In SpindleTap Brewery’s taproom in northeast Houston, drinkers enjoy beers like Hop Gusher IPA or Honey Hole ESB while kids play foosball. But just hidden from their view is an enormous warehouse housing one of Houston’s biggest donation drives for Hurricane Harvey relief. The brewery’s kegs and cans are barely visible among a sea of well-organized activity. Pallets upon pallets hold water, Gatorade and blue buckets, each filled with snacks, towels and hygiene products.
SpindleTap is now the donation center for the Justin J. Watt Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans.
“The owner got on the phone and he made it happen,” explains Leo Longoria, a sales representative for the brewery. SpindleTap co-founder Adam Wright runs a forklift, shuffling pallets onto incoming trucks. As a tractor-trailer pulls in, volunteers form a human chain and minutes later the truck pulls away empty. There are more volunteers than needed here, but everyone is enjoying a local craft beer and chatting.
SpindleTap’s massive post-Harvey operation shows how breweries are ideally suited to help out after a disaster. Breweries are usually located in warehouses, sturdy buildings constructed to withstand the elements. They often have ample space, loading docks, trucks, employees with experience handling distribution, access to clean water and passionate fans willing to lend a hand.
Breweries also serve as unlikely community centers—as necessary as libraries, shelters, and city governments. Many follow their favorite breweries on Facebook or Twitter, but not their city. After Harvey hit, brewery social media accounts became vital sources of information for followers who needed to know where to go to donate, volunteer or find help.
“I heard about this through my CrossFit gym,” one volunteer says. Doing something feels good after a disaster, getting out, lifting boxes or just directing donations. Catching a glimpse of a famous NFL defensive end? That’s just a bonus.
“Someone’s coming,” laughs Longoria. “His name starts with J, and let’s just say there’s another J in there. I’m just hanging around.”
That’s because much of the work has already been handled by a team of volunteers. As the city began to dry out it became evident that the role breweries were about to play in Houston’s recovery was an important one.
A few days earlier, when Harvey began its destructive path across the city, the atmosphere was different. “I told my wife, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to have a job tomorrow,’” Longoria says.
They were getting reports of water in the brewery—and they had no way of knowing how much.
Assessing the Damage
The day after the storm, things looked grim for the breweries making up Houston’s flourishing craft beer scene. Water still hadn’t receded from the Texas Beer Refinery in Dickinson, which sits next to an RV park.
Fetching Lab Brewery was in the same situation. The upstart brewery is located in Alvin, Texas, or “out in the boonies” as owner and head brewer Brett Bray jokes.
“We were an island there for a few days,” he says. “We were literally chasing fish down the road, it was kind of funny. But rain never actually came close to coming into the brewery so we were quite lucky.”
At Saint Arnold Brewing Co., one of the city’s largest breweries, water covered a tractor-trailer up to the cab on the highway below. People were trapped in their homes with no way in or out of their neighborhoods. At one point the Houston TranStar map, which shows street flooding across Houston, listed more than 430 high water locations.
Of all of Houston’s breweries, only one endured severe flooding: City Acre Brewing. The founder and head brewer, Matt Schlabach, awoke after the storm in his home near the brewery to discover more than a foot of water on the property. Recovery took 11 days.
“We had a crew of friends and family come and rip everything out that we could, we were just trying to get back open,” says Schlabach. “We lost the weekend of the hurricane, and the next weekend, which was a holiday weekend. We could have just turned a blind eye, but we knew there was water in the walls.”
City Acre’s vegetable garden, which supplies the brewery’s restaurant, was destroyed. Yet for City Acre, the damage was insignificant compared to that seen by those who lost their homes.
In Katy, Texas, the co-founders of No Label Brewing Co., Brian and Jennifer Royo, felt the pinch of survivor’s guilt.
“We were sitting on our couch and I said, ‘I feel like we’re not being productive and we’re not helping. What can we do to help?’” Jennifer Royo explains.
Just a few days after the storm, No Label found itself in the middle of a citywide effort by breweries to get donations to shelters and help its community find agency in the midst of a massive recovery. The Royos organized a donation drive offering free beer for customers who brought in clothing, toys, water and perishable goods, and sent the call via Facebook and Nextdoor, an app that lets people reach others in their neighborhood.
“That first day after the storm, the sun came out and I feel like people needed that,” says Jennifer. “We had a lot of regulars that came out, but we also had a lot of people who heard about it, dropped off donations and then left. Not everybody was coming just for the free beer.”
