Is The Dallas Beer Scene In A Lull? Are We Past The Point Of Just Supporting Local Brews? Five Local Beer Observers Discuss Where Things Go From Here.
Dallas’ craft beer scene is a constantly evolving juggernaut — and one that can sometimes be tough to keep up with.
But between my own interest in this world, that of Central Track’s On Tap beer reviewer Ben Smithson and the perspectives of the threesome behind the locally produced Brew Bloods podcast — Dustin Taylor, Marc Hudson and Jennifer “The Beerded Lady” Alexander — we’ve assembled a group of people who pay a lot of attention to this world.
In advance of yet another beer festival in Dallas — specifically Fair Park’s Index Fest (nee Untapped) — the five of us participated in a roundtable discussion about the state of craft beer in Dallas, as well as where we see things going from here.
You can read our conversation, which has been edited some for clarity, below.
Javi: Before we really get started, can we each introduce ourselves and share our backgrounds in the Dallas beer scene? As for me, I’ve written a bunch about beer for Central Track over the years, covering the festival side of things, mostly.
Jennifer: I’m one of the co-hosts of the Brew Bloods podcast. My favorite thing about craft beer and its environment, shallow as it sounds, is the love and care that you see in the community around it. This beautiful liquid provides a bouquet of flavors that other types of alcohol can not. I mean, how many other drinks can give you flavors from dark wood and stone fruit in dark styles or the citrus, freshness and pine needles that those IPAs give you? Most craft breweries, including the ones in Texas, are very focused on exciting your palate.
Ben: I am the main beer critic for Central Track’s On Tap! column, for which I’ve contributed well over 100 Dallas-area beer reviews at this point. I do a write-up that’s part sensory, part editorial about a North Texas beer I snag from a retail store, bar or growler shop. As a full-time office worker, beer is a hobby for me at this point in my life, but I have rose-colored daydreams of getting into the industry. I’m an avid homebrewer and I love to share beer and learn new methods from other homebrewers. As a new dad, the beers I reach for lately are lower-ABV ones, where I can enjoy a few but at the same time stay on that dad game. I like the beer review thing, and I try to spread the word on North Texas craft beer through this critic gig. Likewise, I try to provide some honest and constructive feedback along the way, walking that tightrope of being both fan and critic.
Marc: I co-host of the Brew Bloods podcast with Dustin and Jennifer. Brew Bloods is a celebration and exploration of craft beer culture. Past it just being about brewing and all the sensory enjoyment that a little can of beer provides, my favorite thing about beer is that it’s a product that is as important historically as wine, although it’s culturally very much anti-wine. Craft beer certainly has its snobs and “drain pour” look-at-mes, but beer tends to be a blue collar cultural unifier. How many problems have been solved by getting a beer together?
Dustin: I’m the third co-host of the Brew Bloods podcast along with Marc and Jennifer. Through our platform, we aim to promote the DFW area beer culture as well as other notable parts of the national craft beer scene.
Javi: OK! So, I think it’s safe to say that the Dallas-Fort Worth beer scene has grown exponentially in recent years. We have our brewpubs, we have new breweries opening up seemingly every day and a good amount of beer festivals between offerings like Big Texas Beer Fest and Index Festival. What are some of the things that currently excite you the most about the DFW craft beer scene?
Ben: I like seeing brewpubs that have food menus that rival the beers available. Visiting other cities with more established scenes, it felt like other beer scenes were further down the road on making the beer part of a bigger entertainment experience. North Texas is catching up, I’d say.
Marc: I’m excited that, late to the craft beer scene as Texas was, we make beer that’s as good as, if not better than in many cases, the craft beer destination cities.
Jennifer: Hell yeah. I agree with that. I was just about to say that, although we are young, we seem to be getting onto the map pretty quickly. I love that we’ve also created the community that beer was intended to have around it — people, dogs, family and all.
Javi: What specifically makes you guys say that?
