Few industries have exploded in North Texas like craft beer. The number of breweries and brewpubs has skyrocketed from eight in 2010 to more than 50 in 2016.
The numbers are no doubt staggering, but they may inaccurately depict the region as a craft beer powerhouse. While Texas, and specifically North Texas, have come a long way in cultivating a craft beer scene, enthusiasts and industry experts suggest there's still a ways to go in contending with hotspots such as Oregon and Colorado.
David Gardener, a Texan who now works as marketing and events manager for Living the Dream Brewing Co. in Littleton, Colo., has experienced the best of both beer worlds. If he had to use one word to describe Texas craft beer right now?
"I would say 'emerging,'" Gardener said. And there may not, in fact, be a more accurate assessment.
Consider that just two microbreweries -- Rahr and Sons Brewing Co. in Fort Worth and Bitter Sisters Brewery in Addison -- distribute beyond state lines. That means unless drinkers have come to the Lone Star State, there's little chance they've tried what the local breweries have to offer.
The Great American Beer Festival in Denver is an obvious exception. The 35th annual event last month welcomed 48 Texas breweries, 13 of them from Dallas-Fort Worth. But put alongside some of the best craft brews in the nation, could North Texas make a splash?
When Aaron Britt, a Denver resident by way of Ohio, thinks of Texas beer, the only name that comes to mind is Shiner, which he called "PBR for Texas." This year marked his fifth time to attend the Denver festival, and still he hadn't shaken that notion.
Britt's festival companion, Johnny Warner, said that even on a recent trip to Dallas, he wasn't able to tap into the local scene because he didn't happen upon any brewpubs or trendy burger joints.
"I noticed a lot of the same stuff you see here [in Colorado]," Warner said. "We weren't looking for [local craft beer], and it didn't come find us."
One of the biggest reasons Texas craft beer hasn't earned a reputation is that, until recently, there was hardly an industry to brag about.
In 2013, several laws in Texas changed to significantly lower the barriers to entry for craft breweries. Among the benefits, the Legislature doubled the annual production capacity for brewpubs, which enabled new operations to get into the market on a more worthwhile scale. The law also changed to permit breweries to sell on site directly to consumers, which provided a new source of revenue for bigger businesses.
This spurred tremendous growth statewide. In fact, the number of breweries that have gained licensing since the law changed exceeds those that existed prior to it, according to the Brewers Association.
Dallas-Fort Worth alone welcomed 24 breweries from 2013 to 2015. (One has closed, and 12 opened or expect to open this year.)
"We've seen more dramatic change in Texas than just about any other state, with the exception of Florida," said Bart Watson, the Brewers Association's chief economist.
Charles Vallhonrat, executive director of the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, is hopeful there will be more change. Though the guild won't officially release its platform until closer to the 2017 legislative session, one of its top priorities will be advocating for to-go sales for breweries. In fact, Deep Ellum Brewing Co. and Grapevine Craft Brewery are in litigation with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to attain that same right to sell packaged beer to go.
State laws may have prohibited Texas' beer scene from developing in tandem with other renowned spots, such as Colorado or California, but that may not be entirely a bad thing. According to the Brewers Association, craft beer growth hit 8 percent over the first six months of the year, the slowest rate since 2013.
Texas, however, could be somewhat insulated from any repercussions of a slowing craft beer market since it's still in its infancy, said Watson.
"In other states, we've seen a virtuous cycle where new, small breweries open, they introduce more beer lovers to the joy that is fresh, local beer, and that actually creates more demand opportunities," he said. "We'll see if that happens in Texas."
This honeymoon phase, of course, cannot last forever.
Fritz Rahr opened Rahr and Sons Brewing Co. in Fort Worth 12 years ago, and while he believes there's still opportunity for industry growth in Texas, he admits competition is strong. Local breweries are not only up against others in D-FW, but also the myriad beers now making their way to bars, restaurants and retailers from outside the state.
"I'll say this: I don't know if I'd want to be a brewery opening up in today's market," Rahr said. "There's just so much to choose from now that I think it would be difficult to gain any sort of handhold to sustain."
Gardener of Living the Dream expects Texas will up its game over the next five years as competition increases and weeds out the subpar breweries.
"There's going to be more competition, more people entering the market, and then the beer's just going to get better because of that," he said. "And not everyone survives."
The breweries that perhaps have the best chance of gaining regional or even national recognition are those that team up with big beer. This year, at least three Texas breweries were picked up by bigger companies, including Revolver Brewing in Granbury, which sold a majority stake to MillerCoors in hopes of expanding its distribution.
Gardener, like most at the Denver festival, pointed to Austin as the state's most noteworthy craft beer exporter. Attendees most often cited Jester King Brewery or Austin Beerworks as the upper echelon of producers. And after the Great American Beer Festival awards on Oct. 8, Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co., which won Large Brewpub of the Year, also put the spotlight on the state's capital.
North Texas appears to be an up-and-comer by Great American Beer Festival standards, too. From 2010 to 2016, judges awarded the region 19 medals, 10 of which were gold. A gold from GABF is widely regarded as one of the highest honors a brewer can attain. In 2016, which wasn't as prosperous as previous years, just four medals were awarded to D-FW brews.
While Texas' 2016 haul included 10 medals, the biggest winner was California, with 68 medals. So it's no surprise the most crowded areas during the three-day festival were among regions with the best reputation -- for example, the Pacific and Pacific Northwest. (Booths at GABF are arranged by geographic area.)
So how does an emerging scene make a name for itself? One might argue by starting at the ground level.
According to 2015 data from the Brewers Association, Texas ranked seventh in the country by number of active breweries (189 statewide). However, that translates to just one brewery per 100,000 people of drinking age, which puts the state 42nd by breweries per capita. The association reported that Texas produces 1.9 gallons of beer per adult 21 years and older.
Compare that with significantly smaller states, such as Oregon and Colorado, where there are more than seven breweries per 100,000 people, and it's obvious Texas has room to grow. Local brewers, many of whom now make their products available in Austin, Houston, Waco and surrounding areas, will be the first to say serving the Lone Star State is a big task.
Tapping into tourism
Margo Metzger, executive director of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, said only a handful of the state's 180-plus breweries sell their suds beyond state lines. Instead of advocating distribution, her organization works to promote beer tourism.
"We do have some brands that are recognized nationally or regionally, but most of the time [breweries] are so small, the only way to try it is to come into that market and to sample it, which is the most beautiful way to experience beer," Metzger said.
"You get the flavor of that community, you get the flavor of people in the taproom, you get the flavor of the food truck pulled up out back," she said. "It's very much an experience."
Steve Kurowski, marketing director for the Colorado Brewers Guild, agrees. While he believes there's no formula for developing a strong reputation in craft beer, Kurowski says many Colorado breweries distribute to the Lone Star State first because seasonal tourism to the mountains from Texas organically cultivates a southern consumer base. But if the scene here picks up steam, Colorado brands may not gain as strong a following in Texas as they previously did, he says.
"Beer tourism is a very, very real thing," Kurowski said. "Craft beer lovers will spend time, money, and travel to go to breweries they've never been to and try beer they've never had before. ... North Texas can take advantage of this like anywhere else in the country."
The keys to fruitful craft beer industry depend heavily on regulation, Vallhonrat said. Part of that includes allowing retail sales to occur at larger manufacturers and enabling the TABC to support changes in the law.
"We want to encourage people to come into Texas and try our unique beers, especially since they are somewhat limited to Texas," Vallhonrat said.