Houston-based 11 Below Brewing Company, located at 6820 Bourgeois in the Willowbrook area, was started by three guys who began as home brewers. Owners Bryce Baker, Jeff Handojo, Brandon Moss and brewer Keenan Zarling say that, since opening last summer, their business has been flourishing over the past year. The name “11 Below” is a reference to Baker's and Moss’s former oil field careers. A barrel of beer contains 31 gallons, which is 11 below the 42 gallons in a crude oil barrel.
The brewery is spacious, with a small tasting area and plenty of picnic tables. Pallets of empty cans are stacked almost to the ceiling. There’s no air conditioning, but that doesn’t stop thirsty patrons from filling the warehouse. Visitors can bring food or purchase casual fare from a rotating list of food trucks.
On any given day, beers on tap will likely include the brewery’s “core three”: 7-Iron (a blonde session), Oso Bueno (an American amber) and Color Blind (a Red IPA). In addition to those, 11 Below also keeps two seasonal beers on tap. One example is Negative Space, an Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout released annually on November 11. (The date is a nod to the brewery's name.) Additions of cinnamon, Ancho chilies and cacao nibs produce a pleasant combination of coffee and chocolate, with a touch of heat on the finish from the chilies.
The second seasonal beer is Big Mistake, a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout. The idea for Big Mistake came when nearby Whitmeyer’s Distilling Company asked 11 Below if it was interested in a few empty bourbon barrels. Tackling a barreled beer was a daunting challenge for 11 Below, which had been in production only a few months, but one that Zarling was willing to take on. The brewery bought the used barrels, then obtained more from Yellow Rose Distilling that had been used to age rye for three to five years.
Big Mistake was aged six months in each barrel, then the final product was blended together. The result is a rich and luscious stout with a hefty 12.3% ABV (alcohol by volume). The color is dark black with a thin tan head that quickly dissipates. There’s a hint of dark chocolate on the nose and palate followed by notes of vanilla. The finish is slightly sweet, thanks to the bourbon. Big Mistake is definitely not an everyday beer, but more a special treat for stout connoisseurs.
Big Mistake is currently on draft at the brewery. A new keg is tapped on the first Thursday of the month and on special occasions. According to TapHunter, Big Mistake can also be found on draft at The Hop Stop in Humble and Taps House of Beers at 5120 Washington.
The brewery is open on Thursdays and Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 12 to 3 p.m. There is no admission fee to visit, and beers are sold using a token system. One token is $4 and three tokens are $10. Each can be redeemed for a 12-ounce pour, with the exception of the stouts, which are six-ounce pours owing to their higher alcohol content.
11 Below's newest beer, Lame Duck, will make its debut at a release party at the brewery scheduled for this Friday, August 5. It's a pale ale made with Australian and New Zealand dry hops — a beer with tropical aromas that Bryce says will be perfect for Houston's hot summer temperatures.