One year ago, we suddenly could not eat safely inside restaurants, drink at bars, go to movies, or catch concerts. As Texans’ social lives narrowed to awkward Zoom calls, we lost not just experiences but the communal spaces where they happened. Sports arenas closed. Many state parks became reservation-only. Even playgrounds were covered in caution tape.
Across Texas, one particular kind of public place took on all those roles, as bar, dog park, walking trail, lunch spot, movie house, and liberator from lockdown tedium. Across Texas, community-starved people turned to the patios of breweries.
That’s certainly been the case in my life. My office will soon reopen after 56 weeks of full-time stay-at-home work, and my vaccinated friends will soon host their first dinner party in a year. I’ve left the house to go to grocery stores, pick up takeout meals, vote—and drink near-weekly in beer gardens. The person outside my home whom I’ve talked with the most, a man I’ve seen two dozen times since I last saw my own parents, is Chris Cole, bartender and taproom manager at Dallas’s Pegasus City Brewery.
Last summer, when Texas officials gave them a belated green light, beer producers across Texas dramatically expanded their outdoor spaces. Buffalo Bayou Brewing Company in Houston pitched tents in its parking lot to shade the influx of thirsty customers, and Cowtown Brewing in Fort Worth added a picnic area around its resident barbecue trailer. A patio remodel at Garland’s Lakewood Brewing included the addition of two permanent food trailers, and Grapevine’s Hop & Sting Brewery persuaded an extraordinary barbecue pop-up to stay in its yard full-time. Dallas’s BrainDead Brewing experimented with drive-in movie screenings, and Pegasus City even held a voter registration drive.
Jester King, the award-winning beer ranch outside Austin, already offered its sour and fruited ales in a grove of trees, a pasture, and a historic barn. In the evening, an actual goatherd—complete with a crook—guides goats through the orchard and vineyard, where they chew on weeds and, to put it delicately, deposit fertilizer. But this January the brewery added a quiet 1.75-mile nature trail, its path marked by the hoofprints of shod horses. Guests can now make reservations for six-hour visits—a long time to spend at a brewery, but time that can be filled with hiking in addition to visits to the bar and on-site pizzeria.
Other businesses scrambled to create outdoor spaces from scratch. One of Texas’s newest beer gardens is that of my local, Oak Cliff Brewing Company in Dallas. At the start of the pandemic, Oak Cliff faced even longer odds than most breweries: It didn’t package a single drop of beer, kegging almost all of its product for bars. And bars were closing.
“Most of the liquor stores had bigger years than ever because most people had no option for a while there,” Oak Cliff Brewing owner Joel Denton says. “We missed out on that. When the bars and restaurants were shut down, and the taproom was shut down, that’s 100 percent of our revenue.”
Forced to innovate, the brewery staff sold crowlers curbside and looked for a suitable outdoor space nearby. Oak Cliff built its new beer garden as the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission waffled for weeks over how, and whether, patios could be opened. The brewery’s newly built outdoor space was ready to go when the TABC, fortunately, ruled that properly licensed breweries could serve food and drinks on patios. Its picnic tables are in a glade of trees running along a small creek. A tiny trailer provided by the landlord dispenses beer in plastic cups, and two food trailers serve tacos and vegan po’ boys. The widely spaced picnic tables have been popular since their autumn debut.
“It was absolutely essential for us from a monetary perspective,” Denton says. “But the reason I opened a brewery in Oak Cliff in the first place was to bring community together. We lost that last year. This brings us back to our roots. It gives us a responsible place to bring people together, and it keeps us afloat.”
ODD Muse Brewing Company, in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch, has a similar story. In the fall, the brewery received a grant from the city that allowed it to collaborate with an urbanism organization called Team Better Block. The result is a natural-feeling, shady picnic area on the side of the building.
This surge in hospitality has been indisputably good for the breweries themselves. But it also feels good for my soul as a patron. Going to a brewery isn’t just about beer anymore; taprooms are now impromptu community centers. Thanks to the pandemic, breweries are becoming the American version of pubs.
