Deep in the heart of Texas, San Antonio’s links with its rich brewing history are on display in some unlikely places—such as a noted art museum, a historic hotel, and a brewpub run by a local boy who learned the satisfaction of transforming raw ingredients into consumer product while managing his father’s tortilla factory.
That’s the good news. Like other cities in Texas, San Antonio has also had its bad news. In February, Pabst Brewing Co. told union workers that the old Pearl Brewery would be closed and Pabst would move production of Lone Star, Pearl and other brands elsewhere. Just two years ago, the brewery was still rolling out a million barrels of beer per year.
“It bummed me out,” said Joey Villareal, who runs the Blue Star Brewing Co. and Joey’s, a comfortable bar serving a nice range of specialty beers. “Last year in Milwaukee (during the Craft Brewers Conference) we went by the old (and idle) Schlitz Brewery and that left a dark impression on me. When you close these breweries, they are gone.”
Many breweries are just fleeting memories. Many opened across the country in the 1990s and are already gone. But Texas seems to have had more than its share of high-profile breweries and brewpubs close. A story headlined “What is killing Houston’s brewpubs?” recently appeared on the front page of the Southwest Brewing News.
To the north, in Austin, Miller Brewing Co. shut down the Celis Brewery, one of the most famous microbreweries in the country. Miller first bought a majority stake in the brewery in 1995, then the rest from founder Pierre Celis early in 2000. “It didn’t make economic sense to keep it going at this time,” Miller spokesman Jeff Waalkes said when the company announced it would close Celis.
“It’s a huge loss to Austin. It’s like you had an internationally recognized symphony and no one came to hear it,” Live Oak Brewing Co. co-owner Chip McElroy said. “Among beer people, the fact that Austin couldn’t support Celis is like Kennedy being shot in Dallas.”
150 Years and Counting
The demise of Pearl seems greater, though, because it was one of the few breweries in the United States built before Prohibition that was still making beer. Pearl production began in 1886 at the J. B. Behloradsky Brewery, which was founded in 1881. Its rival was Lone Star beer, which later took a circuitous path, leaving San Antonio, then returning to be brewed at Pearl until the brewery closed.
The Lone Star Brewery, built in 1884, was the first large, mechanized brewery in Texas. Adolphus Busch, of Anheuser-Busch, founded it along with a group of San Antonio businessmen. The castle-like building now houses the San Antonio Museum of Art, noted for its antiquities collection, Mexican folk art, modern art, pre-Columbian art and Spanish colonial art.
The first commercial brewery to operate in Texas opened not far from the Alamo. The story goes that when Texas was admitted in the Union in 1855, a large contingent of Germans who had move into the Texas hill country toasted statehood with beer from William Menger’s Western Brewery. The German immigrants provided a solid customer base for lager-style beers, and Menger soon had plenty of competition.
Menger built a hotel next to the brewery in 1859 that has been added on to many times, growing into a 350-room hotel. The 19th century section is authentically restored. For instance, the original lobby—now known as the Victorian lobby—is decorated with furniture probably acquired by Menger on trips to New York and Europe in the 1860s. The room is oval and dominated by eight Corinthian columns.
The Alamo Madre ditch flowed through what is now the patio of the Menger and provided the cooling system for the cellar. That cellar is actually a network of tunnels. When the hotel first opened, barrels of beer were rolled through the underground tunnels from the brewery to the hotel, then stored beside food stocks and wine.
Menger liked to give reporters tours of the tunnels. One wrote in the San Antonio Express that after touring the wine cellar, “We entered a long dark tunnel leading to the brewery, where we found a large quantity of delightful beverage, Menger’s own beer, some of which we were obliged to dispense with, and could not but pronounce it ‘goot.’”
The Menger Bar was built in 1887 as a replica of the House of Lords Pub in London. An architect was dispatched to study the pub, and a paneled cherry wood ceiling, booths, beveled mirrors from France, and decorated glass cabinets were installed at a then-amazing cost of $60,000. During Prohibition, the bar was disassembled and moved piece by piece from one part of the hotel to its current location across the street from the Alamo.
Teddy Roosevelt recruited some of his Rough Riders in the pub, and its walls are covered with Rough Rider photos as well as those showing old San Antonio. There is a large photo of Roosevelt in Rough Rider gear on the mirror in the middle of the lavish back bar. The bar itself isn’t long, with seating for a half dozen. The draft choices are Pilsner Urquell, Guinness, Harp, Dos Equis and two Shiner beers.