What was the draw for volunteers to come to a brewery when there were shelters filling up with evacuees? Julie Schneller is a No Label regular who came out to help with the donation drive.
“No Label is my family’s go-to spot for a getaway during the week,” says Schneller. “We actually had our wedding reception there in March, and it was the best venue we could have chosen. […] I lost my home in Katrina 12 years ago. As I watched the events of Harvey and waited for the waters to recede from my front yard, I prayed for normalcy.”
Schneller notes how hard it was to donate, given many streets were flooded and shelters were overwhelmed with donations and volunteers.
Harvey will go down in history as one of the most destructive hurricanes to hit Texas. More than 49 inches of rain forced over 3,400 water rescues. More than 32,000 people were driven into shelters as a result of the storm.
Saint Arnold was among the first of Houston’s breweries to host a donation drive, made easier by its central location.
“We heard that the kids at the George R. Brown [Convention Center] had nothing, so people brought toys for the kids,” says Priscilla Walker, who manages marketing for Saint Arnold. “We got all kinds of items and we filled our 14-foot truck twice to fit everything. The city really came out.”
With help from other area breweries and restaurants, Saint Arnold raised funds through its #ReliefBeers campaign, through which the brewery challenged other participating businesses to donate a dollar from each pint sold in their taprooms or restaurants on Sept. 8. The efforts raised more than $35,000, which will be donated to the Houston Food Bank.
After the water surrounding them receded, Fetching Lab ran a donation drive that felt more like a family picnic. People drank beer under the shade after dropping off donations of pet items.
“8th Wonder Brewing Company and Galveston Island Brewing responded really well,” Bray says. “The shelters use boxes that are basically the same size and shape as the beer can holders for disposable litter boxes for the cats. So it’s been all across the board people helping out.”
And Texas Beer Refinery? The brewery took in its neighbors from the RV park, going quickly from a brewery to a shelter–albeit one with better drink options than the American Red Cross. A few days later, they hosted a donation drive specifically for those neighbors displaced from the storm.
Breweries Helping Breweries
Brewers also helped out other breweries as recovery efforts got underway. Southern Star Brewing Co., located in Conroe, Texas, hosted a donation drive complete with live music by local bands like Folk Family Revival. The brewery–along with The Lone Pint Brewery, Alamo Beer Co., Town and City Brewing Co., Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co., Green Flash Brewing Co., Sixpoint Brewery, Back Pew Brewing, and Deep Ellum Brewing Co.–also sent kegs to Brash Brewing Co.’s donation drive.
“I don’t like to see it as competition because we’re all family,” says Keith Amador, assistant taproom manager at Southern Star. “We all want to grow together, talk with these guys and have a beer. That’s what I love about the craft beer scene.”
An e-mail chain circulated via the Texas Craft Brewer’s Guild listed more than 30 breweries hosting donation drives throughout Texas. A crew from 8th Wonder Brewery rescued elderly neighbors in the brewery’s military surplus truck. Holler Brewing, a fledgling brewery in Houston’s arts district, opened early the day before the storm to allow regulars to fill up jugs as stores sold out of water, then reopened after the storm with proceeds from beer sales benefiting Harvey relief. In central Texas, Thousand Oaks Brewing and other Austin breweries held drives to benefit Austin Pets Alive and other charities giving to relief efforts. Oskar Blues Brewery and Anheuser-Busch InBev both stopped production to can water, which made its way to Texas-based H-E-B grocery stores.
Recovery efforts are far from over. Now weeks after the storm, SpindleTap is still accepting volunteers. That rain in the brewery? It turned out to be less than an inch, which made it possible for SpindleTap to reopen and serve as one of the distribution hubs for the Justin J. Watt Foundation, as well as invite head brewers from Parish Brewing in Louisiana over to brew up a new donation beer—Operation Juice Drop.
“We’ll be doing this for a long time,” says SpindleTap co-founder Adam Wright. “Until the foreseeable future.”
The generosity and kindness of Houston’s brewers reflects the heart of Texas communities. Houston is lucky to have an amazing craft beer scene—and not just because Houstonians enjoy a good beer. The service these breweries have provided to the community has reshaped the narrative of Hurricane Harvey. In a city known for its diversity, Houston’s breweries have proven that variety, at least when it comes to beer, makes us stronger.
Holly Walrath is a poet and freelance editor living in Houston, Texas. Find her on Twitter @HollyLynWalrath.