, which for San Antonio is a multicultural assemblage of Spanish, Mexican, German, and more, which dates back 13,000 years to indigenous people. “Historically, San Antonio does have more of a food identity than people are used to acknowledging and thinking about,” says Fauerso. “We’re not inventing San Antonio as a food city—we’re acknowledging it and creating a cradle for the next chapters to immerge.”
“When you put it all together, Pearl is an experience and it’s a destination to itself,” says Petrella. “The energy goes day and night. It’s really the full package, but it all started with a brewery in 1894.”