In A Year In Which Out Of Town Money Started To Invest In Dallas Breweries, Deep Ellum’s BrainDead Brewing Established Itself As Fiercely Independent.
As Deep Ellum’s ongoing revitalization continued in 2016, the neighborhood started to really establish itself as a surprisingly excellent beer hub for the city, thanks mostly to the presence of such watering holes like Deep Ellum Brewing Co., Cold Beer Company and, most recently, with the opening of Dot’s Hop House, with its 99 taps.
But, really, the company that deserves the most credit for spearheading this push over the past 12 months is BrainDead Brewing.
Since opening in March 2015, BrainDead has provided Deep Ellum with good food and excellent in-house and rotating guest beers alike. Its huge outdoor space makes for fantastic people-watching, and the inside space provides an ample reprieve during Dallas’ five annual minutes of winter.
In many ways, the spot’s a throwback. In the 1990s, Copper Tank Brewing Company occupied a space very close to where BrainDead is currently located. But Dallas just wasn’t ready for craft beer yet back then. Now, with the timing is right, it’s looking as if BrainDead is really on to something.
For that reason and others, we’ve decided to bestow upon BrainDead our honor of 2016 Dallas Brewery of the Year.
Earlier this week, I sat down with BrainDead co-owner Wynne and brewmaster Andrew Huerter to get inside their heads on where they’ve been, how things are going, and where they see their brewery headed in the future.
On with the interview!
If audio listening isn’t your jam, here’s a transcript of the interview.
So this is Ben with CentralTrack.com’s Brewery of the Year for 2016. I am sitting at BrainDead Brewing with Andrew Huerter and Sam Wynne and Andrew’s two sons – we do not have them on mic, but maybe they’ll join in or chime in some beer feedback. I’ve got Sam Wynne on the mic right now, and I’m really excited to be here. BrainDead opened in 2015; now you guys have had a full year under your belt, dropping anchor in Deep Ellum. How’s that going for you guys?
Sam: Man, it’s going good. It’s funny that we’re sitting here on a hot December day considering we opened on an icy March day. So, you know, it’s obviously come full circle since doors opened. I think things are going great. We’ve finally got the brewery up to speed, [we’ve] got an expansion going next door. When we started, Drew and I wanted to end up with 12 beers on tap and we thought that was a two-years- or a three-years-down-the-road sort of thing. And sure enough, Drew being the badass that he is, he hit that in year one. So, we’re happy, we’re making our own beers, and obviously sharing the love with everybody else – and enjoying a big beer party.
Yeah, I saw that you guys had 13 beers available today. Does that include bottles?
Sam: Uh, let me see…. today… no that would not include bottles. Because that would the bottles… would add another half-dozen.
So there’s another 6 to 9 bottles in the cooler right now that I saw and I lined [them] up and shot a photo just a few minutes ago. You guys are really kicking ass, cranking out some serious beer. Now, the last time I was here, I reviewed Fill In The Blancs, and since then, you got that barrel room up and going.
Sam: It has gotten some movement going on over there. At the end of January, our big tanks arrive. If you’ve seen the tanks that we have in the building here, those are 15-barrel tanks that are – let’s call it 475 gallon tanks. And the ones that we’re getting at the end of January / beginning of February will actually be 30-barrel tanks. So the 30-barrel tanks will be almost 1,000 gallons each – 5 fermenters and 2 brights. And that’ll roughly triple our stainless fermentation space. Drew has been doing the best that he can with the space provided, and as you can tell by those bottles you mentioned earlier, that’s him hustlin’ in the barrels. That’s nothing I gave him; that’s him doing the hard work, stacking stuff, finding extra space, and making the magic happen.
So I see that Thirsty Growler in The Colony had Foreign Export on – and I was digging around on TapHunter and some of the other beer review sites and what not – where else is your beer available outside the brewery and then what is the 2017 plan for getting beers outside-premise?
