Let’s go down the brewery – taprooms as your local in Austin and beyond
Growing up in the UK, one of the things I was always told about America is that, along with the consumption of weak, gassy lager and the inability to make a proper cup of tea, American’s don’t have a pub culture. Bars in the US were, on the whole, painted as rowdy and anonymous with sports games blaring and pitchers being thrown around, or as sleek, chrome and glass cocktail establishments that required reservations and designer garb. We believed that America lacked anything akin to the cosy, quiet comfort of a regular British boozer where you can trundle in on your way home from work, the bartender knows your order and you make a polite nod at the folks you recognise. Well, until Cheers came along. But that felt like the exception, with most 90s television continuing to reinforce the stereotype – did Friends hang out in a local bar? Hell no! And those Sex and the City ladies? Wouldn’t be seen dead.
Where am I going with this, you may ask? Well, one of the biggest surprises I got when moving to Texas was the discovery that most folks here not only have a regular boozer which they lovingly frequent and are prepared to support, but that a significant number of these locals are in fact brewery taprooms. When you think about what makes a good pub, why you go back to your regular, what makes it special, there can be any number of reasons, but one undisputable key to being a local pub is just that – it’s local, on (or near) your doorstep and you don’t have to go far out of your way to pay it a visit. Now, I didn’t live in Texas a decade ago, prior to what can only be described as a craft beer explosion with a 990% increase in the number of breweries the 12 years prior to 2017, so I don’t know where people here drank back then, but what I do know is that this growth has enabled Texans to drink local, really really local. Taprooms are everywhere – they’re not clustered together in the Downtown or trendy hipster areas of Texan cities. Brewers are setting up shop in their local communities, on industrial and housing estates in the suburbs and in old town squares in the provinces. These are, quite literally, becoming the Texan version of the village pub. Although there are over 220 microbreweries in Texas as of October 2017 and this number continues to grow apace, Texas still has one of the lowest concentrations of breweries per resident of any state (Texas ranks 46th in the US, despite being the second largest state). This means there is still plenty of room for growth without crowding out the market, an encouraging fact considering the number of new breweries in the works just here in Austin, especially when pubs in the UK are closing at a rate of two a day.
With Austin currently being the ninth-fastest growing city in the US, it’s no surprise that new craft breweries are popping up almost constantly, and keeping on top of new openings is now almost a challenging as it was in London. What is interesting is where they are popping up. Suburbs like Cedar Park, Dripping Springs and West Lake Hills all have their own breweries, some with several, and towns on the outskirts of the city like Pflugerville, Round Rock, Georgetown and Buda all boast their own taproom or two. In the city too, every neighbourhood has a taproom to call its own – something that proved especially handy for us when our car was in the shop. Yes, we could walk to the brewery! And this isn’t an accident. Breweries are invested in their local communities – they want regulars and they want to give something back. From flea markets supporting local artists to charity fundraisers, beer and yoga sessions, bottle shares, games and quiz nights and free live gigs to showcase local artists, Texas breweries are giving back, and that’s why people are coming back. Some breweries aren’t afraid to get political. Many held election night watch parties for the recent Midterms, and Circle Brewing‘s Beer For Beto went down a storm! In Austin, both Black Star Co-Op and 4th Tap are also run as community co-operatives where regulars can become stakeholding members. Local membership schemes (known as mug clubs) are another brilliant popular initiative to bring people together and keep them coming back – a yearly fee entitles you to reduced-price beer on every visit and your own mug, and there are regular meet-up groups. Well hell yes!
It would be easy to dismiss this trend as an Austin thing – the product of a cultural, progressive city full of students and hipsters, but this isn’t the case. From high-rise Houston to far-flung Lubbock, or traditional Texan small towns like Seguin and Blanco, local taprooms are everywhere and they are busy. Obviously we get a bit of attention being Brits, but there is a genuine sense of beery camaraderie that goes beyond this, and we often find that a quick visit has turned into a few hours as we’ve been chatting away and feeling so at home. There is, by and large, the atmosphere of familiarity, warmth and comfort that I associate with going to my local pub, with the added bonus of drinking beer freshly brewed onsite. Bartenders and regulars take the time to chat with you, or you can kick back, read the paper or play a board game and while away happy hours in that most hallowed of environments – the local boozer. For a displaced Brit who loves craft beer, this is an element of Texan culture, albeit a relatively new one, that I’ve totally fallen in love with. Let’s meet at the brewery, and yes, sometimes, everybody knows your name.