In 1977, Mayor Lila Cockrell christened the new San Antonio Museum of Art by smashing a bottle of beer on the building. She used beer rather than traditional champagne because the art museum had taken over the old pre-Prohibition Lone Star Brewery building, which had fallen into disuse.
Today, the close relationship of beer and culture in San Antonio continues, as the craft brewing industry flourishes and old industrial breweries are reinvigorated as havens for commerce and social life.
Brewing Up Texas, a new exhibit at the Institute of Texan Cultures, traces Texas brewing history from the 1800s to today. The exhibit features ephemera from breweries new and old, along with economic and consumer statistics about the industry, facts about the brewing process, and trivia that illuminates Texans’ longstanding love of fermented malt beverages.
Local beer historian Charlie Staats lent the institute part of his collection for the exhibit, including an 1883 sign from the old Alamo Brewery on Camaron Street, which Staats said was bought out by Lone Star in 1895 and eventually became dormant. The present-day Alamo Beer Company is San Antonio’s largest independent brewery, with Freetail Brewing Company a close second.
“I guess I’ve got a foot in the 1800s, a foot in the 1900s, and now, something in the 2000s,” said Eugene Simor, who revived the dormant Alamo brand in 2004. Alamo updates a long, local tradition of classic German beer styles, Simor said as he poured tapper samples at Sunday’s 7th Annual Parktoberfest at Brackenridge Park.
While Alamo arguably dominates the local beer market, brewpubs and other breweries of more modest sizes attract many beer enthusiasts. Texas legalized brewpubs and smaller breweries in 1993, but owners could only sell their products on site. Two decades later, the Legislature overhauled craft beer regulations, allowing for greater distribution through off-premise sales. Though the Texas craft beer industry started slowly, it has grown fourfold in the past six years alone, from 50 breweries in 2011 to more than 200 today.
As a crowd of about 6,500 milled around Lockwood and Dignowity parks for Saturday’s 2017 San Antonio Beer Festival, Freetail brewer Dan Leary reflected on his place in Texas brewing culture and history.
“As far as being part of the Texas brewing scene, that’s just really humbling,” Leary said. “We’re just trying to make quality beer for our local populace.”
Decades ago, breweries such as Lone Star and Pearl once held sway in these parts, employing thousands and distributing their German-style lagers and pilsners nationwide.
Leary identified one reason that might account for the burgeoning popularity of locally-made, hand-crafted beer. “It can’t be said any better: Fresh beer is the best beer. If you can get beer locally made … that’s going to be your best route to a great beer,” he said. “If that’s a conduit to an enjoyable time with friends and family, I’m very happy to be part of it.”
Pouring lager samples at Parktoberfest, Victor Montez, the newest brewer with Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery, put it simply: “Beer is art.”
Montez distinguished the creative side of brewing from its pure chemistry, the science of mixing yeast and mash at the right temperature to achieve the ideal brew. Modern brewers are not shy about using ingredients that depart wildly from the traditional Bavarian brewing law of Reinheitsgebot, which specifically calls for water, yeast, malt, and hops only. Coffee, ginger, cucumber, tomato, and other eccentric ingredients are now commonly found in craft brews.
Southerleigh, alongside The Granary ’Cue & Brew, have revived the brewing tradition at the old Pearl Brewery complex, now filled with dozens of cafés, restaurants, boutiques, apartments, and meeting places. Long after Lone Star left its Jones Street complex, a new Lone Star Brewery opened at 600 Simpson St. – now Lone Star Boulevard – and operated from 1940-1997, Staats said.
Meanwhile, San Antonio craft breweries like Alamo, Freetail, Blue Star, Southerleigh, The Granary, Ranger Creek, Busted Sandal, Weathered Souls, Mad Pecker, and others are on the rise and invigorating local beer culture.
Asked what kind of beer Cockrell likely used for the San Antonio Museum of Art christening, Staats guessed it was a Lone Star longneck, but reports did not specify the brand.
“To this day, I am not a beer drinker,” Cockrell said, unable to recall the brand of beer she used. But she does remember thinking of her grandfather and grandmother, who were active in the New York Prohibition and Temperance movements. “I knew that they would have been proud that I was breaking the bottle instead of drinking the beer,” Cockrell said.