Early brewing companies Lone Star and what became Pearl long ago endowed San Antonio’s venerable beer heritage. Today, the heirs to that legacy are local independent brewers with loyal followings and a growing number of others filling out the area’s modern beer map.

Changing laws in the state and a budding taste for something besides Bud Light have contributed to market growth that began with only a handful of commercial craft brewers two dozen years ago and rose to at least 18 across the city today. And that’s not counting nine others in nearby Boerne and New Braunfels.

Among them, Blue Star Brewing, at 1414 S. Alamo St., is considered the oldest of the new breed. Opened in 1996 by Joey Villarreal, Blue Star got an early foothold in the business and thus had some work to do educating customers about craft beer and pale ales.

To mimic the mass-produced beers many people were accustomed to, they would offer club soda along with a golden ale, he said. It also helped that Blue Star served food, which also brought people into the Southtown brewpub.

Blue Star’s 10 to 12 organic beers are sold at the brewpub, at Joey’s Bar on the St. Mary’s Strip, and in two kiosks, one in Main Plaza and the other in North Star Mall. Unlike with some area craft brewers, however, fans of Blue Star can’t buy a six-pack at the store. “We do draft only,” Villareal said.

Craft beer, kombucha, carbonated water, and more is all on tap. Photo by Scott Ball
Growlers sit above a variety of beer taps at Blue Star Provisions. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

There’s less educating to do these days, he said, as the industry has grown, and competition with it. “I think it’d be tough to survive in this market if people weren’t making good beer, so there’s a lot of good beer out there,” he said.

In Texas, the number of craft brewers has grown from about 50 in 2011 to almost 300 in 2018, according to the Brewers Association, host of the upcoming 2020 Craft Brewer’s Conference (CBC), April 19-22, in San Antonio. Last year’s CBC in Denver attracted 14,000 brewers from across the U.S. and 65 countries.

Total U.S. beer sales were down slightly in 2018, but craft beer sales were up almost 4 percent. Other data from the Brewers Association shows there were nearly 7,500 regional breweries, brewpubs, and microbreweries in 2018, a sharp increase since 2008 when there were only about 1,500.

But this state’s craft beer industry got a slow start. Texas legalized brewpubs and smaller breweries in 1993, but another 20 years went by before the Legislature changed regulations to allow for distribution through off-premise sales.

Last year, the governor authorized the most significant modernization of the Alcohol Beverage Code since it was written in 1935.

Under the new law, beer drinkers are able to take home a 24-pack of what they sample at microbreweries. Texas is the last state in the nation to allow such beer-to-go sales.

While some of those changes have propelled brewery growth throughout Texas, San Antonio is still behind compared with other major metros.

“Although we don’t do bad on the bar scene, we are behind on the number of breweries,” said Jeremy Banas, a freelance beer writer and co-author with Travis Poling of San Antonio Beer: Alamo City History by the Pint and other books. “Austin kicks everybody’s tush, of course,” with Houston and Dallas not far behind.

“This town is still, despite the changes, very much a light lager, mass-produced kind of town, for whatever reason,” Banas added.

Banas’ first taste of beer while growing up in Colorado came from the Pabst Blue Ribbon or Coors Light his dad drank. “I didn’t really like it very much,” he said. It wasn’t until Banas was living in Austin in 1992 and discovered Celis Brewing, then Waterloo, that he became a fan.

His local favorites today include Künstler Brewing, Southerleigh, and Freetail, and he especially likes Real Ale Brewing in Blanco, 50 miles north of San Antonio.

Other Texas cities might have a greater percentage of independent, craft beer drinkers than San Antonio, Banas said. But market growth here has been steady, with brewers finding success because they’ve found a niche, have a spot-on location, or draw customers with good food or even distilled products.

Freetail Brewing opened in San Antonio in 2008 and has been followed by many others since, especially in the last few years.

Freetail co-founder Jason Davis, a former journeyman brewer while living in Austin, spoke with the Rivard Report while on a recent trip to Seattle.

“There’s [something] like 180 breweries in this town,” he said. “So San Antonio still has a lot of growing up to do as far as … reaching for craft first. We still have a bunch of macro drinkers. I think there’s maybe a combination of reasons but it’s our job [as brewers] to introduce them to good craft beer.”

Davis said he knows of several brewers planning to open this year as a growing number look to set up more neighborhood-style brewpubs.

Freetail hasn’t grown as rapidly as he thought it would, but indisputable success has come through a strong distribution model and partners, he said, “and hopefully just good beer.”

San Antonio area independent brewers:

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.