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Beer and Barbecue in the Big Bend

A Valentine’s Day match made in heaven.

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Jennifer Boomer

By the time you read this, there will be less than five days until Valentine’s Day. If you haven’t already made plans, you might be out of luck. You’re cutting it really close if you’re thinking of ordering something online and having it shipped. (Because who goes to actual stores anymore?) What about restaurant reservations? Sure, if you don’t mind a 4:30 or a 10:30 time slot. By now, poor planner, you may have no other choice than to go big. By now, it might be time to click on this link and buy tickets to the fifth annual “Valentine’s in Valentine” event, hosted by Big Bend Brewing Co.

You’re probably thinking, Hmmm, I dunno. Valentine’s falls on a Tuesday this year, and I live all the way over in Dallas, or Fort Worth, or Houston, or Austin . . . It’s a haul to Valentine, a West Texas town of about 120 ranchers, school personnel, and lifers, located 33 miles northwest of Marfa, near Prada Marfa. But it’s that sort of impulsive, far-flung thinking that sparks romance. Plus, isn’t the potential memory of the experience—carousing with welcoming inhabitants in the surrounding five-county area at the enchanting, long-forgotten Valentine Mercantile building, while eating barbecue, sipping on beer made in Texas, and soaking in the sounds of Tejano legend Little Joe y La Familia—worth more than a bottle of cologne or a pair of earrings?

“It’s almost a ghost town,” says Mahala Guevara, the vice president of operations at Big Bend Brewing Co. “It’s just like all of West Texas, where you kind of feel like every time is kind of simultaneously existing because things are in stasis for so long. Like a ruin can fall into disrepair and just stay that way for a hundred years. So it’s this super-rich historical environment, and then there’s this beautiful party in the middle of nowhere. The sky is pitch-black. There’s not even any running water on the property. It’s like you’re totally transported outside of normal life.”

Matt Kruger, the owner of Big Bend Brewing, lives in Chicago, but he and his wife have a second house in Marfa. The brewery opened in 2012, in Alpine, and in the beginning Kruger was flying into El Paso and making the almost four-hour drive southeast just about every other week. According to Guevara, Kruger began exploring the back roads of the small towns in between and happened upon the Valentine Mercantile, established in 1907 as a supplier of goods to workers on the nearby railroad. He got a wild hair and bought the place around the end of that year, mostly for the purpose of hosting a Valentine’s Day party the following February.

With the blessing of Jesus “Chuy” Calderon, the longtime mayor of Valentine, the first party was held in 2013. There was little more than a month to prepare and promote the event. That year, Valentine’s fell on a Thursday. Around one hundred “neighbors” were expected. That estimate was a bit off; five hundred people showed up. The barbecue was gone by dinnertime, but the beer flowed through the night as local headliner the Doodlin’ Hogwallops whipped up a dancing frenzy. The following year, Valentine’s Day took place on a Friday and more than a thousand folks attended. “It doesn’t sound as impressive as it is,” Guevara says, “although it sounds pretty impressive.” Now it’s not only locals, or even Texans from elsewhere in the state, but also travelers from as far away as Los Angeles and New York.

Jennifer Boomer

That’s all fine and well—a cool party, no doubt. But again, to make the trek out to West Texas during the week requires a little something extra. That’s where the post office comes into play. While the music, food, and beer-drinking occurs on the grounds of the Valentine Mercantile, inside the historic building is where the magic happens. It’s there that people can write postcards to loved ones and have them stamped with a one-of-a-kind Valentine’s Day cancellation stamp. Each year students at Valentine High School submit designs, and this year’s winner was Elvis Tarango, a senior whose body-building endeavors have earned him the nickname “Iron Elk.” Despite a closing time of 2:30 p.m., the Valentine post office bends the rules a bit and postmarks the cards to reflect a mailing date of February 14.

Special reason number two for the trek west is the beer. Jan Matysiak, a German national with quite the pedigree, helms the liquid offerings at Big Bend Brewing. He graduated from the University of Munich at Weihenstephan, home to arguably the world’s best brewing program. Later, Matysiak worked at Live Oak, in Austin, alongside Steve Anderson, Big Bend’s original brewmaster. At roughly the same time, Anderson left Live Oak to work at Big Bend Brewing and Matysiak went to Sixpoint, in Brooklyn. In 2015, Anderson, who had cancer, passed away, and Matysiak took over at Big Bend.

