The Rise of the DFW Brew

Free from the hangover of the '90s craft beer bust, Dallas' small brewers cheer another round of growth.

The Rise of the DFW Brew
Photo by Mark Graham, label design by Sasha Barr

In 1994, if you were to drive east along Commerce Street in downtown Dallas (perhaps in a new convertible Mazda Miata) past all the skyscrapers and under the banal veins of Central Expressway, you'd soon enter Deep Ellum. At the neighborhood's gateway under the freeway, you'd be greeted by the distended beer tanks glistening inside Copper Tank Brewing Company. Surrounded by dark wood and well-aged bricks, the drums had a stately presence.

Inside the brewpub, drinkers leaned on a long, custom-made walnut bar where they sporadically ordered pints of house-made beer. The brewmaster at the time, John Sims, got his first professional brewing job at Yegua Creek Brewing before soon moving to the Copper Tank in 1993 to help it get started. He also worked on constructing that long wooden bar. As a craftsman, Sims took pride in helping with any projects, not just the beer running through the taps.

At night and on the weekends, a DJ often spun tunes at the Copper Tank. The brewpub's identity was sort of up for grabs: It was bar, but also a restaurant, all centered on one of the oldest trades of all time — brewing. Mix in a dance-club vibe with some great happy hour specials and you get the sort of multiple-personality disposition that marked Dallas' first craft beer boom.

John Sims at his brewery, Four Corners.
Mark Graham
John Sims at his brewery, Four Corners.
Deep Ellum Brewing Co.'s inaugural tour in January.
Mike Brooks
Deep Ellum Brewing Co.'s inaugural tour in January.

That brewpub movement was triggered when the Texas Legislature passed a measure in 1993 that allowed restaurants to both make and sell beer in Texas. Soon Dallas was immersed in brewpubs like Yegua Creek Brewing, Moon Under Water, Routh Street and Copper Tank, among others. They all took the bait in unfounded faith that they could successfully sell craft beer in Dallas.

For about seven years, Sims managed a 10-barrel system at the Copper Tank and produced more than 2,000 barrels of beer a year, all sold in-house. In that time, Copper Tank won six highly regarded Great American Beer Festival awards, including a gold medal in 2000.

Not that it mattered.

"It all fell on deaf ears around here," says Sims, now the brewmaster at Four Corners Brewing Co. "The public wasn't ready for craft beer. I'd tell people I brewed craft beer back then and they would say, 'Oh, do you brew Miller Lite?' And that was really the only focus."

Sims tried to promote Copper Tank's beer with table-top signs at the restaurant, but Copper Tank's management did little to promote the beer and its awards. Hiring a good DJ was a higher priority. By 2001, Sims saw the writing on the wall and left Copper Tank in search of other craft brewing opportunities. At one point, he considered an out-of-state job, where local beer scenes had more traction.

"Needless to say, those were difficult days." Sims says. "I needed to be in the brewing industry and there just weren't any jobs around here. They were disappearing faster then they were opening up, so it was difficult."

Not one independent brewpub survived that first craft beer boom. Today only a handful of those original chains remain.

That same trend played out across the country. According to the Beer Institute, 461 specialty breweries churned out suds in 1993 across the United States. In 1998 that number peaked at 1,625. Then for five years, between 2000-'05, growth receded and then flattened out at around 1,500. The Dallas craft beer scene was dormant, and most of those brewpubs were selling off their equipment. The Copper Tank's tanks got plucked out of Deep Ellum and sold to a craft brewer up north; Sims can't remember exactly where.

The craft beer buzz may have faded away, but it never died. Across the state and country, a steadfast group of homebrewers have always kept the hobby alive. The Dallas palate wasn't ready for craft beer, but that didn't mean their homebrewing kits disintegrated.

"People who loved craft beer back then didn't stop loving it," Sims says. "We just started recently to gain a whole new appreciation from other crowds."

"New appreciation" may be a bit of an understatement. Something more like a tent revival began as small brewers caught a gust of wind across the nation from 2005 to 2011, when around 700 new specialty breweries opened, bringing the U.S. total to 2,289.

Fort Worth's Rahr & Sons Brewing Co. led the charge locally in 2004. They were the first at the scene of a stirring sleeping giant. Being first comes with a price, though, and Rahr was forced to lay off some workers in 2005. Even worse, a freak snowstorm in 2010 collapsed the brewery's roof, knocking it out of production for months. In the end, Rahr's survival was a testament of will — plus some savvy marketing via social networking — on the part of owner Fritz Rahr and a group of devoted volunteers. Brewery tours at Rahr always had the vibe of a block party.

"People come into our brewery and feel at home," Rahr says. "There's a sense of ownership over the local brewery. I wish I could take credit for that, but we actually learned it from Brock at Saint Arnold's in Houston. It was a goal of ours to open a brewery and for it to feel like a family. We wanted people to be part of it, take ownership and pride. And without our volunteers, we wouldn't be here today."

See also: A Guide to North Texas Beers
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6 comments
brendan_j_smith
brendan_j_smith

Home brewer here. Great article. Thanks for supporting our local brewers. The Temptress (Imperial Milk Stout) by Lakewood Brewing is AMAZING. But, Rahr, DEBC, Peticolas all make quality stuff as well. My friends and I hope to join them in the business someday soon...

jdaylett
jdaylett

@Dallas_Observer Really great article, keep up the awesome work!

hinmanpe
hinmanpe

While Humperdinks is a brewpub they make some of the finest beers in the Metroplex.

 
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