Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Year in review: No slowdown in the North Texas beer scene

All logos and graphics are the property of their respective owners.

When I sat down to review the North Texas year in beer, it didn't take me long to come up with a phrase to use as an overall theme. A year ago, I leaned on a movie reference to the Fast and the Furious films, which I think is still very much relevant today. As the number of local breweries grows, however, I find that these days my thought process is more along the lines of...the higher and higher it goes, where it'll stop, nobody knows.

Indeed, as is shown below, we're talking record numbers in terms of how many brewing operations currently exist in the region. And there's not just more beer from here, there's more beer from everywhere, as more and more high quality national brands continue to filter into the state. Taken together, it's made for an environment unlike anything we've ever seen here locally. Not so long ago, the question used to be "do you know of any bars or restaurants that carry craft beer?," whereas now I sometimes wonder who in their right mind doesn't?

The most amazing thing, though, is the fact that all of this has happened over the course of just five years. I can only imagine what the scene will look like five more years down the road. For now, though, we'll focus on all the things that went on in 2015. As in years past, I've broken things down into subject areas, and included a few of my favorite beers from the year to close things out. I don't know that there's any way to cover all that's happened over these last 12 months, but hopefully I've hit on some key points.

Comings and Goings

Twelve months ago, 33 brewing operations called North Texas home, Now a year later, add 14 and subtract 3, and that number stands at 44. Take into account both the additions and subtractions and that translates to a net growth rate of just over 33% for 2015.

  • Breweries: On Rotation, Nine Band, Tupps, Bitter Sisters, Four Bullets, Ivanhoe Ale Works, 3 Nations, Noble Rey, Oak Highlands, Woodcreek, Division.
  • Brewpubs: Braindead, Barley & Board, Intrinsic Smokehouse & Brewery.
  • Breweries: FireWheel, Bearded Eel.
  • Brewpubs: Kirin Court (ceased brewing operations, but restaurant is still open).

Source: Individual research.

Things don't look to be slowing down either, with Hemisphere, Hop Fusion, Legal Draft, Thirsty Bro, Wild Acre and Whistle Post currently under construction, and well over a half-dozen more (including some you probably haven't heard of yet) actively being developed. On top of that, the Colorado-based Backcountry Brewery has assumed control of FireWheel's facility in Rowlett, with plans to re-open the brewery in February.

Growth and expansion

No fewer than three production breweries made the move to new digs in 2015, with Lakewood leading the way in April after the completion of a 14,000 square foot expansion project in Garland. Following that, Cedar Creek moved to a larger space just a few doors down from its original location in Seven Points, while Grapevine planted roots in its namesake city after operating for more than a year in Farmers Branch.

On deck for 2016, look for Malai Kitchen to open a second location in Southlake, Cobra to undertake an equipment overhaul in Lewisville, and for Armadillo Ale Works to get back to doing what they do in Denton. Images have also been circulating showing a proposed taproom expansion being planned at Rahr & Sons, but details related to that have yet to be made available.

Stocking store shelves

As of today, 21 of the area's 30 production breweries package their products for retail sale (counting crowlers). According to my calculations, 16 breweries sell beer in cans, 8 offer all or a portion of their portfolio in bottles (note that some breweries produce a mix of bottles and cans), and two are equipped for crowlers.

New for 2015:
  • Bottles: Bearded Eel (some of which you may still be able to find), Braindead (limited release at the brewpub), Cobra, and Collective (limited release at the brewery).
  • Cans as the brewery's first packaged product: 3 Nations, Audacity, Nine Band, Oak Highlands, Rabbit Hole, Texas Ale Project and Twin Peaks.
  • Cans after initially producing only bottles: 903 Brewers, Community, Lakewood and Shannon Brewing.
  • Crowlers: Noble Rey.

Up ahead in 2016, Backcountry intends to brew and can four of the company's beers locally, while Wild Acre has already received TABC approval for can label designs to appear on three of its debut products.

