The history of small brewers and their long, bitter fight against politically entrenched alcohol distributors and corporate giants has been detailed elsewhere — for instance, in Brown and coauthor Paul Hightower’s book North Texas Beer: A Full-Bodied History of Brewing in Dallas, Fort Worth and Beyond. Since the Legislature allowed small breweries to both open taprooms and sell their beer outside of their own premises in 2013, and permitted them to sell beer to go in 2019, the taps have been opened wide for craft beer at last.
Brown, a certified beer judge who started his Beer in Big D blog in 2013, is happy about that, naturally. Well, mostly happy, it seems.
Talking with Brown, one gets the sense that he’s a little wistful for Texas craft brewing’s salad days, when a small group of beer lovers decided they wanted to try their hands at craft brewing and had to fight like the devil to win that right from lawmakers in Austin.
“I’d kind of gotten interested in the community of it,” Brown says of his start in writing about craft beer. “It kind of brought back the whole pub culture.”
In the 19th century, brewing beer locally in small batches was a side hustle for immigrant German farmers and shopkeepers. Biergartens flourished and virtually every small town in Texas had its local brews. Dallas had Mayer’s Garden, a massive entertainment complex built in 1881 offering live music nightly, a restaurant, vaudeville acts, a zoo, a shooting gallery and beer, beer, beer in a family-friendly garden where all classes mingled.
Prohibition and the arrival of giant corporate breweries in the mid-20th century eventually wiped out the small brewers and biergartens, but growing interest in home-brewing in ’90s sparked a revival of small-batch brewing.
Early on in the craft beer revival, the brewers all knew and supported one another, banding together in Austin to gain a seat at the bar. When a brewer held an event to celebrate the release of a new beer, other brewers would come to show support. Today, Brown says, he’ll visit taprooms to try a release and never meet the person who brewed it. He seldom sees brewers mingling at one another’s events these days. It’s the price of success, one supposes.
Tastes have changed, too. Younger drinkers want a variety drinks — wine, cider, cocktails — along with food and entertainment. To compete, brewers need their customers to linger and spend.
“You want to be a one-stop-shop today,” Brown says. “You want to have beer, beer to go. You want to have a food option. … The younger kids are into canned cocktails and stuff. So, taprooms are introducing their owned labeled whiskey. … These days are about diversifying.”
In that way, he says, things have come full circle. So, who knows? Maybe someday we’ll all mingle again to sip suds, check out the lions and catch a vaudeville act. There are certainly worse futures to look forward to. (But a beer garden/shooting range? Let’s give that one a little more thought.)