Marc: Well, taste can be subjective, but just tasting beer from around the United States and comparing it to our own, I think that would tell you we’re making damn good beer. If you want to point to the scoreboard, while we didn’t do as well at the Great American Beer Fest this year as in years past, we’re continuing to win bronze or higher in multiple categories, year over year. And keep in mind that GABF, I believe, had its largest number of entrants ever this year — around 8,000, I believe. Texas as a whole is doing really well! A friend of mine from Sweden just did a bottle-share the other night with some other Nordic friends, and the two Temptresses I sent him from 2015 and 2016 were really well-received. Their words, exactly: “FUCKING hell…those are brilliant.” And we all know that Denmark and Sweden get the best of the best beer from around the world.
Dustin: I agree with my co-hosts. I think it’s impressive how much great craft beer comes out of DFW now, and how it happened so quickly. After just a few short years, there are local brews now that I’d take over nationals I’d sworn by in the past and had thought could never be surpassed. One big trend that excites me is looking and seeing next to no new production breweries in 2017, but rather some hyper-local brew pubs. I like the idea of being able to travel around the Metroplex and experience a mix of options, as opposed to the same production brewery options everywhere.
Ben: Not to sound like a barrel queen, but I think it’s great to see lots of breweries establishing barrel programs. Furthermore, lots of brewers are starting to put weird shit into barrels, shying away from those more standard ‘ol dark-beers-that-go-into barrels-type beers. I appreciate a brewery that keeps its flagship brews running, while forking off experiments for in-house tasting. In my mind, that wasn’t a thing I saw much five years ago locally.
Javi: Very true, Ben! I loved when I went to Tupps with Marc and Dustin that they already had a barrel-aging program. They were pretty new at the time!
Jennifer: I also agree with Ben. Playing with barrels is my favorite — and I’ll totally call myself the barrel queen! It creates such a depth to beer that tickles taste buds for more. I’m a fan of the good ol’ bourbon barrel-aged dark ones, but I’m very impressed with the wine barrel sours and quads. Some spots are even playing with tequila barrels…
Marc: Is anyone doing sherry barrel-aging like they do with scotch? I wonder what it’d be like if you took a big bold stout, and followed the scotch process by first aging it in bourbon and then in sherry or wine casks.
Javi: I’d like to see that, too. But I can’t think of any doing it off the top of my head. Keeping in line with this dialogue we’ve started, which are some of the more interesting breweries in Dallas-Fort Worth right now, in your mind? My vote goes towards Collective Brewing. They’re not my go-to beers but every time I have their sours, it’s always a surprising time. I remember going to Strangeways for their Sour Week and thinking they were some of the best.
Jennifer: I love Collective. I’m also digging Intrinsic and Denton County Brewing Company these days.
Marc: Collective is probably the leader as far as who’s making the most far-out stuff. You look at their board and you think, “That’s not going to work! That’s a square peg/round hole situation.” And then it does work. I’d also give a tip of the cap to On Rotation. They do some rad stuff with that same experimental vibe; I just wish they’d do more.
Ben: I’ll echo the comments on Collective. And I’d also like to add Braindead to the list. I try not to go full fanboy on both of these breweries, but it’s tough.
Marc: Yes, totally with you on Braindead. I totally forgot about them 00 even though we were just there last night!
Javi: Real talk, I stuck around living in Deep Ellum for a good year or so more than originally planned because of Braindead. But, in 2017, we had quite a few new breweries set up shop: Good Neighbor Brews in Wylie; Pegasus City in the Design District; Hemisphere Brewing Co. in Rockwall; Denton County Brewing; and plenty of others I’m sure I’m forgetting. Have y’all tried any of these new offerings? What do y’all think a new brewery needs to do to stand out in this market?
Jennifer: I’ve tried Denton County, and I think they are doing awesome in the city that they are in! They have the perfect location. Awesome decor, too They are making pretty good beer. Their attempt on a juicy IPA was pretty damn good. It would be nice to see, once these breweries have a solid beer, to start canning and getting it out. But right now it’s great to see them striving in their own in-house operations.
Javi: I saw that Good Neighbor was already canning. I found that surprising for such a young brewery.
Jennifer: Dang, that’s awesome. Intrinsic in Garland has got it down with special releases too. That’s enticing and creates hype and helps with getting the word around.