Legal wrangling

Industry attempts to gain ground on a number of legal fronts (hosting of homebrew competitions, on-premise sales, direct shipments) were snuffed out completely during the 2015 legislative session. This occurred in large part due to efforts of the distributor lobby to maintain the status quo. In defending the position to oppose further changes in the laws, a spokesman implied that craft brewers are never satisfied in always wanting more, and that they should be happy with how things are, based on how much the industry is growing.

One issue, that of on-premise sales, eventually became the focus of a federal lawsuit filed in September by Deep Ellum Brewing Co. (Grapevine signed on later as a co-plaintiff). In conjunction with this initiative, the brewery raised nearly $35,000 through a crowdfunding campaign dubbed Operation Craft Beer to Go, with the money to be used to help fund the effort. The goal, of course, being to secure the same rights enjoyed by wineries and distilleries, both of which are legally permitted to sell their products directly to the end consumer.

Elsewhere, crowlers became a point of contention after the TABC determined that the use of the canning machine constituted a form of manufacturing, which isn't something retailers are authorized to do. Shops were ordered to remove the machines, leaving brewpubs as the only business entity allowed to employ them. Austin's Cuvee Coffee Bar defied the law as a catalyst to forcing a ruling on the matter, leading the TABC to confiscate the machine from its premises in December. A lawsuit was then filed, meaning the matter is now in the hands of the courts.

Also pending is a 2014 lawsuit brought by Peticolas, Live Oak and Revolver that seeks to allow brewer's to accept compensation for distribution rights.

And the winner is...

In 2015, North Texas brewers continued a streak of gold medal wins dating back to 2012 at the Great American Beer Festival. In that time, adding the six medals awarded in 2015 to running totals from both GABF and the World Beer Cup combined, area brewers have been awarded a total of 19 medals (10 gold, 4 silver, 5 bronze) in just four years.

2015 Great American Beer Festival
  • Gold: Rahr & Sons Oktoberfest, Rahr & Sons The Regulator.
  • Silver: 903 Brewers 2014 Sasquatch, Panther Island Allergeez, Rabbit Hole Rapture.
  • Bronze: Twin Peaks Barrel-Aged Brown Ale.
Prizes were also awarded at the following competitions in 2015:

The year in beer

By my estimation (that is, according to my check-in history) I tried upwards of 150 different local beers in 2015. That number includes year-round and seasonal offerings, as well as one-offs, but the total still far exceeded my expectations. For those who say there isn't much variety in local beer, my first thought is these people aren't making enough of an effort to see what's out there.

Regarding out-of-state brands that are new to Texas, there was once again an influx of well-known names that began distributing here for the first time. A short list includes Alpine (by way of Green Flash), Bayou Tech, Cascade, Evil Twin, Funkwerks, New Holland, Ninkasi, Stillwater Artisan and Urban Family. No doubt more are on the way, as evidenced by the pending arrival of Alesmith in a few short weeks.

As for a few favorites, I'll go my usual route and share them by way of mock categories that apply to each beer presented. Yes, there's a bit of a local slant, but remember that this is a local blog that focuses primarily on promoting local beers. Anyway, the standard disclaimers apply...beers have to be new to Texas in 2015 (though, there is one necessary exception), or at least new to me...and most importantly, tastes differ, so it's understood that not everyone will share the same opinion with respect to my choices.

Fridge staple: Oak Highlands DFDub

Ask me to make a list of under-represented styles, not just locally but in general as well, and I'd probably put dunkelweizen near the top of the list. Thankfully, Oak Highlands has filled that gap with DFDub, a well-executed, stylistic dunkelweizen that's now available year-round in cans.

Top of the Hops: Founders Redankulous

Regardless of whether you call Founders Redankulous an imperial red, an IPA or both like it says on the bottle label, this bright and bitter beer from one of my favorite out-of-state breweries could not have had a more appropriate name. As far as the judges at GABF are concerned, it's an imperial red, since the beer won gold in that category in 2015.

Also notable: Boulevard The Calling, Franconia Ice Bock DIPA, Community Oaked Mosaic IPA.

