Blake Woodson hated his job as a wire-and-cable salesman in Dallas so much that he sought a barbecue apprenticeship seven hours away instead. Woodson learned the ropes from the team at Brick Vault Brewery & BBQ in Marathon over a few two-week stints working with the pit crew. While making those road trips back and forth, Woodson always passed through the halfway point of San Angelo, but the West Texas city of 100,000 didn’t register as more than a pit stop. That is, until he learned that a brewery in town was looking for a pitmaster.
Luke Horton wanted to create a lasting mark on his hometown of San Angelo. The entrepreneur had moved to Austin to develop the TX Fly Co. apparel brand, but San Angelo always had a pull on him. Three years ago, he began designing a space for Plateau Brewing Co. with partners and fellow San Angelo natives Michael Choate, Ross Baxter, and Dan Adney, the head brewer. A building in downtown San Angelo had been in Choate’s family since 1943. It housed Coney Island Deli and another sandwich shop before it became an event space. “We all remember it as the place in high school we snuck away and drunk beer at because Mike had the keys,” Horton said.
When they were growing up, San Angelo’s downtown was largely empty and neglected. Horton and his partners saw Plateau Brewing as a way to bring some life into the area, and they began renovating the building in 2020 as the city was investing in revitalization projects. When the business opened its doors in September 2021, the new streets, sidewalks, lighting, and trees were in place, and Plateau Brewing was at the forefront of downtown development. Over the past eleven months, the partners have only seen more retail and restaurant businesses open around them.
Horton knew he wanted to offer barbecue at the brewery on day one. He had heard about Woodson from his friends at Brick Vault, and they connected. Woodson moved to San Angelo in May 2021, almost immediately after being offered the job. He fell in love with the city and its surrounding rivers and lakes. “You’re four hours from everything,” he said. During Woodson’s short time there, he too has witnessed a transformation downtown. “From then until now, it has completely changed,” he said.
Woodson runs Southern Smoke (no relation to Houston’s Southern Smoke Foundation) as an independent business out of the brewery’s tiny kitchen from Thursday to Sunday. He has two five-hundred-gallon pits, a Cannon smoker, and a Bison smoker mounted on trailers behind the brewery. The business has built up enough popularity that Woodson now smokes about forty briskets every week. That means plenty of brisket trim for the house-made sausage and cheeseburgers.
I had two meals several months apart from Southern Smoke. The double-patty brisket smashburger on my second visit was a favorite, though at nearly half a pound per patty, a single would have sufficed. Everything on that second visit was an improvement. The mac and cheese went from soupy to creamy, the pork ribs had discernible bark, the brisket slices weren’t nearly as dry, and the sausage was juicier, though the casings could still use some work. I preferred the jalapeño version to the regular.
Eating barbecue without beer in a craft brewery seemed like a lost opportunity, so I asked Woodson for a pairing suggestion. “With it being 105 degrees the last sixty days, I’d go with the kölsch or the blond, the two lightest beers,” Woodson said. Horton echoed that, saying the Jackalope Kölsch and Coyote Blonde are indeed Plateau’s most popular beers. The brewery has had to throttle back its distribution of the blond just to make sure it has enough at the taproom. Both options are well-made and refreshing versions of uncomplicated beers, but I’d also suggest the heartier Antler Amber Ale. Horton said the High Cotton IPA has been popular as an introductory beer for the local hop skeptics.
Plateau’s beers can be found on draft at nearly a dozen local establishments and as far away as Kerrville and Llano. The owners have plans to expand their reach in the near future with a new fermenter, which will increase their 1,700-gallon brewing capacity, and in the long term with a separate brewing facility away from the taproom. Woodson said he also plans to expand his barbecue operation. “We’re actively looking for our own location so we can get a bigger kitchen,” he said. He noted Southern Smoke could move out of the brewery as soon as the beginning of next year. Before then, the businesses are planning a big bash called Plateauberfest next month to celebrate their one-year anniversary.
For as large as the city is, San Angelo could use some barbecue growth, and that’s what has made Southern Smoke and Plateau Brewing such a good fit here. Horton pointed out the saturated market of craft breweries and barbecue joints in Austin. For him, San Angelo is still a well-kept secret. “There’s this huge gap of West Texas that people overlook between Austin and Marfa,” he said. That’s also part of the city’s charm, assisted by the fact that it’s the largest city in Texas without an interstate highway running through it. It also lacks the oil, gas, and tumbleweeds of its regional neighbors. Horton described it as “this little gem in West Texas,” which now has a little more sparkle thanks to its newest brewery and barbecue joint.
Update 8/26/22: This story has been updated to clarify Blake Woodson’s role at Brick Vault Brewery & BBQ.