Cruising for a Brewsing on the Northside: A Ride on the Texas Beer Bus

Feeling Oso Bueno.
Feeling Oso Bueno. photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
A cold one at Spindletap - PHOTO BY LORETTA RUGGIERO
A cold one at Spindletap
Photo by Loretta Ruggiero

Eleven months ago, another couple bought tickets for my husband and me to go with them on the Texas Beer Bus, from the company's booth at a Cypress-area wine festival. Unfortunately, a week later, our friend's husband suffered a brain bleed that eventually led to a diagnosis of a cancerous brain tumor. Needless to say, the past year has been a tough one and he has had his ups and downs with treatment. A few weeks ago, he decided he was feeling up to it, so the four of us made plans to take the Cypress-area tour.

The tours are $118 per person (though there are sometimes special offers) and don't include tasting fees, which for this particular tour were $19. Tours run out of Austin and San Antonio, but there is also a limited number out of Houston, Conroe, The Woodlands and Cypress.

With our schedules, the only day that worked was the day before Easter. Normally, I'd be cooking my tail off, but we really wanted to do this. I put my organizational skills, what there is of them, in high gear and planned for a great time with our friends.

The meeting place was a pub in Vintage Park at 11 a.m. We parked our vehicle and walked over to a woman with a clipboard, the universal sign for "tour guide." We stood around a few moments before she informed the handful of people waiting that everyone needed to move their cars to another spot because we were parked in the pub's spaces. Okaaay. While our friend re-parked, we filled out the waivers and the tour representative asked for our tasting fees and IDs.

She wasn't exactly unfriendly, but not particularly welcoming either. We got on the bus, which was clean and air-conditioned and filled up with a more diverse crowd than I would have expected. Our worries of being the old folks on a booze tour were abated.

As more people arrived, we watched the same process over and over. Tour customers parked their vehicles, walked to the bus and were then told to move their cars. A couple of orange cones might have come in handy to prevent this issue. At 11:28 a.m., a couple of late arrivals (I'm talking to you, Cubs fan) finally boarded, and we were off.

The uninspired young woman with the clipboard was going to be our cruise director. Julie from Love Boat she was not. After introducing herself and the bus driver and asking Who wants to get drunky-drunk? and Are you ready to have fun?, she then told us we were old enough to help ourselves to the bottled water and bags of chips that were at the front.

That was it. We were left to our own conversations until we reached the first brewery. An older man behind us was loud and ready to party, despite the fact that he had a five o'clock tee time. But most of the bus was still coming down off a morning coffee high, so things were pretty mild. The radio was tuned to a local pop station. Apparently, the tour guide did not notice all the beards on the bus, from indie hipsters to guys who haven't shaved since coming home from 'Nam.

11 Below Brewing Company, 6820 Bourgeois

Our first stop on the tour, like most Houston breweries, was located in a business center warehouse. Of the three places we visited, this one was the most bare-bones. We exited the bus and were handed a pint glass with three plastic tokens. The guy behind the bar was already giving a speech about the beers, which we only caught the tail end of. There was a chalkboard listing the beers and their alcohol content.

My friend, who is a Bud Light gal, went for the lightest, the 7 Iron. They call it a session ale. I call it a hop-forward ale. It was too wheaty for me, but she liked it. The rest of us went for the Oso Bueno amber
click to enlarge Feeling Oso Bueno. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Feeling Oso Bueno.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
 ale. It was reminiscent of a Shiner Bock, but a little lighter. One of the co-founders said that this was the one they were most proud of, which they should be. It was the one most of us preferred. Except for Bud Light gal. She actually liked the Lame Duck, an American Pale Ale. They describe it as citrusy — definitely grapefruit.

Being a stout kind of gal (no jokes, please), I tried the Negative Space, an Imperial Chocolate Milk Stout. For most of the beers, a token gets you a full pint, but because of this one's higher alcohol content, the pour was about half. Half was enough. There was a definite taste of chocolate, with a pretty strong hint of cinnamon, almost like a mole sauce.

My friend sampled the Big Mistake, which at 12.3% alcohol was provided in a smaller five-ounce pour. We had just one sip and were done. It is aptly named. They use barrels that have previously been used for bourbon and rye, and the taste of whiskey is definitely there.

We were given a brief talk by one of the co-founders. He seemed enthusiastic, but it was difficult to hear. My husband slipped outside to a food truck parked there (the self-serve bags of chips were not going to cut it). He returned with the Southern fried chicken poutine from D'Lish Curbside Bistro. This small paper basket of spice-covered crinkle fries, topped with strips of fried chicken breast, cream gravy, bacon and cheddar cheese, cost $14. I have had coq au vin at a brick-and-mortar bistro for less than that. But dang, it was good.