Roll out the barrels: Community Barrel Aged Legion (Batch 2)

Given the continued proliferation of barrel-aged beers, the best way for me to judge what I consider to be a favorite in this category comes down to finding a beer that I keep coming back to, even when presented with other arguably equivalent options. This year, that beer is Community Barrel Aged Legion Batch 2. The fifth incarnation of BA Legion is out now, but for me batch 2 had far and away the best overall balance between bourbon and beer.

Also notable: 903 Brewers Balcones Barrel Aged Sasquatch (whiskey), 2015 Southern Star Black Crack (whiskey), Prairie Okie (whiskey), Ballast Point Rum Barrel Aged Victory at Sea, Shannon Chocolate Rum Stout, Nebraska Melange a Trois (chardonnay), Karbach Trigave (tequila).

What's old is new again (a.k.a. a great beer from last year): 2014 Cobra Kitchen Sink

The idea for this category came about after seeing North Texas brewers win medals in the Aged Beer category at GABF for two years running. My choice? A beer from what might just be the most improved brewery in North Texas over the last couple of years. The 2014 edition of Kitchen Sink from Cobra was a revelation when I had it fresh last year, and while it wasn't as intense after aging another 12 months, it was still a damn good beer when poured at the brewery's third anniversary party a few weeks back. Unfortunately, I helped empty the last remaining keg...oops!

Great taste of Texas: Clown Shoes A Fistful of Unidragon

Smoked beers are something I'd like to see a lot more of, especially here in Texas given the state's love affair with BBQ. Clown Shoes A Fistful of Unidragon is just such a beer, made better by the fact that it incorporates mesquite-smoked malt grown in Texas. Oh, and it's aged in bourbon barrels too, in case you're into that sort of thing.

Also notable: Clown Shoes The Good, The Bad & The Unidragon (Fistful is the barrel-aged version of this beer), Clown Shoes Crasher in the Rye (Texas oak-smoked malt).

A little something wild (or sour): Destihl Saint Dekkera Sour Reserve - Zure Dubbele Stout

While Destihl's Zure Dubbele Stout probably could've qualified for a couple of the categories above, given its sour status I feel like it fits best as a favorite here. For whatever reason, I didn't take down any tasting notes, but I do remember it being dark, complex, funky and good.

Also notable: Braindead 10th Anniversary Brett IPA, Collective Blueberry Petite Golden Sour, Lakewood Wild Manimal.

North Texas beer of the year: Deep Ellum Barrel Aged Four Swords (Batch 1)

Deep Ellum's Barrel Aged Four Swords is another beer that's gone through a couple of iterations, but for my money the original batch released in January was hard to beat. Rich, layered caramel fronted a beer that drank more like a vintage port. In some ways it reminded me of Samael's Oak-aged Ale from Avery, though, this beer had bits of fruit complexity that gave it that little something extra.

Cheers and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Shiner Birthday Beer returns as Hoppy Pilsner

Image credit: The Gambrinus Company.

Just in time for the holidays, the latest little white box from the little brewery in Shiner arrived at my door on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Inside it, nestled neatly among strands of green and gold confetti, was Birthday Beer, a.k.a. Shiner 107, a Hoppy Pilsner brewed in celebration of the Spoetzl Brewery's 107th birthday.

Hoppy Pilsner follows last year's bearer of the Birthday Beer label, Chocolate Stout, and comes just two months after Shiner's introduction of another hop-driven brew in the form of Wicked Ram IPA. The new offering is brewed with German pilsner malt and a combination of Hallertau Tradition and Czech Saaz hops to create a beer that embodies the brewery's cultural roots.

As for whether or not the name fits the beer, let me start by saying that the pilsner part of the equation fits rather well. Hoppy Pilsner is light-bodied, dry and refreshing, with bits of crackery malt, a hint of honey-like sweetness and a mix of spicy and grassy hop flavors. Really, outside of a distinct lack of bitterness, the beer would seem to fall right in line with much of what the BJCP considers as standard for the German Pils style.

