Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 Year in Review: North Texas keeps riding the growth curve

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Were a movie to be made about the goings on in the local craft beer community, it might very well share a name with a series of action films known as The Fast and the Furious. Despite the majority of the industry being less than three years old, growth continues at a frantic pace as brewers are doing everything they can to put more beer in the hands of thirsty North Texans.

The dizzying nature of it all means it's getting harder and harder to keep up. Can anyone say they were able to try each and every new beer introduced by North Texas brewers in 2014? I know I can't, but at the same time I certainly wouldn't wish to go back to a time when our choices were limited to only a handful of locally crafted brews.

Still, in light of everything that's happened, it's somewhat amazing to consider the local industry's youth. Seven production breweries and one brewpub celebrated their first anniversary in 2014 and, barring setbacks, six breweries and a brewpub will do the same in 2015. On top of that, at least a dozen more brewing operations are in the works, with a fair portion of these poised to open in the very near future.

That notwithstanding, you can't help feeling like a sense of stability has been brought on by the long-term success and continued popularity of both Franconia and Rahr & Sons. Franconia celebrated its fifth anniversary during 2013, while Rahr marked its tenth year this past fall. In fact, Rahr's accomplishment is historical in that the brewery is the first to stay in business for at least 10 years during the microbrewing era. That era, for those that are interested, began in 1976 with the opening of New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, California. Even more impressive, Rahr is now also the longest sustaining "local" brewery since Prohibition (in other words, we're not counting Miller), beating out the Dallas-Fort Worth Brewing Company which existed from 1941 to 1951. And, to top it all off, Rahr brewed its 1000th batch over the summer, while also working with Lakewood on DFW, the first ever collaboration between North Texas brewers.

Speaking of beer firsts, it's also worth mentioning the release of Rubberneck Red, a joint effort from Martin House and the Toadies, as well as Franconia's Tripel Dunkel, named as the Ticket's top beer of North Texas Beer Week, and Community's Funnel Cake Ale, which was brewed exclusively for the State Fair of Texas and also won Most Creative in that event's food competition.

So, what else? Where do we go from here? Many still say the sky is the limit, and while that may be the case for now, the industry did experience its first closings from among the new breed of brewers during 2014. Retail and tap space isn't infinite, and with new beers being released constantly by both local and national breweries, competition will only get tougher. Confucius say: Those yet to enter the market should probably have a good business plan to go along with a recipe for good beer.

As for the year's highlights, we'll keep it to the standard stuff...that is, a summary of what's new, followed by some worthwhile brews. Let's get to it...

Comings and Goings

Last year at this time, there were 16 production breweries operating in North Texas. Now, twelve months later there are 21. Newcomers include The Collective Brewing Project, Panther Island, Shannon Brewing, Audacity Brew House, Bearded Eel and the Texas Ale Project. If you're doing the math in your head, you may be thinking those numbers don't quite add up, but remember we also lost a brewery this year after Independent Ale Works ceased production in Krum. There's hope for fans of Indy, though, as some beers may re-emerge as part of the Muenster Brewing Company expected to open sometime next year.

As for brewpubs, the December opening of Small Brewpub in Oak Cliff represents the first new entity of its kind to open in Dallas since Union Bear, which as it turns out closed its doors in September. It too may rise from the dead, however, after the concept was purchased by the 33 Restaurant Group, who says they'll revive the Bear if a suitable location can be found. Elsewhere, two area restaurants added brewing operations early in the year, as small-batch brews are now on the menu at the Malai Kitchen in Dallas, and at Kirin Court in Richardson.

For a little historical perspective, see the chart below. As it stands now, North Texas has more active brewing operations than at any other time in history.

Data shown represents changes in number of local brewers (not counting Miller) since the first
North Texas craft brewery opened in 1982 (Reinheitsgebot Brewing Company of Plano).

