It’s been a rotten year. Let’s get that out of the way. The coronavirus pandemic, combined with social, political, and economic unrest, has ruined 2020 for most of us. Businesses were shuttered, jobs were lost, and family and friends got sick. Yeah, it’s been bad. So let’s talk about beer.
Choosing the best Texas beers of the year is almost an impossible feat, not unlike choosing your favorite Bill Callahan song. There are too many great choices, and too many variables that could sway your opinion. I’ve spent most of this year working from home, quarantining with my family in Brownsville, and riding my bike around the perimeter of Texas. All that meant I had plenty of time to drink lots of beer, but the experience was far from my usual routine of visiting breweries around town and throughout the state. When at home in Austin I stuck close to the house, which meant I bought beer from either H-E-B or WhichCraft, a neighborhood beer store I’m lucky to have nearby. If I visited breweries for to-go beers, they were usually within five miles of my house. And while I was on my bike trip for two months, I got to see a lot of Texas but not many of her breweries. Hotels or campgrounds were where I purchased the majority of my beers on that trip, so it wasn’t exactly prime picking. There were exceptions, of course: I was able to visit 903 Brewers, Nocona Beer & Brewery, Wichita Falls Brewing, and El Paso Brewing, all for the first time.
Last year, I consulted a panel of beer geeks from around the state to narrow down my list of best beers and help hide my Central Texas biases. This year, instead of listing individual beers, I’ve decided to break the list into categories that stood out, allowing me to highlight even more great Texas breweries. With vaccines finally being distributed, here’s hoping next year will bring more taproom visits and the return of beer festivals.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, starting in September 2019, breweries were finally able to sell beers to go. When bars, restaurants, and taprooms closed in the spring, curbside beer became a lifeline for many breweries around the state. This is especially true for smaller companies that lack a large distribution network. For a lot of breweries, such as Southern Heights Brewing in Austin, the only place to buy their beers packaged at the moment is directly from the brewery. This would not have been possible before September 2019. So get online and order your Christmas dinner beers to go from your favorite local brewery.
Three favorites: Southern Heights Tahitian Dreamin’ IPA, Community Beer Company Witbier, and Eureka Heights Mostly Harmless Pale Ale.
In hard times, it’s easier to get by with a little help from friends. This is no different in brewing. As helpful as to-go sales were, breweries and brewpubs had to give drinkers a reason to go online and order beers from their locations. One good way to do that is to keep things interesting with creative brews produced in partnership with other breweries. Hold Out Brewing in Austin did a number of collabs this year, including a couple with Yokefellow Beer and a cider/beer mash-up with Fairweather Cider. Collaboration beers are also a great vehicle for raising funds and awareness, with one great example being the All Together project launched by Other Half Brewing in New York. The project was started to benefit hospitality professional and has raised over $1 million since launching. Many Texas breweries participated and brewed a collaboration beer, including Houston’s Urban South Brewery, Tyler’s True Vine Brewing, and Driftwood’s Vista Brewing.
Three favorites: Pinthouse Pizza/ABGB Pizza Party Pils, Hold Out/Yokefellow Billowing Clouds Pale Ale, and Jester King/Jolly Pumpkin Space Waves.
This is kind of a depressing category, highlighting what has been lost this year. The pandemic has been rough on everyone, and breweries were not immune. Most have felt the economic pain that shutdowns and COVID protocols have brought. A few Texas breweries were not able to make it through and had to shut their doors for good, including North by Northwest (NXNW), the Brewer’s Table, Skull Mechanix, and Two Wheel Brewing. Good beer was not the problem. It’s terrible that we are no longer able to sip a Wahrsager pilsner from Skull Mechanix or enjoy a cool beer in the lager garden at the Brewer’s Table. There is a shred of light though. In late October, Austin Beerworks brewed a version of Zombie Dragon, a popular IPA from the late, great NXNW. Perhaps this is a new trend: resurrecting much-loved beers that had sadly gone.
We pay tribute to: Brewer’s Table Beets by Drew, Skull Mechanix Wahrsager German Style Pilsner, and NXNW Bavarian Hefeweizen.
With the downturn in the economy caused by COVID, pinching pennies has never been more important. Limiting alcohol consumption probably makes sense for your budget (as well as your health), but sometimes you just want a beer, not necessarily one of the craft variety. When I was riding around Texas this fall, the beer I went for was not always an IPA (if those were even available). After hours on the bike, a 24-ounce Lone Star or Coors Original was usually my go-to choice. They were cheap and plentiful, and I could find them pretty much anywhere I was in the state, provided I was not in a dry town. If you are snobby about drinking only craft beer, there are still deals to be found, such as the six-packs from Brazos Valley Brewing in Brenham.
Three favorites: Lone Star, Shiner Bock, and Brazos Valley Two Step German Style Pilsner.
In these troubling times, it’s nice to have something familiar and comforting to rely on, whether that’s an old Willie album or a cold can of Hans’ Pils from Real Ale Brewing Company. Breweries’ core, year-round lineups are usually their most solid beers, ones they build their brand upon. It’s nice to go into a store and feel confident that you’re getting a good beer. One-off or hype beers don’t provide that certainty. Sure, it’s always fun to discover a diamond in the rough, but core beers are time-tested. Core beers are not always the classics, though; sometimes breweries add new ones, with varying degrees of success. This year, Saint Arnold made its Juicy IPA a regular offering and it was hit, at least for me. I drank a ton of it in 2020.
Three to try: Saint Arnold Juicy IPA, Vista Dark Skies Black Pilsner, and (512) Pecan Porter.
Black Is Beautiful Beers
Following the nationwide protests against police violence after the killing of George Floyd, Marcus Baskerville of San Antonio’s Weathered Souls Brewing created the Black Is Beautiful campaign. The project challenged brewers to brew a “moderately high abv. (alcohol per volume) stout to showcase the different shades of black” and donate all profits to community groups that work for justice. More than a thousand breweries, including participants from every U.S. state and 22 countries, took part in the collaborative project. Most of these beers were limited-edition, but if you look hard enough you can still find some of these on Texas shelves. Künstler Brewing in San Antonio just released its version, a peanut butter coffee stout.
Three to try (if you can find them): Weathered Souls (classic imperial stout, still available in San Antonio), Austin Beerworks (imperial stout with hazelnut, cocoa nibs, and vanilla), Family Business Beer Company (imperial stout with toasted coconut and Sabro and Galaxy hops).