Whether or not it's hoppy, though, probably depends on how you define that particular term. Is it hoppy like an American IPA? Certainly not, but anyone skilled in the art knows that hoppy doesn't in any way equate to a beer being citrusy, piney or bitter. Words like that only describe the characteristics imparted by specific varieties of hops. Hoppy is more about hop presence, and to what degree the intensity of such is a dominant player in the beer.

In that respect, you could argue that Hoppy Pilsner is hoppy, since the spicy and grassy components attributable to the hops used are fairly prominent. Still, I wouldn't call the beer hop-forward, as the pilsner malt plays a significant role in shaping the overall character. To me, Hoppy Pilsner doesn't lean one way or the other when it comes to being hoppy or malty. Rather, it's balanced, which isn't at all a bad thing.

Maybe it's all just marketing, you know like that whole "session" IPA thing as it applies to an everyday pale ale. I mean, Hoppy Pilsner does sound a lot more interesting than just calling the beer a plain old pilsner. Say that, I suppose, and you start to associate yourself with beers made by the big three. At the end of the day, though, Hoppy Pilsner is just a good basic pilsner, and given the brewery's history and heritage, that's exactly what you'd expect it to be.

Hoppy Pilsner
Style: German Pils
Malt: 2-row German Pilsner
Hops: Hallertau Tradition, Czech Saaz
ABV: 5%
IBU: 30
Availability: Limited in 12-ounce bottles and cans, as well as on tap.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Franconia to embark on 2016 World Tour

World Tour regalia will appear on 4-pack carriers (Franconia Brewing Company).

Every once in a while, Franconia Brewing Co. owner Dennis Wehrmann decides it's time to do something different. It happened in 2013, when he and head brewer Cam Horn sidestepped the brewery's German roots in creating a set of beers in honor of Franconia's fifth anniversary, and it'll happen again in 2016 when the brewery launches a new series of brews called World Tour.

As the name implies, Franconia's World Tour line will be made up of beers inspired by parts of the world outside of Germany. Considering that, you may recall that a similar thing was done with some of the aforementioned anniversary brews and, in fact, one of those (Champagne Ale) will be returning as part of World Tour's first wave of offerings.

Label graphics for English Stout (top), Champagne Ale (bottom left) and Baltic Porter (bottom right).

Intended to be released quarterly, the World Tour Series will debut in February, with subsequent releases occurring every three months for the rest of 2016 and on into the future. Each beer will be brewed on a small-batch basis, and made available for a limited time on draft and in 4-packs of 12-ounce bottles.

Artwork for the series will feature the map and colors of each country's flag. An image of what will appear on 4-pack carriers is shown at the top of the page, with images of the bottle label for English Stout and mock-ups for Champagne Ale and Baltic Porter shown above.

Commenting on his plans, Wehrmann says that the idea behind World Tour is to "show appreciation for other beers and brewing traditions from around the world." Not only that, it's also a way to "have fun and do something unexpected" while brewing beers many would consider outside of the brewery's comfort zone.

On top of World Tour, Wehrmann's 2016 outlook also includes the transition of Franconia Pils to a year-round beer. An early springtime release in the past, the recipe for Pils was altered this year to include the new Lemondrop hop variety. That change will remain in place going forward, with fresh bottles of the beer to begin appearing on shelves in January (expect a new spring seasonal to appear in 2017).

Tentative 2016 release schedule for Franconia's World Tour series:

February: English Stout.
May: Belgian Ale (Belgian-style pale ale brewed with Nuggetzilla hops).
August: Champagne Ale (originally brewed in 2013 as part of the brewery's fifth anniversary series).
November: Baltic Porter.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Colorado's Backcountry Brewery purchases FireWheel operation

Image credit: Backcountry Brewery.

Following the completion of a sale agreement on Saturday, Backcountry Brewery of Frisco, Colorado, has purchased the equipment formerly owned and operated by FireWheel Brewing Co., with the intention of re-opening the brewery in Rowlett.