Sam: So right now – kinda – the pace for our production has been intending to brew enough beer for ourselves and the pub, obviously. And then hopefully to distribute a couple kegs here and there when we have the space to. And so we’ve been distributing 5 kegs a month, maybe 10 kegs a month through Flood Distribution. And we have the opposite kind of situation than most other breweries do. Um, we don’t really have to try to sell the beer outside of the building so much. It’s more [that] people are wanting to have BrainDead on tap and we don’t have a lot to go around. So, we kinda end up with a short line of people that are next in queue to get the beer when it goes out. But all of the usual suspects that have the best beer selections – those are the ones knocking on our doors, trying to make sure that they can get their guests something that the other guys might not have.
So, kind of a piggy back question off that. A lot of DFW breweries are just straight-up commercial breweries. For instance, like Lakewood really didn’t have a tap room opened, and then they had that kind of wood-paneled tap room, and now they’ve expanded in to this ginormous, behemoth of an operation. You guys actually have a fully-functioning restaurant here on premise. How has your experience with that been different than say, like, knowing people who work at Deep Ellum, per se, or some other commercial brewing [operation]. And I know that Deep Ellum has a restaurant now too, but that’s kinda this year.
Sam: Well technically we are a different entity altogether. The state decides to split people up amongst brewpubs and breweries. And the expansion of the bigger breweries have those tap rooms have come from a lot of the efforts of the local beer community and the lobbyists that we’ve gotten on our side to help change the laws and help make them more representative of the diverse beer scene in Texas, rather than just being the old method of – you know – there being a couple big breweries and then having their only interest [as the ones] that matter. Now all of the different breweries’ interests matter. We’re a brewpub, so we’re capped at 10,000 barrels of production [annually]. We’ll never be to – under our current licensing I guess, as never is a strong word. But under our current licensing we wouldn’t be able to produce as much beer as Lakewood or Deep Ellum, and that’s kind of the nature of what we’re here to do. And to my understanding, that’s what Drew wants to begin with – to be able to express his creativity and not really just be in the brew house brewing the same four beers all the time. He gets to do whatever the heck he wants, and sometimes I’m even surprised when I find out what comes out on tap. Because he’s just there, behind the curtain, doing his magic.
So, economics aside, the favorite beer you’ve had so far…
Sam: Uhhhhh…. from us?
This is about BraindDead Brewing after all…
Sam: You know, I would say that probably my favorite beer that I knew we were going to be producing… coming out… is Given To Rye. It’s a real heavy dry brown ale. Drew was intentionally trying to mess up the equipment back there by putting sticky rye in to the mash that, um, he was trying to jam things up. And to my knowledge, he didn’t mess anything up too bad. But one of the things I love about Given To Rye is that it’s a dark, drinkable beer, but it goes great with whiskey. And anybody that knows me knows that I like to enjoy a little whiskey on the weekends, and Given To Rey really goes great with that. 10th Anniversary is another one that I really love that we’ve brewed a couple times now – a big double IPA: marris otter malt, brettanomyces, wildflower honey, you know, all kinds of good stuff. It’s called 10th Anniversary because Drew brewed it for himself on his 10th anniversary of brewing, and that’s where it got its name. People are always like, “You’re only a year and a half old. How do you have 10th Anniversary?” And that’s why. We’ve got a guy in the brew house that’s been doing this for a long time.
So let’s talk Festicle. For people who might not know, Festicle is 2 years old now. You just had the last one in November 2016 – we just missed it. Guys, if you haven’t heard of this festival, it’s pretty badass. It’s in your parking lot. This was the second one. Tell me about how that went down, and then also the bottle releases you offered in conjunction with the event.
