North Texas' beer scene seems to be growing by the day. Well, actually it is -- at least six new brewing operations have opened this year so far.
But for as many changes the local industry has experienced, rest assured there are as many more to come. Luckily for those craving a frosty pint, the latest trends to invade D-FW aim to enhance the overall experience.
Legislation passed in 2013 tilled the soil for brewery taprooms and brewpubs that have recently been sprouting up around the cities and suburbs like wildflowers, giving residents more opportunities to hop on the bandwagon.
Beers 'n bites
There are traditional brewpubs, but local entrepreneurs are also finding unconventional ways to spin the model. Their one commonality is an ability to brew small batches and rotate offerings frequently.
Most people might recognize the standard brewpub, a comfortable spot to grab a bite and a beer, both made on-site. What sets recent openings like BrainDead Brewing in Deep Ellum apart from predecessors is a higher level of expertise behind the brew kettle, says Paul Hightower, beer blogger and co-author of North Texas Beer: A Full-Bodied History of Beer in Dallas, Fort Worth and Beyond.
"Brewers in the '90s, this was their first professional brewing experience," he says. "Now you can go and hire a brewer with 15 or 20 years' experience at a big brewery."
There's another influence at play here, too, Hightower says -- the cultural shift toward eating local. The popularity is "part of the whole restaurant, foodie phase," he says.
"People like the local food, the local beer and they like them in the same place."
Several new brewpubs make a case for that argument, such as Small Brewpub in Oak Cliff, which snagged chef Misti Norris from the prestigious FT33 to head the kitchen. As Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Leslie Brenner found out, this isn't average pub grub. She described Small Brewpub, which offers plates such as chicken feet and charcuterie, as "daring and original," giving it three stars in a February review.
BrainDead Brewing's chef David Pena won over palates at a beer-chili cook-off at the beginning of the year, earning the title of judges' and crowd's favorite a month before the business opened. (That chili is currently on the menu.)
Not all local brewpubs serve eats, however. Spots like On Rotation in East Dallas function simply as bars, with house brews on tap alongside others from around the region and country.
"As homebrewers, we always did small batches and did something different every time, and that was exciting," says Jacob Sloan, who owns On Rotation with his wife, Lindsay. "Rather than build a brewery and put kegs out there, we built everything around a taproom where people could enjoy beer."
Seeing the continued success of the craft-beer market in North Texas has inspired another slightly different breed of brewpubs -- restaurants that are adding house-brewed beer to the menu, and doing so without making major operational or structural changes.
One example is Malai Kitchen in Dallas' West Village, which introduced three original beers last summer.
Manager Joel Levin brews them on a five-barrel kit in the back of the restaurant, which saves Malai from having to purchase industrial equipment. Additionally, the beer is available only on-site, so there's no need for the restaurant to have a packaging line or distribution agreement.
Microbreweries disguised as brewpubs
The tipping point for many came during the 2013 legislative session, when the Texas Legislature passed a bill that doubled the annual production limit for brewpubs to 10,000 barrels and allowed brewpubs to sell at retail establishments other than their own for the first time. This nuanced change in the law inspired brewers more interested in production and distribution than hospitality to jump in the game with brewpub licenses. Why?
"To-go beer," says Ryan Deyo, co-founder and head brewer of 5-month-old Collective Brewing Project in Fort Worth.
According to Texas law, bars and brewpubs can acquire a wine and beer retailer's permit, which allows them to sell beer for off-premise consumption. The most popular way to do this in North Texas is with growlers, glass or ceramic vessels that are filled from the tap for customers to take home.
Deyo says the brewpub license is great for start-ups because it not only enables them to send customers home with their product, but also allows them to host bottle releases on-site. Plus, it gives Collective room to grow into a brewer's license. (Notable Texas craft brewery Jester King actually reverted from brewer's license to brewpub because of the benefits.)
The permit comes with caveats, however, as Shannon Brewing Co. founder Shannon Carter has learned. A brewpub can self-distribute up to 1,000 barrels annually before legally having to contract a distributor to handle the business. Not only is Carter grazing that threshold, but he's also nearing the production cap with an expected 4,000 to 5,000 barrels brewed in his first year.
"If I keep going then I have to give up my packaged goods," he says. "It's really limiting small businesses."
Despite the perceived limits, more craft breweries keep laying roots. Bitter Sisters Brewery became Addison's first in recent memory in April, Tupps Brewery opened in McKinney on May 2, and Noble Rey Brewing Co. is on course to open in Dallas this summer. Some worry the market may be over-saturated, but Carter and others aren't worried about that.
"There's room in the market for all of us; each brewery is filling a niche," Carter says. "It's awesome for the consumer."