Last week, filmmaker Ken Burns was a guest on The Colbert Report promoting his new three-part documentary Prohibition, part one of which aired this past Sunday, October 2, on Houston PBS affiliate KUHT. The series examines our country's infamous failed social experiment, also known as the Eighteenth Amendment. If you missed it, check the PBS schedule for re-air dates. You gotta see it.
For this week's bartender chat, I felt it appropriate to visit Brewery Tap, the former home of Houston's Magnolia Brewery, which was forced to shut down when Prohibition banned the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol.
Its 4:30 p.m. on Monday as I open the door to Brewery Tap and see all but one of the barstools occupied. I grab the only available spot and sort of get a once-over from the other patrons, as I'm the only woman and person under 40 in the room. Fair enough.
For a building rich in Houston history, the bar looks like a European pub; the spacious room filled with several long wooden tables and the walls decorated with soccer paraphernalia. The bartender, Jack, a retired lawyer from California, but 30-year resident of Houston, greets me by name. My apartment is a seven-minute walk from the bar, so I've been here a few times, but even after the first visit, these folks remember you. I order a Spaten Oktoberfest. "Good decision," Jack remarks.
While I sip my Spaten, he hands over a manila folder of old newspaper and magazine clippings and photos of the brewery for me to sift through and takes me outside to see the mural depicting the building's history. It's clear he loves this bar. We head back inside for Jack to answer a few questions while taking jabs at the regulars who occasionally chime in. They, like family members, dish it right back. If you can take it and dish it, you'll be welcomed with open arms.
Could you tell us a little about the building's history? It dates back to 1892 but was rebuilt in 1912. The Magnolia Brewery evolved from the Houston Ice and Brewing Company, which started in 1869. At that time, Magnolia Brewing owned 20 acres and had 13 buildings. This is the last building they built. It was keg storage, and the corporate boardroom was the ballroom upstairs. Prohibition closed the company, and it never reopened as a brewery. It was flooded in '35 and '39 and renovated completely. The building next door was an armory during the Civil War. In the basement, they still have some machinery that's so embedded in the cement they can't get it out.
How would you describe the bar's aesthetic? We've been here since '86. It's rustic, but homey. It's a downtown bar that's more like a neighborhood bar. Everybody knows everybody, and they've known each other for years. That's what makes it a great bar. I saw something online where someone said the bar had a weird vibe because when they walked in, everyone turned to look at them. Truth is, when the door opens, everyone looks to see if it's someone they know, someone they can talk to. It's friendly. It's a good place.
How would you describe the crowd? The customers are older, more educated and we don't get anybody crying into their beer. We get doctors, lawyers, accountants, tow truck drivers, secretaries...we get all kinds. The demographic is about 35 to 45, mostly married but on certain nights we'll get a younger crowd. We had three punk bands play here on Friday and had a big turnout. It's starting to change. Mostly what people come to this bar for is the beer selection. We were the second multi-tap beer bar in town, so it's long had a good beer selection and we keep the beer in good shape.
What is one thing that would make Houston a better city? Mountains. I grew up at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas, and I take a month vacation every year and go to California to camp in the mountains. I like the latitude changes, the hills. I don't like it being all flat, but I mean it's great for biking.
* Wildcard from the loaded questions box: What is your favorite thing about the beach? Bikinis.
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Brewery Tap is located at 717 Franklin Street, at the corner of Franklin and Milam. Stop in and say hi to Jack, sample a few brews, play some darts, catch a football game and relax. You might get free cheese and crackers, you might get to hear a ghost story, you never know. But you can count on good company.
To learn more about the history of Magnolia Brewery or to visit the Magnolia Brewery museum, visit the Magnolia Ballroom site or call 713-223-8508 for more information.