In 2013, Texas finally loosened its grip on the state’s breweries, allowing them to sell their beer on their premises, for consumers to drink right there. Suddenly, the market opened up, and a logjam of brewers that had stalled out in the planning stages surged forward. Today, the state—particularly the Bayou City—is awash with new craft brew houses. As of this fall, the Texas Craft Brewers Guild counted 38 members in our region alone, scattered from Galveston to College Station.
For Houston beer drinkers, it’s hard to keep up with the steady stream of new craft selections offered at local watering holes, not to mention all the Facebook invitations to yet another brewery launch party. Which got us wondering: With all the new arrivals, what does it take to stand out? As two recent launches show, it’s not just about the beer, but the experience.
“What you see here has always been the goal,” says Matt Schlabach, co-owner and head brewer of City Acre Brewing, tucked off of 59, just 15 minutes north of downtown. “You come out here and get this experience where you feel like you’re outside the city, but you really don’t have to go very far.”
City Acre’s sprawling grassy yard, dotted with lawn games, picnic tables, container gardens and a small orchard—the produce finds its way into both kitchen and kegs—is the perfect backdrop to an afternoon spent enjoying the brewery’s approachable, small-batch beers.
“One of the reasons I’ve always liked the brewpub model is that we don’t have to file for recipe or label approval,” says Schlabach, since they’re not distributing beyond their own roof. This freedom allows for experimentation and specialty runs, including the Cellar’s Bounty series of brews imbued with that produce grown on site.
On the other end of the spectrum, the three local couples who founded Eureka Heights Brew Co. had large-scale local distribution in mind from the start. Brewmaster Casey Motes, who spent four years making beer for Houston stalwart Saint Arnold, oversees production at Eureka’s 30-barrel brew house, located in a sprawling warehouse on West 18th Street in the Heights.
Less than four months after selling its first keg, the brewery was already on tap at 100 area retailers, a rapid rise the founders attribute, at least in part, to their proximity to neighboring bars and restaurants happy to tap beers produced just down the street. Despite plans to expand regionally, the owners make strong relationships with their local partners a priority, personally servicing all accounts themselves.
Strategic marketing has also worked well for Eureka. From the catchy exclamation-point logo, to the whimsically decorated taproom adorned with googly eyes, to the silly beer names (see sidebar), to the comically large 32-ounce cans, the brewery reflects its founders’ collective spunk.
Then there’s the beer itself. “Our beers are real sessionable, and that’s something we just stumbled upon,” says Motes, referring to the low alcohol content. “As we started brewing, we were like, ‘Man, we kind of like ’em when they’re a little easier to drink.’”
Ultimately, the folks behind both breweries agree that this line of work—with its long hours, hot, labor-intensive production and meager pay—isn’t for everyone. But they love being part of the craft beer community and, rare in business, support one another.
“I think one of the best things about this industry is that no one really looks at each other like direct competition,” says Motes, which is made easier by the fact that, even with all the recent launches, there’s still only one brewery per 100,000 drinking-age adults in Texas, a percentage well below places like Colorado and Oregon.
Despite the array of new choices, there’s still plenty of room for everyone, including here in Houston. Overwhelmed? Begin a pilgrimage along the new brew trail with our top picks:
Bring your pals and your cowpoke skills—the brewery offers roping dummies, among other games—and remember: Beer is fun!
Try: Buckle Bunny Cream Ale, which gets a sweet boost from flaked corn; Moo Caliente Milk Stout, laced with cayenne and cinnamon, reminiscent of Mexican hot chocolate.
When you visit, come hungry—like the thoughtful brews, the food here is far from an afterthought.
Try: The smooth, balanced Sneaky Wheat Stout; 22-ounce bombers of the Cellar Bounty series; the pimento cheese sandwich.
Porter, north of Humble
Communion has changed a bit in this Lord’s-house-turned-draft-only-microbrewery.
Try: Saints, rejoice in Sweet Salvation brown ale; sinners, repent with Satyr’s Swill bock.
Any poison you pick here will go perfectly with the brewery’s ’80s arcade games and thrashy jukebox jams.
Try: Cali Green American IPA, which is bitter up front with a piney, citrus finish; Hammer Smashed Face, an appropriately brutal 15 percent ABV Russian imperial stout.
Settle in at this polished brew pub and sample classic Aussie fare while watching a footie match.
Try: Bobby Dazzler, an Australian ale brewed with local Houston honey; savory hand pies.