What is Houston beer? I think about a piece in October by baseball writer Eno Sarris at the Athletic, who weighed Houston beer against Washington D.C. beer in advance of the World Series. His conclusion, which he admitted wasn't fully formed, was that the Bayou City probably had the best brewery (citing Brash) and best overall IPA (Lone Pint's Yellow Rose).
With apologies to Sarris (who I've worked with extensively in the past), the information he gave seems to describe Houston beer of a couple years ago. Brash is great, and Yellow Rose is outstanding, but the city's scene has transformed so much since, say, 2015.
We're about to close another year, and a historic one for Houston beer. In September, manufacturing breweries were finally able to sell to-go product. And this summer, Saint Arnold—Houston's longest-surviving craft brewery—partied in celebration of 25 years of operation. Plenty of new breweries opened, we talked a lot about styles, and of course, we drank our share.
So, as we embark on a new year, what is Houston beer? It's a still fast-moving, highly creative culture that has room to grow and improve, and that's a good thing. Here are the biggest narratives of a year of beer in Clutch City:
To-Go! To-Go! To-Go!
I sat inside Holler Brewing Co. on Sept. 1. It felt like any other day—people came and went and drank a pint or two—but with one obvious exception: They, and I, walked out of Holler holding a couple four-packs. Later, at home, I'd crack open some cans of Holler. What a big change.
When the 2019 Texas Legislative Session opened in January, bipartisan, companion bills were filed supporting beer-to-go sales from Texas craft breweries. A month later, craft brewers and distributors reached an unprecedented agreement that paved the way for to-go sales to become law. And as the session was closing in May, 11th hour maneuvering added beer to-go language to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission sunset bill, giving it an easier road to becoming law. Gov. Greg Abbott signed to-go beer into law in June, ensuring that on Sept. 1, breweries could start selling.
For breweries like Holler, True Anomaly, and 8th Wonder, the move means more access to product. It's a no-brainer that should lead to more people drinking local beer, supporting local businesses, and opening more breweries.
The Game-Changing Space
Last year, Saint Arnold Brewing Co. opened an outstanding restaurant and beer garden designed to make its operation a destination for Houstonians and tourists alike. Just visit Saint Arnold on a weekend afternoon—the place has been a rousing success. But it was the only venue of its kind in Houston ... until just a year later.
Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co. opened its new, $14 million Sawyer Yards home in November, and the reception has been quite positive. With three stories that include a restaurant with sandwiches, pizzas, and Houston-ified entrées; and a rooftop beer garden that offers a showstopping view of the skyline, the new BuffBrew is a triumphant space that offers something for everyone, and that really strengthens the Bayou City beer scene.
If 2018 was when Houston fell deeply in love with New England IPAs, 2019 was when brewers started really perfecting the style. Apologies to Baa Baa Brewhouse and Sigma, but ahead of the pack is Spindletap, which continuously rolls out top-flight hazy beers, from Tiny Gypsies to Heavy Hands, while maintaining a group of stalwarts that you can find at the supermarket (Houston Haze, 5% Tint). Adding onto that, Spindletap announced in September a collaborative effort with local NEIPA expert Larry Koestler called Musical Box Brewing.
But that wasn't all. Earlier in the year Spindletap also announced it acquired Avid Coffee Company, launching Spindletap Coffee Co. in the process. With an onsite roastery and coffee beer being made in-house, the brewery is breaking new ground. For that, SpindleTap is my pick for Houston craft brewery of the year.
Like Spindletap, some of the best breweries in the city never sit still. Saint Arnold continued its push into cider with a honey version, while True Anomaly (my runner-up for craft brewery of the year) raised the bar for spontaneously-fermented and foeder-aged beers with its diverse and delicious collection.
There's even more that can happen (more souring and aging programs, better distribution, more beer bars, more full-day experience breweries, even more breweries inside the loop), and I imagine we'll get there soon enough.
A Few of My Favorite Things
A couple quick hits on my favorite things in Houston beer, 2019:
- I really appreciate Eureka Heights, whose suds I probably drank more than any other brewery this year. I know I can always turn to Buckle Bunny for something easygoing and clean; I found myself getting into a number of their seasonals, from Neon Moon to Wicket Awesome; and Palate Fatigue and Embiggens were really fun to drink. I can always count on Eureka Heights.
- The best story of the year is Baileson somehow turning the lemons of not being able to sell beer because of a permit issue into some wonderful lemonade by giving out all its beer and asking for donations to help animal rescues and animal-related charities. Craft beer is nothing if it isn't about community.
- You should go to Webster's Saloon Door to try its really wild concoctions. The brewery's peanut butter chocolate beer Ridiculous A.F. is terrific and available in stores.
- Reading Brash's Facebook page is a weekly highlight for me. Never, ever change. (The beer is good, too.)
- The most underrated brewery in town is probably Sigma, who had a great year with plenty of tasty IPAs (late 2018 entry Nude Tayne, Hoarder's Endowment series) and fruit beers (Intermezzo series) to go along with an already solid reputation for darker fare.
- Speaking of IPAs, Holler was knocking those out of the park in 2018.
- No beer in Houston was as ubiquitous in 2019 as Karbach's Crawford Bock. The Astros-colored can is instantly recognizable and quite memorable.
- I'm looking forward to some openings in 2020: Urban South, Local Group, and Flying Rhino, just to name a few. Let's see what more minds can bring to the scene.