Ben: It’s hard to keep up with everything — and that’s such a good problem. I haven’t seen any Hemisphere beers in Dallas yet, but not for trying. I visited Pegasus City the first night its Tiny Tap opened. I think that all of its beers are solid, and it feels like the recipes are dialed in, and the brand story is on point.
Dustin: I have yet to try any of these listed but I look forward to doing so. A trend I’ve seen that I think also helps new breweries stand out is to focus on a couple of styles and do those styles well. I enjoy seeing these new breweries not feel the need to brew every style, but choose the ones they are passionate about.
Marc: To follow up on what Dustin said, it’s pretty simple. Your beer needs to be good enough to stand out in an increasingly crowded market. You need to be dialed in. But on top of that, you need to have stellar customer service. You can have a great beer, but if you’re a jerk or aloof to your consumer, it will have a ripple effect, especially given the power of social media.
Jennifer: Who’s been a jerk to you?
Marc: Not necessarily anyone locally, but Black Market Brew out in California gave my friend some issues. He spoke to their manager about how disgusting the bathrooms were in their taproom, and nothing changed over a period of months. He ended up writing a Facebook review that mentioned the great beer but warned people to watch out for the bathrooms. That ended up with a really rude Facebook message from the brewery to my friend — and then that was followed up with an email from the owner with no apology for the attitude. So they just got a visit from the health department.
Javi: Oh jeez!
Marc: But it really didn’t have to be that way! Great, passionate customer service can turn a fan into a loyalist and promotion machine. For example, my family had a health crisis at Luck a few years ago, which resulted in an ambulance ride. The team at Luck could not have been nicer and more helpful. I tried to close out and pay while the EMTs were doing their work, and they refused. I don’t think they did that out of self-promotion. They’re just good people, and they were always very informative and nice before that incident. But because of that moment, I’ll always advocate and root for them.
Jennifer: You can really tell when some one cares about those around them
Marc: Yeah, like, I admit mine is an extreme example of great customer service. But it really matters. Most people come into craft breweries wanting to be a fan. Don’t give them a reason to turn away!
Ben: Along these same lines, I recently received a message from a brewery owner asking me to stop reviewing its beers. I didn’t respond — because we were already sort of “past the sale” at that point. In my reviews, I had some nice things to say, but I also had some honest feedback on what I thought needed to be dialed in. In the critic role, I try to celebrate wins and give feedback for improvement alike. When I go easy, I get people who call me out on it. Likewise, I have had a couple breweries reach out and ask for more information — like when and where I bought the beer and stamping information from the packaging. And they ask me to give them another shot. Those are the folks who earn my repeat business.
Javi: Right. I think just honest and calm dialogue is key here. The Dallas beer scene is a thriving but small one. I don’t think that, just because a beer is local, it’s impervious to criticism. Ditto for breweries and even beer festivals. I know that Central Track has been demonized by a few festivals in particular for this — like they expect us to go easy on them and celebrate them just because they’re local. But what good does that do anyone? If something isn’t up to snuff, it’s important to say that. I know that criticism can sometimes suck to hear and that it’s natural to get defensive when someone is criticizing your work. But it’s not good when you handle it poorly. When people react that way, it often only reinforces my initial thoughts, actually. Like, OK, now they’re proving to me that they aren’t on top of their stuff. Which brings us to something new this year, as we’ve seen a couple local breweries close, and some other out-of-town ones halt their local distribution. What do you guys make of all this? For me, Audacity was a surprising closing, mostly due to how entrenched they seemed to be in the Denton community, sponsoring events and whatnot.
Jennifer: Although Audacity had the amazing spot to hang out, their beer just wasn’t the best. It was all pretty sub-par. The only fantastic beer I had by them was a special beer made for that years Oaktopia festival; it tasted like a delicious pecan praline. If they would have kept on cranking stuff like that, I think they would have succeeded. But with bigger entities like Armadillo Ale Works doing well up there, and Denton County Brewing Company having such an amazing location and making quality beer, competition is at hand.
