As we head into 2021, bars and taprooms are still operating at 50-percent capacity, and breweries and other facilities producing craft beverage are still doing whatever they can to keep afloat. That's the story of 2020 in a nutshell: restrictions, frustrations, and challenges, thanks to Covid-19.
But we're not here to offer nutshells. Let's recap 2020 in drink, whether it be beer, wine, or spirits.
Pushing and Pulling
When Harris County restaurants and bars were ordered to close for visiting customers, the former were given a pretty-immediate green light to continue takeout service. The latter? It took a few days. Even then there were limitations to what bars could do to make a little money.
Then, when restaurants opened up again to a limited capacity, bars were permitted to open to an even more limited capacity. Meanwhile, a few places that sold alcoholic beverages and promoted themselves like nightlife spots hosted events that made things look worse for bars. Understandably, beverage professionals across the city were angry and frustrated.
Bars finally got the go-ahead to open to a limited capacity, but that capacity was smaller than what restaurants were allowed. Plus, bars and taprooms needed to assure they were selling food at a reasonable clip.
Whether or not you feel it's right that restaurants and other establishments should be open during the pandemic, the story of bars and drinking establishments in 2020 is feeling like a second-class citizen in comparison.
The Beverage Pivot
There's that word again: pivot. Covid-19 has forced people to rethink strategies across all industries, and the beverage community is no exception.
The big change is you can buy a cocktail from a bar, pick it up, bring it home, and drink it. Also, you can buy materials for said cocktail from a bar, mix it yourself at home, and drink it. Or you can get beer delivered to your door through a Houston-born service. Either way, we're all stocking up on booze more than ever, it seems. Wine stores are doing well as well, even in the face of massive tariffs on products from certain countries.
Plus, some local wineries and sommeliers dove head-first into Zoom to teach folks about reds, whites, and rosés. And a few popular restaurants welcomed in bars for pop-ups. Any way to earn a little money.
Despite the tough times, breweries and drinking establishments did what they could to help out folks in the hospitality industry and elsewhere.
In May Saint Arnold released Gratuity, a beer whose sales went to Houston Shift Meal, an organization created to feed hospitality workers. Kickin' Kombucha propped up local makers through its own distribution network.
Urban South Brewery out of New Orleans, which has a satellite brewhouse in Houston that opened early in 2020, released a collaborative beer called Coastal Harmony. That beer benefits people affected by Hurricane Laura in Louisiana. Saint Arnold made a version of it to help with the fundraising. At the same time, Urban South HTX gave more than $4,000 to the Southern Smoke Foundation as part of a national collaboration called All Together.
Beer lovers also did their part to give back. In August the Texas Beer Collective launched the Houston Beer Run, an attempt to bring more people out to breweries across the area. The success of that event led the group to organize the Texas Beer Run in September.
Black Lives Matter
Weathered Souls Brewing Co. in San Antonio did something big in 2020, crafting an imperial stout called Black is Beautiful and launching a collaborative project of the same name to raise support for police brutality reform and legal defenses for those who've been wronged because of racism and prejudice.
Black is Beautiful came after the killing of George Floyd, a Houston native, under police apprehension in Minneapolis. Breweries across America joined in on the project, brewing their own version of Black is Beautiful while using the same can art. By late summer, nearly every Houston brewery had made its own Black is Beautiful.
What Weathered Souls did was call attention to the structural racism that has existed worldwide for centuries. But also, note that Weathered Souls is a Black-owned brewery. There aren't many Black-owned breweries across America, and there's only one (in planning) in Houston. One way to change the world for the better is to deliver liberation from boundaries. Here's hoping the conversation about Black representation and leadership in brewing increases in 2021.
End of an Era
Whether or not Covid-19 was a reason, a few local haunts poured their final drinks in 2020. Among them were venerable watering hole Alice's Tall Texan, classy Downtown hang Public Services, and critical beer bar Petrol Station.
After news of Petrol's closing spread, we learned that the guys behind popular Northside bar Monkey's Tail will be opening something new in that space.
The Best Brewery
Last year, I wrote about Spindletap's dizzying array of high-quality IPAs, giving the spot my very invisible award of craft brewery of the year.
My favorites this year include Spindletap again, along with Vallensons' for continuing to pump out very good beers of many styles; Astral for growing into an essential neighborhood brewery in its year two; Equal Parts for pulling off a risky name change (formerly Sigma) and putting out some awesome IPAs, darker fare, and even lagers; Copperhead for quietly releasing some of the best beers in the city (King of Terrors, just about anything Belgian it touches); and Baileson for impressing with everything, from IPAs to porters, and for keeping operations running in the face of numerous challenges.
But my favorite craft brewery of the year was Saint Arnold. I know that's the obvious choice, but the Houston original found ways to stay vital during a pandemic while other breweries continue to produce fare at an increasingly higher level.
Consider this list of very good beers it maintains: Art Car IPA, Juicy IPA, Texas Winter IPA, Orange Show, Lawnmower, Guten Tag, Pub Crawl, Santo (we can go on). Add to that the one-offs and collaborations—from Gratuity to Noble Haze to Perfect Pils—and the super-specialty bottles—from Pumpkinator to the Bishop's Barrel series to French Press and its variants, which is fast becoming one of the best things in Houston beer—and it's hard for anyone to compete on that level.
Of course, Saint Arnold is bigger than nearly everyone else and has the space and budget to do more. Still, when you're at that tier, consistency had better be on point. And here, it is.
Plus, Saint Arnold has done very well with drive-thru pickup, keeping its beer garden safe during the pandemic, and hosting numerous virtual classes and tastings.
In a year when we seemed to prioritize comfort more than ever, there really is no brewery that's more comfortable than Saint Arnold. It just so happens that they didn't settle on being merely comfortable this year. They were outstanding.