Jennifer Boomer

In addition to serving all seven of their regular beers, Big Bend Brewing will offer—for one night only—22-ounce bombers of Total Commitment: Rubicon-Crossing Strong Ale, a 14.2 percent alcohol-by-volume exclusive release limited to 432 bottles. This is the fourth in a series of “Valentine’s in Valentine” beers, including Corazon, a prickly pear lager from 2014, featuring a label designed by local legend Boyd Elder, which borrowed from the cover art he designed for the Eagles album One of These Nights.

“We’ve never made such a high-gravity beer before,” Guevara says, “but we wanted to do something really special for this year. This is the year where we’re doubling down. We’re building a second facility in San Antonio, and the entire business strategy is about total commitment to our craft and our brand and our market. So it seems fitting to us to make a really intense beer that signified our Rubicon-crossing, like we’ve reach a point where we’re all in. There’s no return.”

By the end of 2017, Big Bend Brewing expects to open a 54,000-square-foot facility, with a ramped-up taproom located on the East Side of San Antonio, in the vicinity of the AT&T Center. It will be roughly five times the size of the Alpine operation. Big Bend beers are currently available in all major markets in the state, albeit sparingly in some, with the outright exception of Houston, where it is nowhere to be found. In part that’s been because the brewery hasn’t had the production capacity. All of that is about to change with this strategically chosen new location.

“Austin, Houston, and Dallas have their city-state-nationalistic beer rivalries,” Guevara explains. “And San Antonio is really outside of that posturing. And it’s also just a really, really great Texas city that has a huge population, a great infrastructure, a rising craft beer scene, and a lot of people who are hungry for beer culture—and a plethora of skilled tradespeople right on the transportation corridor of both Interstate 35 and Interstate 10. It’s kind of the perfect place in every way.”
Valentine Mercantile, February 14, 4 p.m., bigbendbrewing.com

Other Events Across Texas

AUSTIN / HOUSTON
Fun Run With Benefits
If you know you’re heading into Valentine’s Day without a Valentine, consider participating in the Cupid Undie Runs in Austin and Houston, where runners dress down to their skivvies and get acquainted with their neighbor—or would-be date—during a one-mile fun run benefiting the Children’s Tumor Foundation and neurofibromatosis research.
Steampunk, February 11, 2 p.m., cupidsundierun.org/city/austin/ & the Dogwood, February 11, 2 p.m., cupidsundierun.org/city/houston/

AUSTIN
Shop Till You Drop
Once upon a time, an Austin music producer was guiding big acts like Carole King and Ani DiFranco to the promised land, but then along came the technology to make his role practically superfluous in the music-making equation, and now he’s on the brink of closing shop. That’s the premise of The Shopkeeper, a documentary about Mark Hallman, of Congress House Studio, making its hometown premiere on Sunday.
Alamo Drafthouse-South Lamar, February 12, 4 p.m., shopkeepermovie.com

DALLAS
The Gates Keeper
Robert Gates is that rare Washington figure who has widespread appeal, having served as secretary of defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and having influenced Donald Trump to choose Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. So when Gates speaks at the International Educator of the Year Luncheon on the topic “Learning to Lead in the New Washington,” the audience is bound to get an even-handed appraisal of the current state of affairs.
Hyatt Regency Dallas, February 14, 12 p.m., dfwworld.org

ROUND TOP
Stitching Together History
Quilts have practical uses, such as providing warmth, but they also serve a symbolic role of community-builder, as evidenced over the past century through the custom of quilting bees. At the exhibit “Comfort and Glory,” the history of these textiles will be on display in the form of thirteen pieces from the Briscoe Center’s acclaimed Winedale Quilt Collection, dating from the 1840s through 1987.
Winedale Historical Complex, February 13–25, cah.utexas.edu

SAN ANTONIO
Paint It Black
Learn about the African-American experience through those who have conveyed it through art at a Black History Month edition of San Antonio Museum of Art’s “Art to Lunch” program. Though this gallery tour is limited to thirty minutes and only two objects, there is a bounty of art from which to pick, with works from the likes of the photographer Gordon Parks, the quilter Faith Ringgold, and the painter Kehinde Wiley.
San Antonio Museum of Art, February 16, 12:30 p.m., samuseum.org

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