Now that Saint Arnold has moved into a spacious, climate-controlled brewery, where do Houstonians go to get their sweaty, mid-summer's brewery tour? They go to Southern Star Brewery in Conroe.
Like the Saint Arnold days of old, the tour is free and requires you to form an orderly line inside a sheet metal-covered warehouse that radiates heat even on a May afternoon.
Inside, a few kids run past dogs on leashes and the line slowly winds toward the token station, where you get three tokens and the chance to purchase a $10 Walloon glass (there are less expensive pint glasses for sale, but...Walloon!) in which to drink your beer.
If you're smart, you've brought your own Southern Star pint glass from home as well as a few snacks, some water, maybe a board game and definitely an umbrella or tent if you plan to set up shop in the parking lot. Every Saturday afternoon at Southern Star is a tailgating party, minus the associated sporting event.
Even the "tour" itself is fondly akin to the old days at Saint Arnold. Ninety minutes into the tour, which begins every Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m., Southern Star founder Dave Fougeron stood on a perch above the crowd this past Saturday afternoon and toasted them with a raised pint glass as he gave a brief history of the brewery and its three main beers.
Fougeron mentioned the defeat of House Bill 602 in passing, and an audience member -- likely three beers deep by this point -- shouted a call to arms against Anheuser-Busch, widely considered to have been the main culprit behind the bill's demise. Undeterred, small breweries like Southern Star are forging ahead and Fougeron noted their own skyrocketing success since the brewery was founded three years ago.
At that time, Southern Star was a tiny start-up brewery with a brewhouse picked up on eBay for $30,000. Fougeron and co-founder Brian Hutchins, who met playing disc golf, moved out to Conroe for cheap rent on a warehouse and access to spring water, starting their small brewery with a hoppy beer called Pine Belt Pale.
Southern Star has even started a yearly Pro-Am competition where homebrewers submit their recipes and the winning brew gets produced on a Southern Star scale. Last year's winning recipe, a smoky porter, got rave reviews at the Great American Beer Festival and was on tap Saturday afternoon. People were drinking the dark, heavy beer as quickly as the brewery's other standards -- Bombshell Blonde and Buried Hatchet Stout -- in spite of the heat.
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I tried a few sips myself from beer blogger Chris White's pint glass. It was all dark chocolate and fireplace embers with a few notes of vanilla escaping. Too heavy for me, but delicious nonetheless. I happily went back to my Walloon glass of Bombshell Blonde, which -- by the way -- happens to pair nicely with the tacos served from El Sabor Cantino taco truck outside.
And, yes -- I recommend keeping a full stomach as you work your way through the selections during the Southern Star tour. It's a long drive back to Houston, after all. You don't want to make it half-drunk and hungry.