Small breweries are pouring new life into the Hill Country
Craft breweries across the region, from Blanco to Fredericksburg and Dripping Springs to New Braunfels, are attracting locals and weekend road trippers from all over Texas — and even a few from across the country. Those visitors are also providing an economic boost to small towns that just a decade ago looked a lot sleepier.
Many small towns lost businesses due to nearby urban shopping areas or online shopping, leaving behind empty or dying stores on town squares and main drags.
Pecan Street Brewery Co-Owner Jackie Bresie in Johnson City said they repurposed a building across from the vintage Blanco County Courthouse on the square into a pub, where they have served customers since 2011.
"It used to be the old Blanco County Hardware Store, so it's two Quonset huts that are put together and this is the place where people used to come, the ranchers to get their monthly provisions, find out what was going on in the area, and it's still a a place of connection today. It's really that connection in its bones. And people are gathering around great craft beer and good southern dishes," Bresie said.
Breweries like Pecan Street bring in visitors and dollars not seen a decade ago. Bresie said many travelers passing through are looking for closer getaways.
"I think with people not being able to travel internationally as much, due to COVID, they've been doing more staycations. So that's been a blessing for us in this area and really people have gotten exposure to how great the craft industry is here in the Hill Country," she said.
She added their visitors also include those coming in from tours at the nearby LBJ Ranch and Texas White House — a U.S. National Park.
Taylor Lopur is the brewer at Pecan Street. He said they have a beer to suit most tastes, from light to dark and sweet to bitter.
"You know, we try to have a lineup that appeases everybody's sense of palate. We have 13 taps on right now," he said.
He gave TPR a tour of his operations and large vats that produce around 350 barrels a year for the customers inside and in the beer garden out back.
He explained what he loves about being a brewer.
"I like drinking beer. I like talking about beer. I like talking to people that enjoy beer and so I really like watching people experience new beers and expanding their palates in that way."
Near Pecan Street Brewing in Johnson City is Reck 'Em Right Brewing, which sits close to the LBJ house. It's owned by proud Texas Tech alumni Tim Jung.
He agrees that craft beer makers have helped revive the local economy.
"When I moved here, it was because I got a job teaching here and this whole 290-Main Street corridor was pretty much empty. There weren't even for rent signs in the windows. It was just empty. And in the course of probably 10 years, it has filled up and it is that industry that's primarily driving it."
Jung said he always wanted to be his own boss and brew beer. He has been a longtime home brewer. He opened his small brewery and pub in 2019 and was able to make it through the pandemic with the help of his teacher pay. He has now turned his math and science teaching skills into running Reck 'Em Right full-time.
He brews once a week using a three barrel system.
"It's an open system and I think it lends to the quality of the beer and keeping it closer to home brew than it is to commercialized," said Jung.
His best sellers are Reck 'Em Red Ale and Pesky Possum Pilsner. He said they have a big bingo night on Wednesdays. Half of the winnings go to a local charity and the other half go to the winner.
"We make a lot of people happy with what we brew here and what we do here," Jung said.
The last brewery on the Texas Public Radio stop was at Real Ale in Blanco, just off of 281 North. It has grown from producing 1,000 barrels a year, 26 years ago, to around 50,000 barrels a year today.
It has a relatively new brewery, topped by a tap room, lying behind a large rustic parking lot and surrounded by live oaks that tower over an outdoor beer garden.
Real Ale brands include Fireman's 4 and Devil's Backbone, the nickname of the nearby steep-hilled Texas Highway 32 between San Marcos and Blanco. They are among Real Ale's brands that can be found in grocery stores and convenience stores across Texas.
Head brewer Eric Casey said their growth does not come at the expense of quality.
"We would always love to sell more beer, but I will say that we are also very happy with keeping things within Texas and that's principle to our philosophy about beer. I mean the way that we do beer very naturally. It's not going to have the same quality and it's not going to live up to our standards if we were to ship, to say, I don't know, Louisiana or California, or wherever," he said.
Casey said they have a lot of variety.
"We probably have, and I'm not counting, but 14 to 15 year-round brands. So, we have a broad range of beers. We do everything from snap and crispy lagers to some hazy IPA stuff and what a lot of people don't do, big dark multi-beers as well. So we kind of hit just about every pocket when it comes to beer styles that you could hope to as a brewery," he said.
Casey said what he loves about the small brewery scene is its lack of competitiveness with other breweries and family-like relations with co-workers, something other nearby brewers expressed, too.
"Most people probably don't know that the principal craft brewers in this state, those that started these breweries, St. Arnold's, Real Ale, Live Oak, folks that have been around for a very long time, all use to just get together and have beers on a Monday night and shoot the breeze and were just a bunch of, you know, hard-scrapping, fun-loving people and it created such a beautiful place for all these other cats to come in to and flourish," he said.
Trey Atkinson of Alvin, Texas said part of his weekend road trip across Texas included a stop at Real Ale. So which is his favorite?
"Favorite Real Ale? What comes to mind is Devil's Backbone. It's one that's unique for me. I haven't found something quite like it anywhere else," he said.
Why has craft brewing exploded in the Hill Country and in other parts of Texas? Why aren't Budweiser, Miller, and Coors enough?
Angela Poe of Cedar Park, near Austin, sipped a beer in the Real Ale Tap Room. She believes craft beers have soared in popularity because beer lovers like to know their brew comes from a local source. And the variety of styles and flavors are great.
"I think a lot of it is like the development of flavor profiles and people wanting to branch out and experiment with all the different types of beer opportunities that are out there. And it's fun. And the brewers are creative and we get to reap the rewards of that."
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission reports in 2010, there were 14 Brewer's licenses and 25 Brewpubs operating in Texas. In 2022, there are now 157 active Brewer's Licenses and 338 Brewpubs in the state.
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