A relative newcomer to the Texas market, Backcountry signed with Dallas-based FullClip Craft Distributors over the summer, with initial deliveries to the Lone Star State arriving in September. According to owner Charlie Eazor, the move to expand the brewery's market stretched it to full capacity, so it was understood that sooner or later the company might have to look into opening an additional location.

The purchase of FireWheel was really just a matter of timing, according to Eazor, as his company learned of the brewery's fate while attending the Dallas Untapped Festival in November. For Backcountry, he says, it created an opportunity to add production capacity in proximity to "a robust and exciting market where our beers have been well-received." Moreover, setting up shop in Rowlett makes sense when you consider that Eazor anticipates selling more beer in Texas than he does at home.

With the deal now closed, Eazor and members of his production team are in North Texas today to begin the work of transitioning the space, but wholesale changes aren't a part of the plan. Backcountry will run with the existing brewhouse for the foreseeable future, though the next month or so will be spent fine-tuning the brewery's recipes to account for differences in equipment and/or environmental conditions associated with the Rowlett location. Beyond that, Eazor indicated that Backcountry will look to put its own spin on the taproom and beer garden areas, with the goal of "creating a family-friendly atmosphere, where people can relax and feel comfortable while enjoying one of our beers."

As for which beers you'll be able to enjoy, Backcountry will brew four of its products locally, with the lineup to include the company's Amber, Pale Ale, Pilsner and Double IPA. Those brews will also be canned for the Texas market, representing a departure from the bottled beers now being shipped from Colorado. Some bottles will still make their way to Texas, but these will be limited to rotating or seasonal brews like Breakfast Stout and Imperial Saison, or small-batch offerings created as part of the brewery's Artisan Series.

In terms of a timeline, if there are no bumps in the road, Eazor believes Backcountry Texas will be capable of running production batches by mid-to-late January. From there, he hopes to be ready for a grand opening sometime in February, with cans of Backcountry beer (pending TABC label approval) appearing on retail shelves soon after.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Bearded Eel to close at year's end

Image credit: Bearded Eel Craft Brewery.

By way of an announcement on social media, Bearded Eel Craft Brewery of Fort Worth has let it be known that it will close on December 31.

Former educators B. J. and Becky Burnett left their jobs in 2013 to pursue their dream of opening a brewery in the community where they both grew up. Motivated by words they used to describe a good, strong brew, they created Bearded Eel's identity based on an anagram of the phrase "leaded beer."

The brewery's official grand opening took place in October 2014, with Bearded Eel remaining a draft-only operation until select products were offered in 22-ounce bombers in August of this year. Over time, the brewery released as many as a dozen different beers, including Texican (a serrano-infused pale ale), Purple Unicorn (a farmhouse wit IPA hybrid) and Bee Funky (a sour mash farmhouse ale).

Personal reasons were given as the catalyst for closing, but the husband-and-wife team said they intend to stay involved in the local brewing community with the development of a new website and YouTube channel. There, they plan to share not only their love of beer, but also all of the brewery's recipes.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Intrinsic now serving barbecue and beer in Garland

Image credit: Intrinsic Smokehouse & Brewery.

Following a grand opening event on Saturday, December 5, Intrinsic Smokehouse & Brewery is now operating in downtown Garland.

Originally known simply as Intrinsic Brewing, the business first appeared on the scene in October 2014. It was then that owners Cary and Molly Hodson launched a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of obtaining additional investment to help get the project off the ground. The initiative, which raised over $30,000 on CrowdBrewed, was boosted by the brewpub's offering of "free beer for life" as one of the rewards for contributing to the cause.

Six months later, the Hodson's joined forces with Taylor Morgan, a.k.a. Pitmaster Tex, who had been a staple at area brewery events providing on-site food service in the form of slow-smoked Texas BBQ, complimented by his own line of condiments branded as Junior's Texas Sauce. Together the group would introduce the re-imagined barbecue and beer concept as Intrinsic Smokehouse & Brewery.