After a quick game of Giant Jenga and a trip to the pleasant restroom, we were herded back to the bus by a bubbly woman in short-shorts. Thinking she was one of the bus riders, I told her she should get paid for helping. She informed us that she actually was an employee of the bus company and it was her day off. I was tempted to ask her if she wanted to clock in and take over for our rather lackluster guide.

With our souvenir pint glasses in hand, we were back on the bus and on to our next destination. And not surprisingly, people were beginning to get a little more spirited.

And speaking of spirits.

photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Whitmeyer's Distilling Co., 16711 Hollister

On the drive to the distillery, we joked with our bus seat neighbors, calling each other newbies and amateurs, the conviviality of brews kicking in. The loud guy behind us, and I mean that in a positive way, declared that he was going to play golf that afternoon, to which his son was voicing his doubts. My friend and I secretly nicknamed a younger guy a few seats ahead Guitar Steve. He had long, luxurious locks of hair.

After a few minutes of going the wrong way, our bus driver made a U-turn and found the business center where the distillery is located. She did some pretty amazing driving getting that huge bus into a very small area.

Though the strip center was ugly, the Whitmeyer's storefront was appealing, with both a painted overhead door and a French door entrance. Once inside, it was quite dark (to hide our shame of day drinking) and there was a nice bar, backed by a brick wall and bottles of whiskey. There was a pool table, darts and long tables for sitting and sampling. Our tour guide split us into two groups, one for drinking and one for touring. We started in the drinking group.

Not being a fan of whiskey, I gave it the old 
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
college try. The first sample, The Moonshine Reserve Cask, smelled like rum and vanilla. It was the one I liked best. There were six more samples to follow. The Chicago Cubs fan passed the little plastic cups of spirits to everyone. Travis Whitmeyer, one of the founders, described each one, but it was hard to listen as we were intent on tasting and giving our opinions.

The Peach Whiskey is apparently a big seller, but I didn't taste peach. The Barrel Selection #1 is a limited release, but none of my group cared for it. Still, I am a whiskey wuss, so my opinion is pretty subjective. I really liked the Space City Vodka, however. Normally, I drink my vodka with a whole lot of olive juice. This I could sip straight and enjoy. My friend bought a bottle of the Moonshine Reserve, which we all agreed was the nicest.

Whitmeyer's is family-owned and veteran-owned, too.

We then went into the cask room for a tour. The two stills looked like something out of a steampunk fantasy. After seven samples, I wasn't retaining much information. Back inside, my friend and I saw Guitar Steve sitting at the piano. We asked him if he could play "The Entertainer," and he could — a couple bars of it. With the whiskey and atmosphere, it almost felt like we were in the film The Sting. Emboldened by seven spirits, we informed him of the moniker we had given him. Turns out he is a guitarist, only his name is Dave, so we were only off a few letters. His friend then told us they were in a couple of tribute bands for Rush and Led Zeppelin. They are playing at the Concert Pub North, if you are interested.

After we were all seated back on the bus with our bottle of lukewarm water and bag of chips, we were on our merry (by now, very merry) way to the final brewery.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Spindletap Brewery,10622 Hirsch

Across from some railroad tracks, Spindletap Brewery is housed in a stand-alone building. It's a polished venture, more like a brew pub, with lighting fixtures that would make any Anthropologie fan drool. It was busy and had a family-friendly event going on outside. The tour guide told us that we should order food right away because it could take a long time. She didn't follow her own advice, we noticed later.

Some people elected to go straight into the brewing room, but, hungry and thirsty, we headed to the bar. Our friends ordered the homemade pretzels and we each grabbed our pints and plopped ourselves down at a table. My husband had the Toolpusher, which I didn't care for. Bud Light gal had the Boomtown Blonde, which was a refreshingly light beer, especially nice after a few hours of brewery crawling. I went for the Black Habit, a tasty Swarchzbier (whatever that is), not realizing until my second one (don't judge) that it was actually a guest beer from Back Pew Brewing Company out of Porter, Texas.

By this point in the tour, we were running out of steam and adjectives. We really just wanted to sit and enjoy our pints and pretzels and conversation. We could not give Spindletap its due as far as the tour goes, but we enjoyed the bar.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

The vibe was one of tipsy happiness as our group returned to the bus. Lots of laughter, lots of mile-a-minute talking. As we got back on the road, we rowdies decided that we couldn't take the crap music anymore. We kept calling "classic rock" to no avail. A badly-scribbled note finally made its way up to the front of the bus and we were rewarded with a playlist that got the bus singing and swinging. Short-Shorts helped to keep the fun going, but it was almost too late. We were twenty minutes away from home.

The fun could have started much earlier had our actual guide engaged with us. She had a busload of folks ready and willing to have a good time. And plenty of the riders contributed to the hilarity and silliness, from a young lady with a "Mary Poppins Purse" that actually contained a thing of Poo-Pourri, to a blue-plaid-shirted bear of a guy who befriended everyone. They were all there to enjoy the bonhomie of booze.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.