For more than 159 years San Antonio’s best brew has been based on a tradition of excellence that was bred primarily by the German roots of our city’s eclectic mix of heritage. Dating back to when a company called Western Brewery was constructed by a gentlemen named Willam A. Menger on Alamo Plaza, the region around San Antonio has been at the epicenter of brewing in Texas.
Menger’s Brewery became the largest operating brewery in the state and pre-dated the founding of The Menger Hotel. Today the cooling cellars that stored the German lager brewed by brewmaster Charles Degen still exist. One can only imagine the stories and memories that reside within the walls of the present day hotel. The dinners, parties, hot afternoons, and social gatherings witnessed by the pints of San Antonio’s breweries tell a history of one of the nation’s most dynamic and social cities.
Today, a new group of craftsmen and women are making new brews with a vastly expanded landscape of styles and flavors. While the official definition of “craft beer” shifts a bit, depending on the conversation, it normally can be defined by breweries who focus on limited production of quality brewed, highly flavorful, and diverse beer selections. It’s not about vast quantities or proving you know more about malt, hops, or aging than anybody else. Craft Beer is about trying new tastes, finding your local favorites, and creating new stories with friends both old and new.
San Antonio’s downtown landscape is a mecca for micro-brew fans and is only getting better. For those looking at what the city center has to offer, taking a weekend to map out a craft beer jaunt from the Blue Star Arts Complex to Pearl Brewery, provides a number of amazing craft experiences. Whether you choose to walk the three-mile route, take a B-cycle or drive; the opportunity to taste hundreds of unique choices for any preference is almost unmatched across the country.
Grab some fish tacos and locally brewed Texican Lager or Flying Pig Pale Ale for those warm afternoons on the patio of the Blue Star Brewery. Of course, if you happen to be out there on a rainy or cooler day, or you are a fan of dark, robust beers, try their stout.
Not more than a 1/3 mile walk from Blue Star is the friendliest and arguably biggest selection of local and national craft beers in San Antonio. The Friendly Spot bartenders are knowledgable and happy to talk to you about everything from flavors and breweries to the latest Spurs victory. With its big, open outdoor seating area and two bars, The Friendly Spot is truly reflective of what being and buying local is all about.
While the tourist-bound River Walk is a challenge for locals when it comes to finding cerveza that isn’t found in every corner store in America, The Esquire Tavern provides us solace with a mix of regional selections for those who also travel with friends whom might not drink beer and prefer a cocktail. *Gasp*
Just north of downtown and across from the Pearl Brewery complex you can visit the Tuk Tuk Taproom where the menu is asian street fare and the taps are dominated by a full selection of Texas brewed craft beer. In the Pearl itself, you can also find the Granary ‘Cue and Brew.
You cannot, or at least should not, write about great places for beer around downtown San Antonio without mentioning The Cove. For those who only know of The Cove for their fabulous organic and locally sourced food, you have missed out if you haven’t sat on their newly re-energized back patio next to the fire pit and ping pong tables.
Take an evening and listen to their almost nightly live music and slowly down one of their 60 craft beer options or ask for one of my personal favorites, Ranger Creek’s Lucky Ol’ Sun. It’s a Belgian ale built for sitting on the patio and taking in the tunes.
Throughout San Antonio are great opportunities to explore the craft beer scene from the point of origin. Almost all of them open their doors to the public for tastings on a weekly basis.
Walk into the tap-room of Busted Sandal Brewery Company brewery hidden behind a series of non-descript warehouses along Fredricksburg Rd, and you won’t find any tables, or big open spaces. But you will pick up the scent of the brewers mash wafting through the air. You’ll hear the sound of people laughing and with a little luck and the voice of Founder/Brewer Michael DiCicco.
While the story behind Busted Sandal’s name is on their website, hearing Michael talk about the journey through life’s adventures that a sandal takes before it’s busted is at the root of the Brewer’s passions. You can almost transport yourself to a sunny Saturday of tubing on the river as you taste a Slippery Rock IPA. It is inherently Texas, flavorfully inventive and well worth the trip.
With breweries like Ranger Creek Brewing and Distillery, Busted Sandal, Saint Arnold and Branchline Brewing; those seeking new flavors and opportunities to buy local can meet the brewers and hear the varied origins of the breweries themselves and their individual beers.
At the end of the summer San Antonio will be the proud host of new facilities for Alamo Beer Company that will reside at the Hays Street Bridge and Freetail Brewing Company will add a downtown brewery location in May.
The unique beverage experiences that people crave are shifting the entire adult beverage industry and San Antonio is a beneficiary of that wave.
In 2013, according to the Brewers Association, overall Beer sales in the United States decreased by 1.9 percent. However, the craft beer industry was up 18 percent by volume and 20 percent by dollars. This national trend looks towards more unique and quality local products. It can be seen not only in the bars and restaurants but also in the refrigerators of San Antonio homes.
Big Hops Growler Station has three locations across the city and exists as a result of people’s preferences and desire to take it home with you. The unpretentious atmosphere where the motto is “Drink Local and Refill Often” provides the picnic tables, and taps.
If you want to take some home, you can bring your own growler or they have them available in 32 or 64 ounce sizes.
As you walk through the front door of their location at 11224 Huebner, feel free to challenge the staff with your tastes. A simple description of your favorite beer ever will put them into “match-making” overdrive. Even if the depth of your understanding of beer to date has been that Budweiser comes in bottles and cans. You’ll find a comfort level at Big Hops for sampling a regional lager, pilsner, wit, stout, or pale ale before committing to that long-term, pint level relationship.
Unlike anywhere else, Big Hops promotes the experience of tasting and experiencing local and regional craftsmanship. While the two fill stations don’t have food menus, the Big Hops Gastropub recently opened on the far North Side and serves awesome food with an ever-changing menu from Chefs Rico Torres and Diego Galicia.
When I moved from Denver, CO; the home of the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and dozens of breweries well over a decade ago, I was distraught that you couldn’t find a craft beer in San Antonio unless it had been shipped in from elsewhere. Today when I go back to visit the October mega-fest that is GABF, there is a certain sense of pride in seeing our regional brewers compete well for beer greatness.
Part of the unique cool of San Antonio is that we are such a city of mixed heritage, cultures, flavors and styles. Just like the small, high-quality production quantities of our local beer craftsmen and women, our stories are all unique. So, find your favorite patio – whether it is at a local brewpub or your own back door – pour a pint and create new memories.
As we head into Fiesta season, there are lots of opportunities to partake in craft-centric events. Here are a few options worth checking out:
- Helotes 5K Beer Garden Run on April 12. Registration available at www.active.com and organized by Soler Sports in conjunction with area craft beer brewers.
- Tap Takeover at World of Beer Stone Oak from 5-9p.m. on April 23. Join the Branchline crew at World of Beer Stone Oak for a tap takeover. Beers available include Shady Oak Blonde, Woodcutter Rye IPA, Evil Owl Amber, White Cap Cream Ale, and Oaked River Bend Pale Ale.
- Craft Beer Fiesta on Saturday April 19 from 12-5 p.m. at VFW Post 76. Live music by Blackbird Sing and The Revival. Admission is Free.
- The Ranger Creek Crawfish Boil on Saturday, April 26, 2-6 p.m. They’ll be pouring plenty of awesome craft beer. $30 gets you food, three beers, and a souvenir pint glass. Seating is limited, so RSVP at www.drinkrangercreek.com
Don’t forget to drink local, refill often and be friendly.
*Featured/top image: Craft brews abound at Big Hops Growler Station at 8313 Broadway. Photo by Chris Day.