Marc: I think what we’re seeing is a bit of the same market correction that’s being seen across the U.S. right now. It’s sad, but to be expected. I think this follows on our earlier comments — that if you’re entering a maturing, increasingly competitive market, your beer has to be on point. And, unfortunately, buzz is the name of the game, so you have to hustle every day to promote your brand. It’s rarely enough anymore to just proclaim, “We’re a craft brewery!” and watch the masses come running. As to the brand retractions, we were recently discussing Ninkasi with a local Ben E. Keith distribution rep, and I complained that the arrival of Bell’s and Ninkasi was night and day. Bell’s came in like a hurricane with a ton of events and a Texas-specific beer, and Ninkasi came in like a nice coastal breeze. But as this rep said, Ninkasi didn’t have near the promotional budget that Bell’s had because they couldn’t afford it. And this same rep said that Ninkasi didn’t really understand how to reach the Texas audience. I would also put some blame on the drink-local beer movement and bad attitudes. It’s fantastic that people want to support and are proud of our local businesses, but the number of times that I saw people dismissing Ninkasi as a “drain pour” is stupefying.
Dustin: It appears to me that a lot of these closings occurred when breweries expanded quickly and didn’t have something that notable to offer, or didn’t plan as well as they needed to. Look at most of the first- and second-wave breweries that are successful around Dallas now. They each have a really notable beer in their catalog, and they were a DFW craft pioneer and have long established relationships, or they had the cash to push themselves into the market with a lot of advertising. I think Grapevine is a good example of a brewery that realized in time that their money was better spent on a local focus as opposed to mass expansion. Seems the pivot has worked well for them, and this local focus is the trend so far through 2017. Regarding national brands, I feel it’s going to be much harder for them to push into our market now with our larger local breweries taking up a lot of tap and shelf space and with so many other established national brands doing the same. Newcomers will have to do it the Bell’s way with a notable beer and a good amount of promotion, or they will need to get in with our local beer spots like Flying Saucer and convince the people on the ground serving the beers they are worth recommending.
Javi: Where do you see things going from here? What still needs to improve? What are you looking forward to seeing, or hoping you might seen int eh Dallas beer scene?
Ben: Overall, I think North Texas beer is going great. The market is reaching maturity, but there’s still room. A new entrant into the space will absolutely have to have its shit together. I mean all the way — planning, production, cash flow, community outreach, and building a sticky and loyal fan base. From an improvement perspective, I feel like breweries should never get in that comfort zone; they should strive for constant improvement. Having said that, I’m not saying that a brewery can’t have a solid set of flagship beers, because those staples keep the fan base (and the lights on). Regarding our earlier comments about breweries and feedback, Jonathan Wells from Charlotte Five wrote an interesting piece that gained so much traction across the beer community that it crashed its host site. Then he did a response to that. I think that dialogue is healthy, and I would like to see more of it.
Marc: I would like to see some brew noobs take a page from the Peticolas playbook — run lean and make great beer. But perhaps that’s easier said than done.
Dustin: I think one great advantage North Texas has is, being a sprawling region, we pack so many cities containing different ideas and identities into the region that it’s really aided in the quick expansion of the movement. I think having room to breathe when the movement began here was key, and will contribute to the continued health of the craft beer scene. I think the biggest improvement would come from changing legislation and allowing breweries to experiment more on the fly without TABC approval, which would help our festivals tremendously, as well as allow production breweries to sell directly for offsite consumption.
Marc: I think we’re in a weird transitional period right now. Maybe it’s a lull — it feels that way to me, at least. What I’d love to see is North Texas and the region at large develop its own identity, its own signature style. I don’t think we’ve found that yet. Given the heat most of the year, I think tasty sessionables to complement the weather could be our forte, but the consumer demand will have to match that. And I say that as someone whose favorite style is big, bold, and boozy. I still think North Texas has a real shot at becoming a beer tourism city someday, though. It’s going to take a lot of trial and tribulation, but we can do it. We have some absolutely brilliant folks making beer here.
Jennifer: I’m with Marc. I think we need to make a south coast or third coast flavor — something to call our own and not just a copycat of something else. Maybe it could be in the barrel-aged realm. We all said we love barrel-aging. Maybe that’s the future!