Shiner has done a masterful job of moving ahead of Lone Star and Pearl as the cult Texas beer with drinkers outside of Texas. The beer is brewed at the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, which was founded at the beginning of the last century by Czech and German immigrants. You’ll find it all over town, in bars and restaurants alike, and certainly along the well-known Riverwalk.
Bikers, Cowboys and Snakes
It’s better to venture away from Riverwalk to find beer beyond the mainstream. Like most decently sized cities in Texas, San Antonio has several tap houses with Texas-sized selections. None is quite like Hills and Dales, on the northwest side of town near the University of San Antonio. It wasn’t that many years ago that one of Stan’s aunts visited the school to teach a class. She remembers that all the students wore boots—a requirement because there were so many rattlesnakes.
Boots may be optional at Hills and Dales, but cowboys, bikers and beer aficionados can all drink comfortably here. The sign above the roadhouse declares it is the “Center of the Universe.” A stand-up bar with 50 taps behind it is at one end, pool tables and a small stage are at the other. Beer neons are everywhere. Coolers holding 400 to 500 different beers dominate the wall opposite the entrance. The house rule is that customers grab what they want from the cooler, then pay at the bar.
Tubs stuffed with ice and longnecks (Bud, Bud Light and Bud Ice) selling for $1.62 sit under the windows. They advertise Budweiser, Sam Adams and Becks. Seating is communal, at picnic tables decorated over the years by clever and not-so-clever patrons who showed up with carving utensils in hand.
The 50-beer draft selection favors imports but also includes several Texas beers, such as Live Oak from Austin and St. Arnold’s from Houston. Beer is served in plastic cups unless you bring your own mug (there’s room for regulars to hang theirs toward the end of the bar). The tap wall is also jammed with small plaques bearing the name of “Hall of Foam” club members. One tour of 50 beers earns a plaque, and the second, another. After that, there’s a larger sign on the ceiling, which may include a special message. Some regulars have a half dozen or more of the signs on the ceiling.
On the day that we visited, a customer who arrived on a Harley grabbed a Corona from the cooler and asked the bartender if he remembered an old customer. “Getting married today,” he said, shaking his head and looking a little sad.
Beer for the Neighborhood
Villareal has a baby face that belies his 37 years and makes it hard to believe he founded Joey’s way back in 1988. He had been exposed to interesting beer while he was in the Air Force. After Texas legalized brewpubs in 1993, Joey’s added a couple of RIMS homebrewing systems.
He likes the analogy between making tortillas and brewing beer. “You are starting with a raw product, grinding it, steeping it,” he said. “I like the idea of taking the raw ingredients and making something people like. You get a lot of satisfaction.”
Villareal opened Blue Star in 1996. It is part of the Blue Star Arts Complex, which houses a performing arts theater, art galleries and specialty stores. The brewpub fits right in, which is why Villareal tries to put something new on tap on the first Friday of each month, when there are openings up and down the streets. The spacious outdoor decks are a popular stopping spot on warm nights.
Located in a former warehouse, the brewpub mixes an industrial look with cream city brick (like you find in Milwaukee). The walls are covered with local (sometimes avant garde) artwork, which is for sale. You won’t forget it’s a beer place—the serving tanks are directly behind the bar and the brewery is on display behind glass at one end.
The food includes southwestern selections and burgers, with specialties such as a tortilla club. Villareal likes hops, and his beers reflect that without losing sight of balance. Sometimes, Blue Star will serve cask-conditioned ale. When we visited, a pale ale was available on tap, with a dry-hopped version from the same batch on cask. The cask beer poured as bright as you’d find in the best of British pubs, with a fresh floral life of its own.
Villareal would love to serve Blue Star beer at Joey’s—where he no longer brews but offers 13 beers on tap. State laws prohibits brewpubs from selling their beer away from the pub, however, even to the same owner. He says those laws are one reason so many Texas breweries have failed. What sets Blue Star apart?
“For one thing, my wife and I own it, so we don’t have a bunch of investors to make happy,” he said. “We’re not getting rich but we like what we do.”
Before we introduced ourselves, we watched Villareal at work, doing chores in the brew house, then wandering behind the bar. He poured a sample of each brew, holding it up to see how it looked, then tasting it.
The German brew masters who settled in Texas nearly 150 years ago would understand.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of The Beer Lover’s Guide to the USA (St. Martin’s Griffin).