I recently found myself looking for a pleasant way to waste time before my bus left Houston for home in Dallas. That usually means a couple of drinks at a local craft brewery. This time around, a friend had recommended Urban South Brewery in Houston’s First Ward neighborhood. I asked another friend to join me for some beer and ended up finding my new favorite brewery in the Bayou City.
Located in the trendy Sawyer Yards development, the Urban South HTX taproom is bright and spacious. A colorful interior mural is punctuated with leafy plants, couches, tables, and cocktail-height setups. This brewery is an industrial-chic satellite outpost of the New Orleans operation of the same name. The original brewery opened in the Crescent City in 2016 and found success with its hazy India pale ales. In February 2020, Urban South expanded to Houston, where its taproom team, led by general manager and head brewer Dave Ohmer, focuses on experimental beers. Think juicy, swirling brews of high-octane IPAs and fruited sours that taste as though they’ve been beamed through psychedelic prisms.
Indeed, the crew at Urban South follows through on its claim to sudsy R&D. Try the Triple Spilled fruited sour, a purple-hued beer packed with blooming notes of grapes, blueberries, and lemons and accented with bobbing marshmallow slivers. The first sip will brighten your palate and pucker your lips. Another standout is the Chromatic Triple IPA, made with a rotating trio of hops. It’s opaque in its golden pour, and remarkably smooth for a beer with an ABV that clocks in at 10.4 percent. Its cans bear the design of a rainbow-colored Möbius strip, a sign of things to come. There’s also a piña colada milkshake IPA, which nails the namesake Puerto Rican cocktail’s tropical flavors, and a strawberry daiquiri–like delight dubbed Double Spilled. But where Urban South truly excels is with the joyous line of Combo Plate beers.
The Houston taproom usually has at least one Combo Plate available daily. A quartet was on tap when I visited on a Sunday. The ones available were the Combo Plate No. 1, Combo Plate No. 6: the Cali Combo, Combo Plate No. 9, and Combo Plate No. 11. I ordered all four as a flight and jokingly called the order a “combo platter.” I thought it was ridiculous and cheesy, but was surprised to learn that flights of the Combo Plates aren’t actually called platters. They should be.
These beers aren’t Tex-Mex-inspired per se, in terms of their flavors or ingredients. Rather, the brewers took inspiration from the concept of the classic Tex-Mex combo plate. Every mom-and-pop Tex-Mex joint in Houston has them on the menu, and you know the type: a No. 2 might have a chile relleno, two cheese enchiladas, and a flauta. Similarly, each Combo Plate beer offers a sampler that blends different varieties of hops, the ingredient that imbues beer with bitter, resiny, and, sometimes, citrusy flavors and aromas. They are essential to IPAs.
“What we want to do with this line of beers is explore different hop combinations while keeping everything else that goes into the beer the same,” explains R&D brewer Justin Slanina. Each beer is numbered according to a list of hops, which Slanina, Ohmer, and company note and adhere to as closely as possible each time that particular drink is produced. Numbering is a common practice with any IPA series. “We just figured it was a fun way to do it, just like combo plates at Tex-Mex restaurants,” Slanina says. But the beers are never in numerical order. “You don’t order combo plates consecutively,” Slanina says, so why release and name these beers in numerical succession? There are commonalities across the series, though. The IPAs are potent double IPAs or triple IPAs, with high alcohol contents. A flight might leave a customer buzzed.
Certainly, the love of homegrown Mexican food is present in every sip. Reverence for the taco is palatable from beer samples to take-home four packs. Tacos are brilliant, filling, and punchy. They’re also life in Houston, as far as Slanina is concerned. The Bayou City native says that to grow up in Houston is to grow up eating tacos. They are a deeply entrenched component of the city’s culture and identity. “We eat tacos eight out of seven days of the week,” he says. Taco trucks crowd sections of the city, especially the North Side. Why not wrap beer in tacos and Mexican food? To take this harmonious match a step further, I asked the brewers to recommend a Tex-Mex dish to pair with each Combo Plate beer. Here’s the thing, though: in Texas, Urban South beer is predominantly available only in the Houston area. Occasionally, a case will turn up at stores outside of the Bayou City, such as at Craft Beer Cellar in Dallas. To be sure you get your fill, purchase a four-pack from the coolers adjacent to the taproom bar to take home to match with your favorite taco. Now, on to the pairings!
The Beer: Combo Plate No. 6
The Dish: Carne Asada Taco
Citrus levels, layering of flavors, and freshness are essential to Mexican food and to a good IPA. Combo Plate No. 6 is the Cali Combo, whose label shows the open end of a California burrito: carne asada, fries, and all. But Ohmer doesn’t recommend pairing the beer with a crowded burrito. Rather, he suggests a simple, bright, earthy taco that complements the beer’s flavors: carne asada with doubled-up tortillas. The nickname for a taco with two tortillas is a taco con copia. Ohmer is that specific. May I suggest trying one from the North Side taco truck El Taconazo, or the rib eye from Tres?
The Beer: Combo Plate No. 9
The Dish: Carnitas Taco With Salsa Verde
This beer crams in a mighty array of Mosaic, Citra, Motueka, and Galaxy hops. It’s a juicy, citrus-tinged drink with a refreshing finish. Ohmer recommends sipping it alongside a classic pork dish: “It’s gotta be a carnitas taco with green sauce.” That makes perfect sense to me, as a tart, tomatillo-based salsa verde offers bite, sweetness, and texture to balance out this bold beer. I’m specifically thinking of a plate of the crispy-edged, sweet-and-salty pork treasures at Diego’s Famous Carnitas.
The Beer: Combo Plate No. 11
The Dish: Tacos al Pastor
As for Combo Plate No. 11, “that’s an easy one, tacos al pastor,” Ohmer says, which just happens to be the meal pictured on the can. It’s gorgeous and traditional, and as far as I’m concerned pairs perfectly with your favorite taco al pastor. Slanina admits that when customers see the label, they occasionally ask if there really is Mexican food in the beer. I did, and the brewer was quick to address my curiosity. He responded: “No rice and beans were harmed in the making of this beer.”