Craft Brewers Great and Small Capitalize on Texas's Recent Legislative Changes
Lupe gestures at us animatedly, one hand wrapped around an overflowing beer mug as the other balances a large slice of roasted-fig pizza. This man with remarkable balance is singing the praises of some unholy-sounding concoction called a "Brewnog," but we're not quite sold on the idea.
Our bar neighbor at The League of Extraordinary Brewers, Lupe is quite the beer connoisseur. He loves a good Christmas ale, especially one fancied up with some good old-fashioned eggnog, and this is the place to get it.
Besides Lupe (full name Guadalupe Hernandez), right now there are only about eight other patrons in the front room of the brewpub, a place created by and for lovers of beer. The main room is comfortably small, especially compared to the massive kitchen in which patrons are free to pull up a bar stool and chat. It feels full with only a handful of people scattered about, though.
Housed in downtown's historic Kitchen Incubator building, the League is steps away from the bustling Market Square area, but with a much different vibe than nearby bars like The Pastry War and Dean's. It's a pub and brewery rather than a traditional bar, staffed by individual beer artisans instead of bartenders. Often the person who brewed the beer flowing from the tap is the person serving it to you while chatting about its origins. Customers are free to question their brewer/server on everything from technique to ideas for future batches.
The unpretentious, communal feeling carries over into the atmosphere. The League has given special care to exposing the crumbling old brick in the walls, giving the interior added richness and warmth. It's as comfortable as an old friend's living room, with table games like checkers and chess scattered throughout and an entire back room devoted to old-school game systems. Some of the beer taps even have Sega controllers as handles.
Each brewer has a chalkboard hanging on the wall that serves as a menu for the week's beer selection. These change from week to week as specific batches run out and others take their place, and first up was a selection from the Warlock. A man who also serves as the League's general manager, the Warlock handed us a tiny glass full of caramel-colored liquid as Lupe nodded approvingly.
Warlock's beer is delicious, and Lupe knows it.
Founded by Lucrece Borrego, the League has been a formal brewpub only since October, but the brewery part has been around much longer. Until recently, stringent Texas law forbade craft brewers from selling their beer on-site, restrictions the League circumvented by selling tickets to events at which it gave away the beer.
But in June 2013, Governor Rick Perry signed a massive craft-beer legislation package that allowed packaging breweries like Saint Arnold to sell their product on-site, and brewpubs to sell their wares at both the wholesale and consumer levels. It was a win for Texas's craft brewers across the board.
The general public has embraced the changes, as we saw firsthand at the League. Seven specialty beers had been scribbled across the pub's steampunk-ish chalkboards when we first arrived, but one by one they disappeared from sight as we downed our holiday-themed Gingerbread Stouts. We went through every remaining beer on our tasting mission, all brewed by members of The League, and found them exceptional.
That's the beauty of a place like this, though. The meager offerings on its three boards are completely unique to the small pub. Quaffing a Wassailcopter in this homey atmosphere while chatting with the person who brewed it simply makes it taste better. Beer-making truly is a craft, and missing the opportunity to indulge in the brews on offer means they may be gone for good by your next visit.
That "blink and you miss it" mentality is not quite as evident in larger places, though, and Saint Arnold Brewing Company dwarfs a place like The League. Here, at one of the best-known breweries in Texas, there's little anxiety about running out of beer, but the abundant supply hardly negates its craft-brew credentials.
Our recent trip felt a bit like we were sneaking into the facility. In order to reach the coveted taps in the brewery's inner workings, you make your way up a staircase complete with ropes to keep you in the safe zones. The feeling is industrial from the moment you heave open the heavy metal doors; gone are the feelings of warmth exuded by a place like The League. Saint Arnold produces an astounding amount of beer by comparison, but it's equally welcome during a weekday lunch.
When we finally made our way through the brewery's maze, we found the Oktoberfest-themed dining hall, complete with bright paintings of the patron saint of beer. (That's Arnold, a Frankish bishop born in the sixth century A.D.) Ironically, these digs are much like an amped-up version of The League, complete with a view of the area where the beer is carefully crafted.
Whether you embark on a tour or just stop by for lunch, Saint Arnold offers the opportunity to sample as much beer as you can handle. Everything from seasonal ales to the darker, frothier Santo is available.
But the staggering number of people playing hooky on a Monday helped to quell the factory-like atmosphere. We saw parents with young children in tow, groups of businessmen, and folks just hanging out by the taps, chatting with the bartender about the selections. The room buzzed with the chatter of people eager to try out their next ale; turns out free beer is quite popular.
As we headed toward the overwhelming number of taps in the room for another round, we had but one regret. We wished Lupe was there to give out a little beer advice.
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