The public house, as it exists in the British Isles, lives up to its longer name, a multiuse space with an atmosphere that welcomes guests of all ages. English country pubs commonly have gardens, couches, and riotously overstuffed flower boxes in the windows. America’s themed copycats usually understand the interior decorating details but not the soul. They focus on dark wood and dartboards, not on hospitality. The point of a pub is not to have a fun night out. It’s to have a night in with people you know—just not at home.
That’s what brewery patios, gardens, ranches, and terraces feel like for me now. They’re a place to commune with others, but from a distance; to stay entertained for a few hours, without risking disease; to feel human warmth we couldn’t safely feel inside any room smaller than a taproom.
To double-check if this theory made sense, or if I had gone barmy, I called a person well qualified to know the answer: Chris Cole, Pegasus City’s bartender. Cole, a native Englishman, seemed destined from birth to run a pub, and presumably finds himself at a Texas brewery instead thanks to some sort of cosmic exchange program.
Luckily, he agrees that breweries are gaining publike qualities, to their benefit. “Have you seen Shaun of the Dead?” he asks. “There’s obviously a zombie apocalypse going on, but every plan they make involves going to the Winchester to have a pint and wait for all this to blow over. That familiarity of going to the pub, seeing all those familiar faces, that is helping people get through all of this. There are people who haven’t seen their families for a year, but they see me every week.”
I interrupt to tell him that I’m one of those people. “I have filled this surrogate role,” he says. “But it’s fun. Because where else are we going to go? My family is very spread out. My mum’s in Thailand, my dad’s in England, my little sister’s in Egypt. I haven’t seen them all in two years. It’s nice to have this little surrogate brewery family to socialize with.”
Cole says that many regulars, like me, feel relief just sitting somewhere other than their own living room: “It helps free you from the mental and physical prison [of quarantine].”
That turn of phrase explains everything: This is the way we’ve been freeing ourselves from the mental prison of lockdown routine. This is the way we’ve been holding on to a sense of community and remembering that an outside world still exists. We go down to a shaded, distanced beer garden, have a pint, and wait for all this to blow over.
Twelve Texas Breweries With Comfortable, Comforting Outdoor Spaces
2202 Dallas, Houston
The enormous backyard, with a permanent food truck and giant statues of the Beatles, is maybe the best beer garden inside any of Texas’s urban centers.
1305 W. Oltorf, Austin
South Austin’s ABGB puts the garden right in the name and serves porch-friendly pilsners and pale ales.
3001 Industrial Terrace, Austin
Feel turf under your feet and enjoy a colorful, sail-shaded patio that’s not too big, but not too small.
206 S. Jackson, Brenham
A playground and extensive patio space sit between the brewery and an old railroad track.
448 S. Main, Boerne
This spot is a historic house on a small-town Main Street, and there’s plenty of seating in front and in the backyard.
1301 E. Belknap, Fort Worth
German-style beer, Texas-style barbecue, and a big back patio: What more could a Fort Worth hangout need?
200 E. Broadway Ave., Fort Worth
The patio may be small, but it makes up for it with first-class people watching and proximity to elote pizzas.
13187 Fitzhugh Road, Austin
A pizzeria, 1.75-mile nature trail, and even a herd of goats all help wash down the sour beers at this now legendary ranch.
1615 Crozier Lane, Del Valle
Pack your disc golf gear and enjoy German-style brews, many of them smoked, under this brewery’s namesake trees.
5351 First, Katy
The owners of this welcoming spot fashioned picnic tables from pallets and even built a children’s playground.
1300 S Polk, Suite 222, Dallas
Relax in a brand-new beer garden overlooking a creek. The tiny trailer that serves your pint used to be a snow cone vendor.
10622 Hirsch Road, Houston
Enjoy Wiffle ball, kickball, miniature golf, soccer, and other sports at this expansive outdoor complex. Did we mention it’s a brewery?