Heading into 2020, No Label Brewing Co. was entering its 10th year of operation and gearing up to rebrand. Owners Garrett Hart and Tom Paynter, who took over just a few years before, believed they had to get more beers into the marketplace to keep up with Houston's growing craft scene. Coinciding with that, they were beginning to refresh the Katy taproom. Then came March.
"We tried our best to power through, and we have," says Paynter about the brewery's response to Covid-19. But everything changed for a while. No Label became a drive-thru taproom, because they were only permitted to sell beer for off-site consumption, and because restaurants and bars were closed, kegs started piling up into a castle-like structure. Amid all the change, head brewer Taylor Nance left to pursue a position at Great Heights Brewing.
But on a Saturday afternoon in November, business looked good. Despite plenty of challenges thrown its way this year, No Label has come out of the fog looking like the brewery Houstonians need to revisit.
Continues Paynter, "We're trying to change people's mind and take a second look at No Label."
Now 10 years old, No Label is one of the oldest active breweries in Houston. Backed by core beers like the hefeweizen El Hefe and 1980 Kolsch, it's been a reliable spot for people in Katy and areas west of the 610 Loop. For years, it's essentially been on an island.
But Houston beer drinkers are more demanding, and have more options, than they were 10 years ago. They'll travel for one-off releases at places like Ingenious and Spindletap. Plus, the variety is better than ever (from dark, heavy brews at Brash, to wild fermented fare at True Anomaly, to fruity wild ales at Urban South HTX), and new cans are showcased constantly at grocery stores like H-E-B and Kroger. There's still a place for old standbys, but with so much innovation and trend chasing, it's getting harder for breweries to stand out.
"It's an incredibly aggressive, competitive market," Paynter says. "It's not what it was before."
Hart and Paynter started rolling out more releases when they took over the brewery, but now they're beginning to put more variety in cans for off-site distribution. A tasty and more mild coffee stout called The Floor Is Java reached shelves in late October. You may even find a good gateway hazy IPA called Up, Up and Away, a collaboration with Bedrock City Comic Company.
Back to the November Saturday afternoon: No Label rolled out another batch of Cali Boy, a big-time attempt at a West Coast IPA, thanks to its new head brewer, Ryan Traylor.
With his cone-like brown beard and strands of gray beneath a trucker hat, Traylor—as he's called by everyone—looks like he lives at the brewery. His face in cartoon graces the Cali Boy can and for good reason: He's Cali Boy. The San Diego native arrived in Texas a year ago and worked for a couple of months at Flix Brewhouse in San Antonio, but the pandemic shut down the movie theater and taproom for too long. Eyeing a new job and quickly, Traylor applied at No Label, which just so happened to be looking beyond Houston to help with the ongoing rebrand.
Cali Boy is Traylor's first beer at No Label. It features a strong, piney, and resinous hop profile, with a big hit of Mosaic, but the bitter blast is nicely cut by a touch of malt sweetness, finishing dry. It's the kind of beer mastered at breweries throughout Southern California—think Stone IPA or Ballast Point Sculpin. Is it as good as those classics? Time will tell, but first tastes of Cali Boy prove No Label has an exciting future ahead.
Traylor has plenty of plans for new beers: A European-style red lager is coming soon. A German pilsner will be rolling out after that. He has a Russian imperial stout aging in bourbon barrels that'll be ready for the 11-year anniversary party next year. And 2021 will also bring a lager program.
"Along with what No Label's known for, we're gonna be doing a lot of one-offs and new additions to our lineup," he says. "We got a lot of growth ahead."
No Label has made the best of a wild, unpredictable year. After reopening the taproom, the brewery started celebrating the holidays it wasn't previously open to host, like Memorial Day and Independence Day. The guys sold a lot of merchandise and gave out face masks to first responders and hospital workers. The taproom renovation was completed. Now the rebrand is in full effect, and No Label is in solid position these days.
Or, says Paynter: "The beer has never tasted as good, the beer has never looked as good, and the taproom has never looked as good."