Cold Fort Worth beer just ain’t no good for jealous.
I’ve tried it night after night.
You’re in someone else’s arms in Dallas.
Does Fort Worth ever cross your mind?
“I don’t think any of us can ever have another Beaver Nugget again,” Panther Island Brewing co-owner Johnnye Michael says from behind the bar.
I’m in the Panther Island tap room—a vast warehouse sporting a labyrinth of exposed ceiling piping and a wall mural of the Texas flag—chatting with Michael, her brother and co-owner Ryan McWhorter, and Sandra Murphy, the first female head brewer in Dallas–Fort Worth (or, as McWhorter calls it, “Fort Worth–Dallas”). They’re reminiscing about all the bags of Beaver Nuggets they polished off while Murphy was concocting the recipe for Road Trip Snacks, the ale I’m drinking, brewed with the famed Buc-ee’s treat. The sweet caramel-corn flavor transports me from the tap room to the gas pumps at the Waco Buc-ee’s.
Complex and innovative, Murphy’s beers don’t rest on their laurels. Neither does she: “A lot of people want me to prove that I have the knowledge that fits the title,” she says about being head brewer and the only woman on the brew deck. “People want to know how I do it. I do it the same way Ryan does it when he brews! The process doesn’t change because I’m female.”
Panther Island is one of fifteen breweries on the small but mighty Fort Worth Ale Trail, the Fort Worth tourism organization’s self-guided tour that encompasses the majority of the city’s craft breweries, plus a few outside the city limits. The trail makes for a weekend to remember, if one can remember it. (I’m trying to pace myself.) Pre-pandemic, Ale Trail participants picked up passports at Fort Worth’s visitor center or along one of the trail stops, collecting one stamp per brewery upon purchasing a beer. They could exchange a full passport for a prize. For now, the trail is digital and the prize is the satisfaction of tasting a lot of high-quality brews. I recommend getting around by Uber (I did it—it’s easy), spreading the trail out over a week, or at least a weekend, and ordering a flight at each brewery to try as many beers as you can without, you know, waking up face-planted in the Stockyards.
In the past several years, “the Fort” has established itself as a competitive beer city statewide, uncoupling from what was previously known as the Dallas–Fort Worth scene. Fort Worth beers keep winning awards: Panther Island Brewing snagged a gold medal for its American amber, Allergeez, last year at the Great American Beer Festival; Wild Acre Brewing took home a gold from the 2018 World Beer Cup for its strong stout, Thunder Hug; HopFusion Ale Works’ delicious Coco Añejo coconut milk stout, sold in nearly two hundred Walmarts, won a silver medal in the 2019 Beer Army Beer Wars. Rahr & Sons won … what hasn’t Rahr & Sons won? And that’s just a small sample.
To brewery-hop in America’s twelfth-largest city is to immerse in a cutting-edge, hyper-local craft beer scene minus the airs that often accompany a cutting-edge, hyper-local craft beer scene. As Sean Kidwell, co-owner of Cowtown Brewing, puts it, “You can still find a place to park your truck downtown. You can still go to a nice restaurant in jeans and no one’s gonna give you a hard time.”
Because it specializes in beer and barbecue pairings, Cowtown Brewing is a nice stop for lunch when you’re working the trail, and I’m doing just that: drinking a smooth Berliner weisse and eating nachos. The classic Tex-Mex toppings (pico de gallo, pickled jalapeños, queso, sour cream, and queso fresco) lend them that addictive comfort-food quality.
“I really like the diversity of craft beer in Fort Worth,” Kidwell says. And he has a point: There’s something for everyone here. Into karaoke? Head over to HopFusion. Prefer cider? Check out Locust Cider. How about a fire-brewed beer made with Texas spring water? Shannon Brewing’s got you covered. Want to party? Hit Martin House: It throw ragers in its sprawling yard, interacts playfully and frequently with its 53,000 Instagram followers, and develops a new one-off beer every week—some are epic failures, and others, like the Best Maid Sour Pickle, are treasures that Martin House now counts among its staples. “Dallas exploded in the era of IPAs,” Kidwell says. “Everyone was making IPAs. You’d go to a craft beer bar and they’d have 40 beers on tap and 35 of them would be IPAs. They’re evolving a lot there, but they got in a rut for a while.”
Each of the Fort Worth breweries has a distinct personality—often a reflection of the brewers’ personalities. The understated (or, as Kidwell puts it, “beer-flavored”) Cowtown beers, for example, center clean, approachable lagers that could convert even the most Bud Light–loyal craft-phobe. Upon meeting Kidwell, a laid-back dude in a trucker hat, it’s tough to identify where he ends and his beers begin.
The first Fort Worth brewery, and in fact the first craft brewery in all of Dallas–Fort Worth, Rahr & Sons Brewing Company, opened in 2004, a whole decade before the second and third Fort Worth breweries (Martin House and Panther Island) set up shop. Rahr & Sons is the old guard—a family-run business that traces its roots back to 1800s Germany. Fritz Rahr runs the place with his kids, named a beer after his mom, and can’t walk through his own tap room without getting stopped for a dozen hugs from old friends—a sea of drinkers in Stetsons, a woman whose T-shirt features a cowboy on a horse and reads “Designated Driver.” One wall showcases floor-to-ceiling beer cans and another is plastered with beer awards. And it’s obvious why Rahr’s beers are prize-winners: they taste like an old-school work ethic, with not a single note off-balance, never one hop too many. I would know because I tried six of them.
Fritz Rahr isn’t the only guy on the scene who’s surrounded by pals. The craft folk of this big city meets small town are tight-knit: they hang out at monthly Texas Craft Brewers Guild events, share hops or grains if someone’s short, and describe the competition among them as “friendly.”
“I think it’s cool that we can put ourselves on the map,” Shugg Cole of Martin House tells me. “We are Fort Worth, you know? We are something that’s badass. Dallas is cool and all, but Fort Worth’s where it’s at.”
That sense of community is evident around town. Both HopFusion and Martin House brew their pickle beers with local artisanal pickle company Best Maid Pickles, Rahr & Sons throws pairing dinners with local chefs, and many downtown restaurants, including the newest upscale Italian spot, Il Modo, proudly pour Fort Worth beers (who knew that Wild Acre Texas Blonde paired so beautifully with homemade pasta?).
At Martin House, my last stop on the Ale Trail, Cole induces me to try a 22 percent alcohol-per-volume “super-special one-off” can called Daymare.
We each take a sip and I shiver.
“It don’t taste good,” Cole says, laughing gleefully. “It don’t taste good. You had the appropriate reaction. You made the appropriate face. That’s what’s fun!”
That is what’s fun.
So is it true that Fort Worth beer “ain’t no good for jealous”? While George Strait may have “tried it night after night,” he was thirty years early. He should come on down and try again.