Want more? You'll get more with the expected openings of Bitter Sisters, Four Bullets, Nine Band, Noble Rey, Braindead, 3 Nations, On Rotation, Tupps and Intrinsic Brewing. The last of these is the only one that has yet to begin actual construction, while 3 Nations will assume control of Grapevine's current facility once that company moves from Farmers Branch.

Growth and Expansion

Whether it be Deep Ellum raising their roof to make room for additional capacity, or FireWheel moving to a more expansive building in Rowlett, nearly every local brewer has taken steps to produce more beer going forward. New tanks were brought online at 903, Cedar Creek, Four Corners and Franconia (and likely others), while Armadillo found a home in Denton, and Grapevine began construction on a permanent address in its namesake city. Of all of the moves, though, perhaps the most ambitious one was made by Lakewood. In April, the brewery revealed it had acquired an adjacent lot upon which it planned to build a new 14,000 square foot facility, which when added to their current allotment of 11,000 square feet would more than double their overall operating space. Not only that, it was noted that annual production numbers were expected to reach upwards of 80,000 barrels in the next five to ten years.

In terms of packaging, Four Corners made news by becoming the first in Texas to debut cans featuring the fully removable 360 End lid, an innovation that will be adopted by 903 once they transition from bottles to cans early in 2015. And speaking of 903 (bombers), this year they joined Grapevine (cans), Shannon Brewing (bombers) and Rabbit Hole (750mL bottle) in being among those who packaged and sold their beers at retail for the first time.

As for others, Rahr & Sons opted for aluminum after years of only bottling with the release of Rahr's Blond and Pride of Texas Pale Ale in cans, while the Collective Brewing Project became the first North Texas brewery to offer take-home beer in crowlers.

Up next? In the coming months, look for Rabbit Hole to offer their year-round beers in cans and for Cobra to begin selling bombers of select brews in their portfolio.

And the winner is...

With medals awarded at both the World Beer Cup (WBC) and Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in 2014, North Texas brewers continue to make a name for themselves at major competitions. A total of nine medals were awarded between these two events, including 5 gold and 4 bronze. Going back just three years, which encompasses the time period of the local craft beer boom, area brewers have brought home a running total of 13 medals (8 gold, 1 silver, 4 bronze) from the WBC and GABF combined.

2014 World Beer Cup:
  • Gold - Community Witbier
  • Bronze - Deep Ellum Four Swords, Rahr & Sons Stormcloud
2014 Great American Beer Festival:
  • Gold - Armadillo Quakertown Stout, Community Public Ale, Grapevine Sir William's English Brown Ale, 2012 Peticolas Great Scot!
  • Bronze - Rahr & Sons The Regulator, Community Ascension Coffee Porter

Prizes were also awarded this year at the United States Beer Tasting Championship (Community, Lakewood, Peticolas, Rahr & Sons, Revolver), the United States Open Beer Championship (Community, Lakewood, Peticolas, Rahr & Sons) and the Los Angeles International Beer Competition (Community, Rahr & Sons).

The year in beer

Just in case you're new to the blog, I'll give a quick rundown as to how I choose to cover the year in beer. Given that I don't try every single beer to appear in our market over the course of a year, I don't really believe in the idea of a "best of" or "top ten" list. That said, there are always a few beers I enjoyed more than others, so I tend to just jot those down and present them in my own way. The only stipulation being the beer has to be "new," meaning it was either brewed or sold in the state for the first time in 2014.

Some of what's new, of course, gets drawn from brands newly distributed to North Texas. A list of such products might include Atwater, Champion Brewing, Elevation, Epic, Fish Brewing, Foolproof, Hermitage, Humboldt, Jolly Pumpkin, Kentucky Ales, Mission Brewery, Nebraska Brewing, Odell, No-Li, SanTan and Smuttynose. Of course, that doesn't include new products from either overseas or Texas breweries outside the Metroplex, but I'm not sure I could compile a list of them all if I tried.

