Rassul Zarinfar has fighting words for Lone Star, the so-called “national beer of Texas,” which—along with other beers in the Pabst portfolio—was sold to a Russian entrepreneur last year: “I’ve never had any respect for Lone Star whatsoever; it’s a marketing gimmick,” says Zarinfar, founder of Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co., whose beers—unlike Lone Star—are locally brewed and owned. “It’s offensive if you ask me, and it’s against everything I believe in.”
But what does a young microbrewery have up its sleeve that could possibly compete with the bargain-bin price and widespread appeal of an adjunct lager like Lone Star? Especially a brewery known for creating intentional eccentricities like Belgian fig beer or a Red Velvet Stout? More on that in a second.
This Saturday marks the three-year anniversary of Zarinfar’s weird little brewery that could, and did. I still recall distinctly the first two conversations I ever had with the Rice University graduate, who told me in conversation No. 1 in the summer of 2011 that he intended to make a cilantro beer—among other odd flavors—at his soon-to-launch brewery. I wrote an article about his upcoming experiment and titled it "This Dud’s for You."
Conversation No. 2 took place a short time later at BRC Gastropub, as Zarinfar waxed poetic about making beer “with the terroir of Houston.” Smog with a hint of Sunbeam Bakery bread? I wondered. I couldn’t have been more wrong, as Zarinfar’s young brewery and its brewmaster, Ryan Robertson, began turning out beer after beer that read as totally and completely Houston: a red ale brewed for Rice’s centennial, aged on wood culled from the live oaks that ring the university’s campus; a porter made with locally-roasted coffee from Amaya Roasting Company; a Scotch ale brewed with malts smoked in local barbecue pits at Goode Co. BBQ and Blood Brothers, named—appropriately enough—Smoke on the Bayou.
I wasn’t the only person who was wrong about Buffalo Bayou. "A lot of guys said Houston wasn’t ready for what we were bringing to the table," recalls Zarinfar, who didn’t open with the standard core line-up of a lager, a wheat beer, an IPA. Instead, Buffalo Bayou emerged onto the scene with Gingerbread Stout, Chai Porter, and a Summer’s Wit brewed with ginger, coriander, and hibiscus. “There were a bunch of posts on Beer Advocate saying that we were going to go out of business,” laughs Zarinfar.
Zarinfar and Robertson trusted in one thing throughout the process: the Bayou City itself. “Houstonians have always had refined, flavor-driven palates,” Zarinfar says. “We’ve always liked innovation.” Of those initial few months, he recalls: “It was definitely scary, but Houston was ready. There were a lot of doubters, but we always knew.”
Today, the brewery’s Gingerbread Stout remains one of its customers’ all-time favorite offerings and the Summer’s Wit has proved equally popular—enough for Buffalo Bayou to begin canning it along with other tried-and-true now-classics like 1836 Copper Ale and More Cowbell. And starting this weekend—just in time for the Super Bowl—Buffalo Bayou is adding another full-time beer to its line-up: Sam’s Daily, an American cream ale created after a simple question was posed to Zarinfar by friend and fellow business owner Brad Moore. Its tagline? "The National Beer of Texas (Not Owned by Russians)."
Recalls Zarinfar: “Brad came up to me and he was like, “What if we made a beer that could take Lone Star out? And replace it with something local but the same sort of price point?’” The two men decided on a cream ale: a centuries-old beer developed in America at a time when ice—and therefore lager—was expensive to procure. The solution? An ale that can be fermented at a higher temperature, thereby reducing the cost of manufacturing, but which mimics a lager in all the ways that matter.
Zarinfar describes his American cream ale as “a really straight, laid-back, easy-drinking, approachable, sessionable beer,” named—naturally—for Sam Houston and meant to be enjoyed as a daily-drinking beer, as opposed to the brewery’s more intense, higher ABV products. But most importantly, Sam’s Daily is meant to knock adjunct lagers like Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Lone Star off the shelves entirely. “How are we going to take the big guys down?” Zarinfar asks, before I have a chance. “The same way they did in the 1700s.” Namely, by undercutting the competition.
“We’re going to be the same price as Bud Light at all the Spec’s this weekend,” Zarinfar explains. Sam’s Daily will initially be sold in kegs at all Spec’s across Houston—just in time for that Super Bowl bash—for $99.74, the same cost as Miller, Bud, and Coors. Elsewhere around town, you’ll find Sam’s Daily on draft at select bars—specifically, those bars run by Brad Moore: Big Star Bar, Grand Prize Bar, Lei Low, Captain Foxheart’s Bad New Bar & Spirits Lodge, and The Honeymoon.
If you don’t plan on hosting your own Super Bowl shindig nor hitting any of Moore’s many bars this weekend, don’t fret: you can still try Sam’s Daily at Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co.’s third anniversary celebration at the brewery itself on Nolda St. The party runs from 6 to 9 p.m. this Saturday, January 31, though tickets are already sold out. In addition to the Sam’s Daily, Zarinfar promises a dizzying slew of brews that you simply won’t find anywhere else. “These are the parties where you get a beer and it hits on all cylinders but we’ll never be able to do it again,” he says, “because you can’t scale it up.”
That means Sam’s Daily aged on strawberries and vanilla beans; Gingerbread Stout aged on ancho chile; variations of Great White Buffalo—the brewery‘s base Wit—with blood orange and Japanese honeysuckle; and a surprise beer that Zarinfar made me promise not to reveal, though I’ll give one small, key hint: it’s wild.
Zarinfar expects to begin canning Sam’s Daily in three months, at which point Buffalo Bayou will begin mass distributing the cream ale and taking on Lone Star in earnest. In the meantime, he’s eager to continue launching even more beers with the terroir of Houston, including one I’m equally eager to try: half-churro, half-horchata. It could be great; it could be terrible. This is the risk with many of Buffalo Bayou’s beers, something Zarinfar readily acknowledges.
“When someone says they love every beer we’ve ever made, I’m dubious about that,” he laughs. “Even within the company we’ve got different palates.” But out of the 32 big-batch beers Buffalo Bayou has put out in its first three years and the dozens more it has planned, Zarinfar promises this: “There’s something for everyone.”
(Ed. note: For clarification, Lone Star Beer is brewed in Fort Worth and Pabst itself remains headquartered in the US, though owned now by Russian-born Eugene Kashper, former chairman of Oasis Beverage; an earlier version of this article identified Pabst as being "Russian-owned.")