John Reardon, founder of Deep Ellum Brewing Co., was once like any other beer drinker, ordering Bud or Miller or whatever was on tap. Then one day, his favorite bar added something new: a beer made in Colorado called Blue Moon Belgian white. Poured into a curvy pint glass, it was golden-orange in color with an intriguing cloudiness and a bright, citrusy bouquet. Its flavor was complex: spicy and sweet, with a hint of orange peel. For Reardon, a door opened that day.
"Blue Moon is everywhere now, but that was my gateway beer," Reardon says. "That's what got me into craft beer."
Reardon, who just opened his brewery in Deep Ellum in December, took the journey that many beer drinkers are taking these days -- graduating from pale, watery swill to a new wave of rich, deep-tinted brews full of flavor and personality, made in the artisanal way by small, regional breweries.
Craft beer has become huge, with hundreds of small breweries across America making unique brews. And in 2012, thanks to a wave of new breweries set to open, North Texas appears poised for a beer revolution.
"In the last 30 years, we've gone from having 10 to 15 independent craft breweries to close to 2,000 in the United States," says Wim Bens, a native of Belgium who will open Lakewood Brewing Co. in Garland this spring. "It can be attributed to the current generations, Gen-X and Gen-Y, who aren't satisfied with drinking their dad's piss-yellow Coors, Bud and Pabst. What's exciting is that this new craft-beer industry is homegrown, and it's made by hand in small batches."
Two breweries -- Deep Ellum Brewing Co. and Peticolas Brewing -- just opened in Dallas; they join Rahr & Sons in Fort Worth and Franconia Brewing Co. in McKinney as pioneers in a local craft beer movement, one that is already under way in places like Colorado, the Pacific Northwest and even Austin.
"There are probably 10 breweries that have announced plans to open around Dallas and Fort Worth, including mine," says Bobby Mullins, brewer at Armadillo Ale Works, which will open in Denton in the fall. "Add in the many bars that feature craft beers, and you can see that it's really raising local awareness of the craft-beer culture."
No new bar or restaurant opens these days without at least a few colorful labels on their beer list. Some, such as Meddlesome Moth in Dallas' Design District and Common Table in Uptown Dallas, have "cicerones" -- the beer equivalent of a wine sommelier -- whom you can consult for advice.
All of this puts beer squarely within the foodie movement, where it is consumed thoughtfully, with an appreciation for its unique characteristics rather than the old-school mentality where beer is simply a vehicle to get drunk. The expansion of local breweries also meshes with the current locavore food movement: We get peaches and tomatoes grown locally, and now we can get beer made in our own back yard.
Michael Peticolas is a former lawyer who founded his eponymous brewery in Dallas' Design District after having brewed as a hobby. He plans to brew 1,500 barrels in his first year, a conservative number, but he wants to keep things slow and manageable. His first crop includes a trio of distinctive ales -- pale, red and Scottish. "Beer has a distinct advantage in that it's a carbonated beverage. If you eat something that leaves a film in your mouth, the carbonation in beer is like scrubbing the palate. You're able to taste more throughout the meal."
Thirsty for new laws
So what took Texas so long to join the craft-beer movement?
For many years, we've been crippled by outdated and confusing alcohol laws that were drafted in the Prohibition days. Breweries (like Rahr) are permitted to brew beer but not sell it at their facility or tell customers where to find it. Brewpubs -- restaurants that brew their own beer, such as Humperdinks -- can serve beer to diners but cannot sell it anywhere else. Even basic definitions of beer versus ale were incorrect. Every time new laws were introduced, lobbyists for the big beer companies blocked their passage.
But a recent lawsuit filed by Austin brewer Jester King helped lift some of those restrictions. A judge ruled that breweries can divulge where their beer is sold; and that the TABC's terminology regarding beer and ale should be revised. Breweries still can't sell bottles on-site like wineries can, but craft-beer advocates such as Open the Taps, a grassroots group based in Houston, hope that such a law will pass in 2013.
"America lagged behind other countries when it comes to enjoying full-flavored beer, because a few big breweries got control of the market," Peticolas says. "They planted in the mind of Americans that this thin lager is what beer is, and people accepted that for years. Then all of a sudden Anchor Brewing and Sam Adams put out beers with real flavor, and Americans started saying, 'This craft beer is pretty darn good.' That really kicked it off in America, having these breweries open all over the country."
Boston, Colorado and California led the way, and other states have followed, including, finally, Texas.
"Similarly to the way America lagged behind, Texas has lagged behind other states because of the laws and the way they were written," Peticolas says. "Also it's hot here, and Texans still like light lagers when it's 110 degrees. But then St. Arnold Brewing opened in 1996, followed by Real Ale, Franconia, Rahr, 512 and Live Oak, all selling more beer every year. Pubs and beer bars opened, like Trinity Hall, Meddlesome Moth, Old Monk, Capitol Pub, showing what else is available. At that point, we started to see that there was a lot more than just the Coors product we'd enjoyed."
Peticolas opened in early January. Lakewood Brewing Co. in Garland will open this spring, and there are nearly a dozen more in the works.
Many of DFW's new breed of brewers, like Bens and Reardon, started out as hobbyists, brewing at home. Bens then served an apprenticeship at Rahr, where he learned the ropes of the microbrewery business."The difference in scale between a brewery like Rahr versus the big guys is staggering," he says. "Budweiser spills more beer in a month than the microbrewery industry makes. One of the ways I describe it to people who aren't familiar or who still think of beer as Bud Light is bread. There's mass-produced Mrs Baird's versus the bread from your local bakery. Craft brewers are using high-quality ingredients, we're doing interesting things with beer, and exploring the entire spectrum of what beer can be, rather than a white lager that you chill so you can't taste it and can slam."
Perhaps it's that David and Goliath scenario that has created a supportive and inclusive local beer culture.
Every October, the Flying Saucer, one of the first bars in the Metroplex, along with the Ginger Man, to feature a wall with dozens of taps, hosts Beerfest in Sundance Square. Rahr and Deep Ellum Brewing Co. host regular tasting tours, which is a bread-and-butter marketing tool for sure, that promote regular craft-beer gatherings.
"The culture of beer is communal," says Matt Spillers, the chef-owner of Eno's Pizza Tavern, who will open Union Bear in the West Village, a nano-brewery where people can not only sample others' brews, they can make their own. "If you've ever gone to beer events with multiple breweries, they all participate in unison. If you're a quality brewery, you're OK with other breweries. It's collaborative -- it's more of a movement."