On a cloudless, scorching day in August 2019, something was clearly going on at Fort Worth’s Martin House Brewing Company. As the clock clicked toward noon, and the temperature seared close to 100 degrees, I joined a line of more than two hundred people. The queue snaked from the brewery’s front door for at least a half-mile, west down Fourth Avenue and onto the bridge stretching over the West Fork of the Trinity River, toward downtown.
We were waiting for beer made with pickle juice.
Martin House’s Best Maid Sour Pickle beer, brewed with juice from fellow Cowtown brand Best Maid, proved to be the perfect, if highly unusual, prize for sunburned, sweaty locals. Bright, refreshing, and pickled to the highest degree, the salty brew went down easy and made the day’s release party all the more festive. More than one thousand people attended.
Released a few days prior to that sun-soaked shindig, six-packs of sour pickle beer cans had flown off grocery shelves across North Texas, even earning the brewery a few national headlines. But for many of those partaking in the puckering fun, inventive Martin House beer was something they had already come to count on.
When Martin House opened in 2013, its initial core beer lineup included the easy-drinking Day Break 4-Grain Breakfast Beer, a 5-percent-alcohol blond ale brewed with honey and milk sugar. It was meant to taste a little like a bowl of cereal. Over the next several years, founders Cody Martin, David Wedemeier, and Adam Myers garnered a small but loyal following by selling high-quality examples of traditional beer styles. Two favorites were the Imperial Texan, a full-flavored imperial red ale, and the rich, malty Bockslider Toadies Texas Bock, concocted in partnership with local rock legends the Toadies.
These beers, too, had drawn sizable crowds for release parties. But the Sour Pickle beer felt different, both for the hype it created and for its extreme flavor. Sam “Shugg” Cole, the brewery’s director of marketing, remembers the Great Pickle Beer Craze of 2019 as a savory turning point.
“The pickle beer was big for us,” says Cole, who helps to conceive the brewery’s slate of offerings. “It’s a really distinctive beer. It’s doesn’t have just a little pickle flavor; it really tastes like a pickle. … We thought it would be weird enough for people to buy once, but it blew up and grew a life of its own.”
The Martin House staff realized there might be a larger demand for unusual beers than they’d originally suspected. “We started to get even crazier,” Cole laughs.
By the final months of 2019, local taps were pouring the resulting concoctions. Two of the strangest were Azathoth, an imperial ale brewed with squid ink and menthol, and Bacon Burnt Ends, a stout featuring malts smoked in the smoker at Fort Worth’s popular Heim Barbecue and a healthy dash of Heim’s signature spice rub.
In March, when tasting rooms were ordered to shut down, Martin House did what many resourceful independent businesses did: it pivoted into a new normal. That meant getting even more creative with flavors.
The brewery still had product fermenting in the tanks, a canning line ready to roll, and a creative group of brewers with time to kill. Patrons have recently lined up—outside the brewery, six feet apart—to purchase four-packs of brews that taste like buffalo wings (Buffalo Wangz), Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (Fiery Crunchy Cheesie Bois), Dunkaroos cookies (Dunkabroos), strawberry ice cream in a waffle cone (Melted), and, naturally, a State Fair of Texas classic (Deep Fried Oreos Stout).
Had Martin House not acted quickly, Cole says the brewery could’ve lost up to 20 percent of its revenue during the pandemic, not to mention the lost earnings from bar and restaurant accounts that had been decimated. That it smoothly switched gears to present a new in-house experience “is the only reason we’re able to keep the taproom alive,” Cole says.
“We couldn’t fully open, but we could still sell beer to-go,” Cole says, “so we started canning the beers we would’ve only sold on draft before the pandemic to keep the super-special nature of those releases intact, even if the taproom couldn’t be open.”
Canning these tiny batches each week “takes more effort, and the margins are different,” Cole says. But judging by the lengthy lines waiting for the doors to open each Friday, as well as by the speed with which most of the limited-edition beers sell out, Martin House has figured out how to keep the good times pouring. Most of the taproom exclusive four-packs go quickly—good luck tracking one down even a week after its release. Cole expects Mama’s Pumpkin Pie, a sour pumpkin pie beer for Thanksgiving, to rapidly exit the brewery.
Oddball ingredients, eye-catching can art, and splashy release parties are all fun and well. But how do the beers packed with unexpected infusions actually taste?
“Regardless of what we put in it, we still have to make a good beer,” Cole says. And for the most part, the off-kilter ales, lagers, and stouts have been successful. The category has grown into a significant portion of the brewery’s business, with one out of every five Martin House beers sold now fitting into the “unusual” category.
Cole says that sweet and sour pie-themed beers such as Key Lime Pie, Lemon Icebox Pie, and Blackberry Cobbler have been big hits. Released in July 2019, the Drive-In Sour four-pack, with Sonic-inspired flavors like cherry limeade and orange cream, was crisp and refreshing far more than it was sticky or sweet. February’s Best Maid Spicy Pickle Beer, riding on the shoulders of its sour pickle sister from last year, was a hot, salty rush.
Kookie Monster, a 12-percent-alcohol imperial stout aged in whiskey barrels and brewed with Girl Scout Thin Mints cookies, came out in August. It was a well-balanced yet highly robust sipper that really had little business being as chuggable as it was. Things have gotten so silly that when the brewery announced the release of Nudie Magazine Day on its social media channels, it made a point to say the Oktoberfest-style beer is “a rare style for us … it’s a beer-flavored beer.”
Cole estimates that Martin House will release around 80 new brews in 2020 alone, with another 125 varieties slated to be produced and canned with their own art next year: “We don’t have any plans to slow down.”
Small businesses around the country have learned permanent lessons from the struggles they faced this year, and Martin House Brewing is no different. Cole laughs again when asked about wacky ideas for future beers. Is any idea or ingredient taboo?
“Back in the day, yes, there were ideas we wouldn’t go near,” Cole says. “But now, nothing is off-limits. Nothing at all.”