The options for locally made beer in West Texas took a big hit when Big Bend Brewery ceased operations late in 2018. Luckily for beer lovers in the area, its former brewer, Brodie Pierce, now runs a craft brewery in Marathon—and serves barbecue along with it. Brick Vault Brewery & BBQ, which opened in April 2018, pours six of its own beers and provides a full barbecue menu from Thursday to Sunday.
The founders of Brick Vault had to go outside the region to find the right barbecue talent. Nick Reese, who took over as pitmaster in June, moved out to West Texas with his brother Elliott, who cuts meat at the barbecue counter. Nick arrived with plenty of barbecue experience from La Barbecue in Austin, but none of his time there was spent cooking. He cut the finished product. “I sort of learned backwards from seeing the way they’re supposed to look on the cutting block,” he says. Reese could recognize when the meat was properly cooked, so he had no trouble knowing when to take the meat off, but he had to learn the rest of the process on the fly.
From what I tried, he has both the direct heat pit and indirect smoker figured out. Both are fueled with oak brought in from almost 400 miles away in Stephenville. Briskets and pork shoulders get the slow smoke, while ribs, turkey breast, and sausage go in the direct heat cooker. They’ve been experimenting with using the business’s namesake, a literal brick vault built in 1886, as a smokehouse. It survived a 1927 fire which took down the bank and mercantile building that surrounded it. Now the vault anchors the end of the pit room, and might regularly get a fire built inside it.
The sausage recipe comes from Phillip Moellering. He’s the restaurant’s manager, and worked at the Gage Hotel down the street (which owns Brick Vault) before taking on this new project. Originally from the Hill Country, he adapted his family’s venison sausage recipe to work with beef trimmings. It’s got a hint of black pepper and more than a hint of garlic. It’s an excellent sausage with great snap, but if you’re looking for some heat try the jalapeño cheese version.
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Moellering has a big hand in the sides as well. They’re rooted in the classics, but I’ll take his fresh green beans any day over the canned variety usually found at barbecue joints. Green chile mac & cheese was homey and not too spicy. Borracho beans (appropriate for a brewery) and the mustardy, red skin potato salad were satisfying, and I loved the lightly dressed slaw with cilantro and horseradish. I mentioned to Reese and Moellering how well it would go with the pulled pork on a sandwich along with the crispy onion strings that come atop the green beans. They’ve now added the sandwich to the menu.
I enjoyed the peppery ribs, which were long and thin but still plenty juicy. Tender turkey breast was well smoked, but the brisket is the prize. Without specifying, I received a slice of lean and fatty brisket which must have been 1/3 pound of buttery tender beef. Along with the ribs and a side, the $14 two meat plate is the best deal on the menu. Brick Vault is also one of the few Texas barbecue joints getting 44 Farms briskets (about fifty per week), and Reese knows how to treat them.
Dessert was no afterthought. I was disappointed to see the banana pudding traded out for banana bread pudding—until I took a bite. Intensely rich and buttery, the warm bread pudding was topped with an ice cream so creamy it seemed more like custard. It went well with the peach cobbler as well. The cake topping on the peaches was pillowy inside with chewy edges.
After the meal, I sipped a classic cream ale at the bar. It would go well with any smoked meat, and folks next to me swore by the pecan porter. Brick Vault, which bills itself as a nano-brewery because its batches are too small to be considered a micro brewery, has the freedom to change things up with the seasons.
No matter how many folks stop in for the beer, the superb barbecue should be a big draw. Moellering says regulars come in from Alpine and Fort Davis and the Fort Stockton crowd makes the hour trip on the weekends. It should hold appeal for customers from farther afield as well—Brick Vault serves up barbecue and beer worth going out of your way for.
Brick Vault Brewery & Barbecue
102 NW 1st (Hwy 90W), Marathon, TX, 79842
Thur-F 4-10, Sat 12-10, Sun 12-5
Pitmaster: Nick Reese
Year opened: 2018