In any case, what follows are some of my favorite beers from 2014. Among those not fitting into any of my chosen categories below are Franconia Tripel Dunkel, Lakewood French Quarter Temptress, Mikkeller Mosaic, Prairie Bible Belt, Rodenbach Caractère Rouge and Wäls Petroleum. Remember everyone has their own taste, so it's only natural that my choices may differ significantly from yours...

Fridge staple:  Grapevine Sir William's English Brown Ale

Maybe the most talked about local beer of 2014, Sir William's first gained notoriety after being named the best beer in Dallas by D Magazine. From there it went on to be named Best in Show at the Best Little Brewfest in Texas prior to winning a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Award-winning or not, it's the flavor and complexity of Sir William's that makes it destined to be part of my regular rotation. Flavors reminiscent of cocoa powder and chocolate syrup are backed by hints of roasted malt and a nutty character that comes out as the beer warms. It's malty with a medium body, light esters and a smooth finish. In other words...who says brown ales have to be boring?

Also notable: Deep Ellum Oak Cliff Coffee Ale

Spot on to style:  Peticolas Irish Goodbye

Much like Alfred Brown, another brew from Peticolas that took this category last year, Irish Goodbye is representative of a style of beer I enjoyed when first starting my exploration into the world of craft beer. Categorized as an Irish red, this beer is a low gravity, malt-focused brew featuring caramel, toffee and a hint of roasted grain. It's an ale, but is clean like a lager with minimal esters and only a faint finishing bitterness. As the header suggests, should you find yourself enjoying a pint of Irish Goodbye come March, the first words that should come to mind are "to style." If for some reason they don't, or if you don't otherwise think this beer is a liquid rendition of the style guidelines, you need only ask yourself one question: Are you sure you're drinking the right beer?

A more flavorful lager:  Founders Dissenter

Like the commercial description says, Dissenter is an exceptionally clean beer with bright, fresh citrus and tropical fruit flavors. Hop-forward with ample strength, this India pale lager is arguably more flavorful than some IPAs.

A truly "black" IPA: Founders Dark Penance

The contradictory nature of a black pale ale aside, Dark Penance may be the perfect example of what a black IPA should be. Rather than trying to balance the richness of dark roasted malt with huge hop flavors, Founders chooses instead to simply change the color of what would otherwise be a stylistic IPA by using Midnight Wheat. This particular grain adds the requisite color with only a subtle hint of flavor and none of the astringency that can sometimes be introduced with roasted malt. Pour yourself a glass and cue the Rolling Stones..."I want it painted black."

Roll out the barrels: Epic Big Bad Baptist (Release #37, bourbon barrels)

There are more barrel-aged beers on the market than I care to count (evidenced by the lengthy runner-up list below), but if there was one beer I kept coming back to time after time in 2014, it was Epic's Big Bad Baptist. A beer with rich coffee flavors and layered dark chocolate, I've purchased numerous bombers with the intent on aging a few, but I just keep drinking them. Thankfully, this beer can still be found on shelves around town, so maybe...just maybe I'll manage to stash one away before they're all gone.

Also notable: Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee (bourbon barrels), Humboldt Black Xantus (bourbon and wine barrels), No Label Perpetual Peace (bourbon barrels), Harviestoun Ola Dubh 1991 (Scotch whiskey barrels), Community Bourbon Barrel Aged Glenstemmons, Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale.

North Texas beer of the year:  Armadillo Ale Works Brunch Money

An imperial golden stout brewed with thirteen different ingredients, Brunch Money was far and away the most interesting beer I tried all year. The beer is well-executed, to say the least, considering how Armadillo was able to maintain balance while bringing together flavors of coffee, cacao nibs, lactose, maple and vanilla. You won't convince me it tastes like waffles or pancakes, given that I don't really pick up any doughy elements, and it might better be billed as a pale stout (it's more of a ruddy amber color), but of all the North Texas beers newly released in 2014, I can't think of another I've enjoyed more.

Cheers and Happy New Year!

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