Q: Texanist, are you on board with the craft beer craze that the Lone Star State (see what I did there?) is currently caught up in?
Gib Travis, Abilene
A: To answer your question right off the bat: Yes, the Texanist, a fairly frequent imbiber of beer, is down with the ongoing boom in craft brewing. For poppers of tops, crushers of cans, and raisers of pints such as himself, the opportunities for hoisting a few have never been better. And, by the way, the Texanist did see what you did there with Lone Star, Gib. Good one!
Beer making in Texas goes all the way back to the days of the Republic, but the Western Brewery, opened in 1855 by German immigrant William A. Menger on San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza, is credited as the state’s first commercial brewery. Four years later, Menger adjoined an inn to his beer operation, and today the famous Menger Hotel is the oldest continuously operated hotel west of the Mississippi River. Though Western’s beer ceased flowing long ago (1878), the cellar where its brew was kept cool, with the aid of three-foot-thick limestone walls, still stands.
While Western was the first brewery in Texas, it wasn’t the state’s sole supplier of suds for very long. Indeed, the 1860 census listed a total of eleven breweries across the state—all, save for the ones in El Paso and Nacogdoches, situated in areas with sizable populations of beer-guzzling German-Texans. By 1870, Texas boasted 27 breweries. Houston had three; Brenham, Dallas, and La Grange had two apiece; and Austin, Bastrop, Bellville, Castroville, Fredericksburg, Hallettsville, High Hill, Industry, Jefferson, Marlin, New Braunfels, Paris, San Antonio, Sherman, Victoria, Waco, and a couple of others were supplied by a single beer source. By 1876, the number had once again more than doubled: thirsty Texans supported 58 breweries.
Alas, this first golden age of craft brewing didn’t last. The industry began a rapid decline, and by 1889 there were a measly eight breweries across the state. Texas brewmakers were a victim of consolidation as well as the arrival of the big boys of the national scene, who benefited from superior brewing techniques, competitive pricing, fancy packaging, and slick advertising campaigns. The interlopers’ attack was multipronged, as national firms like Anheuser-Busch and Miller began distributing their own brands here while at the same time partnering with locals to create beers specifically geared toward a Texas drinkership. In 1883, Midwestern beer baron Adolphus Busch joined with a group of San Antonio businessmen to found the first Lone Star Brewery, a modern plant with the most current equipment, an onsite bottling works, and distribution throughout most of Texas, into Mexico, and all the way to the West Coast.
In 1886, another group of San Antonio businessman started brewing Pearl Beer in the “land of eleven-hundred springs.” (Interesting side note: When Pearl Brewery manager Otto Koehler died in 1914, his wife, Emma, took over the operation, and it is she who is the namesake of the fancy Hotel Emma, which sits at the heart of the reborn and reimagined Pearl Brewery complex.) As Pearl and that first iteration of Lone Star flourished into the twentieth century—by 1916 Pearl was the biggest brew in the Lone Star State—there were only a few local mom-and-pop operations left to keep them company. One such purveyor, Spoetzl Brewery, in tiny Shiner, opened its spigots in 1909 and gave Texas Shiner Beer, a.k.a. the beer that put the fun in the Texanist’s college career. Additionally, there was the Texas Brewing Company in Fort Worth, the Dallas Brewing Company in Dallas, the Alamo Brewing Association in San Antonio, and a smattering of small operations, such as those in Belleville, Fredericksburg, Meyersville, and Yorktown.
Very few of these small breweries survived the dark and dull days of Prohibition, which dragged on from 1920 until 1933. And neither did the first iteration of Lone Star. When the drought was finally lifted, national chains Anheuser-Busch and Miller stepped in and helped to fill the void. And then the second Lone Star brewery, the one that produced the iconic “National Beer of Texas” familiar to so many Texans, tapped its first kegs in San Antonio in 1940. (Little-known fact: Lone Star’s “National Beer of Texas” designation is not an official title bestowed by the State of Texas; in fact, Texas is currently without an official brew.)
Lone Star and Pearl have both changed hands a number of times since their glory days, and both are now owned by the Pabst Brewing Company, which is headquartered in—gasp—Los Angeles. Somewhat ironically, the former rivals are now brewed, by way of a contract agreement, under the same roof at the MillerCoors facility in Fort Worth.
For better or worse, the big boys still dominate the beer game in Texas today. The most popular beer in Texas, by a long shot, is Bud Light, followed by Michelob, Miller, and Dos Equis. But ever since a crucial 1993 change in state law allowed for the existence of brewpubs, the craft brewing industry has flourished in Texas. And now it’s like the 1870s all over again, with new breweries popping up like so many fire ant mounds. Pooh-poohers of the craft trend tend to think of it as nothing more than a fancy-pants foodie phenom for swanky folk. The Texanist sees it for what it is: a tasty return to bygone tradition of locally made beer. Today, more than a million barrels of Texas craft beer are produced by some two hundred and fifty craft breweries each year. Still, Texas is only ranked 46th nationally in the number of breweries per capita.
The Texanist, speaking personally, would like to see Texas rank much higher on this list. And not just for selfish reasons; the more Texas beers, the better for all beer-drinking Texans. Still, Texas is awash in this new golden age of brewing, and the options for bubbly imbibables are bottomless. Have you ever had a Hans’ Pils, the German-style pilsner from Blanco’s Real Ale Brewing Company? Or a Mosaic IPA from Dallas’s Community Beer Company? Or the exotic Atrial Rubicite from Austin’s Jester King Brewery? Or any of the hundreds of other delicious offerings from Texas’s brewers? Indeed, whatever your preferred style, it’s a glorious time to be a beer drinker in Texas. So, to reiterate, yes, the Texanist, a hollow-legged man with an unquenchable thirst for whistle-wetting, soul-refreshing, well-made beer, is all the way onboard with the resurgence of a homegrown brewing scene in Texas. Like any true lover of Texas brew, why wouldn’t he be?
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.