Texas’ First Foray Into Micro-brewing, 25 years On
Donald and Mary Thompson met in Tangiers, Morocco, in 1972. They were young Americans—Donald a Florida native and Mary a Texan—traveling abroad with their respective college roommates. The quartet hit it off. In particular, Mary and her friend liked Donald’s friend; and Donald and his friend liked Mary’s friend. That left Donald and Mary somewhat on the outs.
However it went, the four agreed to meet again in Munich for Oktoberfest.
It was there, amid the world’s largest beer festival, that everything changed: Mary, 23, and Donald, 28, fell for each other. The affection partly grew from a shared love of beer, a love they would shortly take back to the States and into what was Texas’ first small-scale brewery in as long as anyone could remember.
The pair married in 1978, and built a house in the country just outside of the still-unspooling Dallas suburb of Plano. They also got seriously into homebrewing, in particular Donald, who used all-grain recipes from the get-go and bypassed the easier malt-in-a-can approach so common then.
It was an attempt to replicate the delicious beers they had had in Europe—Heineken was about the tastiest import available in Texas at the time. Donald got so good at it that in 1982 the American Homebrewers Association awarded him its Homebrewer of the Year prize.
The couple had by then started reading about what would come to be called “micro-breweries,” those tiny operations almost entirely on the West Coast that made beer from more traditional ingredients in more traditional ways.
Perhaps something like that would work in Texas?
The Lone Star State may have had 60 breweries during the decade after the Civil War. A wave of consolidation there, as in the industry nationwide, swept aside the smaller breweries, however, and the number of Texas breweries sank into the single digits before 1900. After a brief post-World War II spike, the number settled back into the single digits; and, by 1980, there were six breweries in Texas: Anheuser-Busch’s Houston plant, Miller’s in Fort Worth, Spoetzl (a.k.a. Shiner), Pearl, Lone Star and Stroh.
All of these were big regional or national (indeed, international) companies, most of them controlled from outside of Texas. G. Heileman of La Crosse, Wisconsin, owned the particularly beloved Lone Star, for instance. What the Thompsons had in mind—a small, locally owned brewery—seemed ridiculous.
Yet, they plunged ahead.
In February 1982, they registered the Reinheitsgebot Brewing Co. with the State of Texas, boldly choosing the name of the nearly 500-year-old German purity law that declared beer be made only from barley, hops, yeast and water. (Mind you, too, this was in a Texas that had yet to legalize homebrewing or brewpubs.)
Donald studied brewing at the University of California-Davis and Chicago’s Siebel Institute. Both he and Mary got involved in the Master Brewers Association of America. (Mary, who would later also study at Siebel, became the first woman elected president of an MBAA district.) The experiences, along with Donald’s homebrewing, provided them the requisite training as well as connections for their startup.
Through the MBAA, the Thompsons met more experienced brewers such as John Popson at Lone Star, Tom Reap at that Houston outpost of Anheuser-Busch and John Hybner at Spoetzl. They helped the couple get supplies and equipment—Hybner in particular set them up with equipment Shiner phased out, including what Mary Thompson described as “an ancient” bottling line.
As for much of the rest, that came from refitted dairy equipment and made-to-order 20-barrel tanks—equipment for smaller-scale brewing just wasn’t widely and readily available then. And, as for ingredients such as grains and hops, “most suppliers just laughed at us when we told them our order,” Mary wrote in an email, “but they always sold to us.”
The Thompsons set up Reinheitsgebot in a warehouse in Plano and started brewing in late 1984. This made Reinheitsgebot one of no more than 10 American micro-breweries east of the West Coast.
In 1985, the brewery’s first offering, a German-style pale ale based on one of Donald’s homebrewing recipes and named after the surrounding Collin County, debuted before a typically indifferent marketplace. Other beers would follow: a dark lager as well as Reinheitsgebot’s sole seasonal, a green beer for St. Patrick’s Day, packaged in clear bottles and called Collin County Emerald.
A local TV news segment from October 1985 accentuated the challenges the couple—and other micro-brewing pioneers—then faced.
A reporter’s voiceover introduced the brewery as decidedly exotic: “The latest premium beer to hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area is not from Holland or Canada or Germany—it’s imported from Plano.”
And it was made in infinitesimal amounts, as the segment went on to explain: “The Thompsons produce about 600 barrels a year, and hope to expand to 1,600 barrels soon. In contrast, a major Fort Worth brewery”—a reference to the Miller plant—“packages 30,000 barrels a day.”
Mary Thompson was optimistic on camera. “At only 800 cases a month, surely there are enough people that could buy our beer to keep us going.”
Alas, there were not. Reinheitsgebot would shutter in 1991, unable to amass the funds to stay in business. Three years later, two investment bankers in Houston, Brock Wagner and Kevin Bartol, would chuck their day jobs and launch Saint Arnold Brewing Co., which proved a more durable harbinger of micro-brewing in Texas.
Wagner and Bartol also benefited from financing and consumer climates more receptive to such brewing and the beers it produced, an environment the Thompsons 10 years before could have only dreamed of—and one they helped foment. Mary, for instance, was instrumental in lobbying state lawmakers to legalize brewpubs in 1993.
Mary also regularly wrote about beer after Reinheitsgebot’s demise, and teaches courses on it through the North by Northwest brewpub in Austin, where Donald has been the brewmaster for nearly two decades.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution and the forthcoming Whiskey Business: How Small-Batch Distillers Are Transforming American Spirits. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.