New breweries turn up on North Texas taps every month, but not many come carrying the same legacy as Big Bend Brewing. Founded deep in the heart of the Lone Star State’s last frontier by the punk rock godfather of independent Texas brewing, Big Bend bottles (or rather cans) the untamed spirit of the Trans-Pecos. It does so under the guidance of an Old World old hand — a familiar face to DFW’s craft connoisseurs — who blends the fundamentals of the Reinheitsgebot with ranch-style resourcefulness to produce beers worthy of their legend.
That legend begins with Steve Anderson, Big Bend’s late founder and brewmaster in perpetuity. Born in Dallas in 1962, Anderson was already an Austin alt-legend when he co-founded the Waterloo Brewpub (the first new brewing operation in the state since Prohibition) in 1993; he was the original yowler for the noise-punk band Scratch Acid and had delivered a commanding performance as a Tolstoy-reciting, throwing-a-typewriter-off-a-bridge auteur in Richard Linkletter’s movie Slacker. Anderson picked up homebrewing between bouts of epoch defining, and his piss-and-vinegar determination proved no less useful in fighting Texas’ draconian alcohol laws.
After Waterloo came Anderson Live Oak Brewing in 2001, where he developed many of the brewery’s signature beers, most notably the Live Oak Hefeweizen, considered by many to be the essential American iteration of the style. Later in his tenure as head brewer, he also worked with a young, Weihenstephan Institute-educated German named Jan Matysiak, even sitting for a portrait with him for the Austin painter Gregg Hinlicky.
Both men left Live Oak in 2012. Matysiak headed east to helm Sixpoint Brewing in Brooklyn, while Anderson realized his longstanding desire to relocate to the tiny town of Alpine and open a brewery of his own. Conditions aren’t easy for a startup brewery in far West Texas — it’s a three-hour drive to either El Paso or Midland to even get to a Wal-Mart, and the brewery’s core demographics range from King Ranch cowboys to Marfa art-seekers to the independent souls recolonizing ghost towns like Shafter and Terlingua. Once again, Anderson’s determination prevailed, and the brewery's annual production had reached 5,000 barrels by 2015 — tragically, the same year that Anderson died of prostate cancer at the age of 53.
By that time, Matysiak had left Sixpoint to return to Texas — to Dallas, in fact, where he worked with the Texas Ale Project in 2014 to help set up recipes and dial in brewing procedures, after which he worked as a brewing consultant at a number of breweries around the world. In a move that dovetailed perfectly with the mystical rationales of the desert, Matysiak relocated to Alpine to act as Big Bend's director of brewing operations in 2016 (in honor of his memory, Anderson has been ensconced as Big Bend's first and only brewmaster). At the time of Anderson’s death, Big Bend had extended its distribution to the Austin market. Now, having partnered with Full Clip Distributors, “The Beer From Out Here” has landed at DFW’s doorstep.
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Big Bend’s beers reflect their creators’ classical training. The flagship beers follow canonical German and English recipes: Tejas Lager, Big Bend Hefeweizen, Number 22 Porter, La Frontera IPA. But, like everything that comes from Far West Texas, they’re in a league of their own.
La Frontera IPA and Big Bend Hefeweizen are the standouts. La Frontera is the Hoss Cartwright of the family, a burly 7.8 percent IPA with the piney, citrusy punch of Cascade hops. The Big Bend Hefe, the younger sibling of the Live Oak Hefeweizen, is similarly masterful, carrying a vibrant bouquet of banana and clove, with a spiciness that flicks across your tongue like the Marfa lights.
Matysiak’s first offering as brewer is the Balmorhea Berlinerweisse, a revived German style that intersects neatly with the American interest in sour beer. The Balmorhea demonstrates Matysiak’s mastery of the craft — where other breweries’ Berlinerweisses sometimes taste like Coors Light aged on SweetTarts, the Balmorhea is clean, light and sharp.
Big Bend’s five main beers are on tap all around DFW, including at Kool Keg in Arlington, Taps & Caps in Lewisville and the Fort Worth Reata. In addition to the several tap takeovers and Matysiak’s meet-and-greet at Taps & Caps last week, Big Bend co-sponsored a 35 mm screening of the Marfa-filmed Giant at the no-less-fraught-with-history Texas Theater last Sunday. Home drinkers can expect canned beers to show up locally in mid-June. Matysiak says a few experimental variations also are in the works on a special small-batch brewing line, which was Anderson's final project for the brewery. If Big Bend's past is a reliable prologue, they're liable to bring even more of that far-flung desert magic to the North Texas