This, of course, led up to the festivities held this past weekend, as the brewpub welcomed patrons with beer offerings upfront and an a-la-carte menu of barbecue options in the back. Five house brews were tapped on opening day, with the lineup consisting of G-Town Gratzer, IP80 IPA, Lunch Date Blonde, Picker Porter and Tamarind Habanero. A number of guest taps were also available, featuring products from other North Texas brewers.

If you happened to miss the party, Intrinsic will be open six days a week (Tuesday-Thursday) starting today, with both lunch and dinner service planned on the food side of things, and craft beer to-go being an option for those just wanting to stop in and pick up a growler fill. As for the beer, now that the brewpub up and running, house recipes will rotate somewhat, with a dry stout and a doppelbock being among the styles to be introduced over the course of the next few weeks.

Intrinsic Smokehouse & Brewery 
509 W. State Street

Friday, December 4, 2015

Deep Ellum sets up Play Date for wide release

Play Date (5.4% ABV, 8 IBU).
Image courtesy of Deep Ellum Brewing Co.

Originally a draft only product unveiled as part of the brewery's 4 Year Anniversary Extravaganza in November, Deep Ellum Brewing Co. today announced the pending wide-release of Play Date.

Described by the brewery as "juicy...with notes of sun-kissed fruit, lemon, citrus and melon," Play Date is an American sour ale brewed with Medjool dates. The fruit itself is highly regarded for its nutritional value, and in Middle Eastern culture the Medjool variety is known as the king of dates.

As for how the beer came together, brewer Barrett Tillman says, "We start with our iconic Dallas Blonde as the base and ferment it to dryness with Medjool dates; the earthy tea presence of the dates plays well with acidity to create an ale that is truly free-spirited and unique in character. Shy of puckering, the resulting tartness is our homage to an unforgettable first kiss."

According to a press release, Play Date will be available on draft and in 22-ounce bottles beginning December 8, with meet-and-greet launch events featuring Tillman scheduled to occur at the following locations:

Tuesday, December 8 at The Bottle Shop in Dallas, from 4-7 p.m.
Thursday, December 10 at The Bearded Monk in Denton, from 6-9 p.m.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Go behind the curtain at Carling

Aerial image of the completed Carling Brewery in Ft. Worth (May 1964).

If you've got some free time and are looking to turn back the clock while taking in a bit of North Texas brewing history, the Special Collections division of the University of Texas at Arlington Library has made available an online database of images depicting the former Carling Brewing Company of Ft. Worth.

Carling, as you may know, predated Miller Brewing Company on the site where MillerCoors now operates on I-35W, just south of I-20 in Ft. Worth (the physical address is 7001 South Freeway). The Canadian brewery began construction on the property in January 1963, but what was to be "The World's Most Modern Brewery" never managed to get fully up and running due to production issues. This led to the eventual buyout by Miller in 1966, with various expansions and upgrades over the years leading to the facility we see today.

Images of Carling (dating from 1963-1965) are archived at UTA as part of the W.D. Smith Photography Negatives Collection, with over 140 entries providing a glimpse of both the interior and exterior of the plant at various stages of its construction and development. In addition to numerous aerial shots of the outside of the building, images of the inside capture views of employee common areas, as well as virtually all aspects of the manufacturing process.

Above and below, I've put together a preview of what can be found in the collection, which is accessible at the following website: Once there, click "Search" at the upper right and enter "Carling" as your search term.


Click thumbnails to link directly to the gallery at UTA where you can view full size images (clicking will open a new tab/window):

Early and late-stage construction (left: March 1963, right: October 1963)

Left: Brewing system control board (1964).
Right: Liquid adjunct tank with a capacity of 400 barrels (1964).

Left: Fermentation tanks with a capacity of 1000 barrels (1964).
Right: Storage room lined with 1000-barrel tanks (1964).

Above: Packaging line, including a bottle washer (upper right) capable of processing 14,840 bottles at a time, and a label machine (just out of view to the left) capable of labeling 270 bottles per minute (1964).

Note: All images are the property of University of Texas at Arlington and are used here in accordance with the terms of the non-commercial license found here.