Sam: So Festicle really comes from the fact that, you know, the powers that be here at BrainDead… my partner Jeff and of course Drew – right here with me – and even all the way to chef in the kitchen… we’re beer geeks. We love beer and we love celebrating beer, and that’s what Festicle is intended to be: just a beer celebration. We were trying to think of what we would like to do if we could do anything in the world, and that’s…. uh oh… [laughing] … he’s ready for Festicle too… and that is to take a brisk November day and drink some big, strong, barrel-aged beers and have a good time. You know, drink some things where you can sample and share with your friends. I think the idea of going to a beer festival where there’s no way that you could possibly drink all the awesomeness and you have to leave something on the table, kind of is a fun thing because that means that everybody gets to have their own experience. In order to accomplish that, we took some pages from Dark Lord Day from Three Floyds up in Indiana and Hunahpu Day from Cigar City Brewing down in Tampa. And those are the biggest releases in the country – you know — that are big parties. Here in a couple weeks I’m going to Toppling Goliath, and there are those other ones too, but that one is really a celebration of beer. It’s not a “hey, we’re a brewery – come drink the stuff that we make.” It’s a “hey, we’re a brewery and we’re releases the stuff that we make… check out all this other stuff that everybody else makes too.” And that’s one of the things that we try to represent in the Dallas market, Texas market, and even the United States market – is, people that brew with the best of ’em but also love beer so much that we like celebrating other people’s beers, and drinking our beers side-by-side and welcoming the other brewers in to our building… and bringing the whole party together at one table.
I think for this interview we’ll let Andrew handle the kids and you handle the audio. But, can you speak to any of Andrew’s challenges in operating in such a compact brew house?
Sam: You know, that’s definitely the tricky part. Fortunately, Drew has built other breweries from the ground-up before. We’ve talked about some of the funny rigs that he’s done at other breweries: taking, you know, gardening equipment sprinklers to make a sparge arm, and all kinds of crazy stuff that he’s done, and he’s been very thankful to me and us for not making him repeat some of those crazy maneuvers that he’s done in the past. But Drew built his brewery himself. The glycol pumps, the glycol systems – not the glycol pump – but the glycol systems. You know, we were in here designing and making it all happen ourselves, so really it was up to him how cozy he wanted it to be back there. I try to not make him do anything that he doesn’t want to do, because I know that it’s just like it’s chef’s kitchen. It’s his brew house and he wants what’s best for it… just inherently. And that’s one of the beauties of our trust with each other is [that] I know that he’s going to do what’s right and so I don’t have to get in there and tell him to squeeze another tank in or anything like that. He’s in there setting himself up for success so that he can brew what he wants, and that’s pretty much what we ended up with. You’ve been back there yourself and it’s kind of like a cross between a plyometrics challenge and limbo, you know, you’re in there stepping over hoses and ducking under things and it’s the way of the world… for now, anyways.
Well, I think that’s about it. I don’t have any other brain-busting questions, but I just want to thank you guys for your time today and congratulations on being named Central Track’s brewery of the year for 2016.
Sam: Thank you. And I think we’re the only brewery in Dallas that’s open for lunch. So I’ll throw that little tag in there too.
Plug, plug, plug.
Alright, cheers guys.
Sam: Thank you.
On a wider scale, 2016 still represented growth in the craft space. However, some people like me wonder how much more the craft sector can grow. Big beer is on the move, with deep pockets. How does the phrase go: If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em? I made that shit up, but that’s where my head is at right now. Is the craft growth a boom, or a bubble?
Let’s take a looks at a few highlights of the past year-ish in DFW craft brewing.
- Winter 2015
- Intrinsic Brewery opens.
- Spring 2016
- Backcountry Brewing opens in the space once operated by Firewheel Brewing Co.
- Summer 2016
- Grapevine Craft Brewery scales all the way back on its distribution.
- Revolver Brewing acquired by Tenth & Blake, the craft and import division on MillerCoors.
- Peticolas Brewing and Revolver win case against TABC regarding Texas SB 639. TABC is likely to appeal the court’s decision.
- Fall 2016
- The Manhattan Project Brewing Co. launches official operations.
- Investment group Storied Craft Breweries buys a 56 percent stake in Deep Ellum Brewing Co.