Craft beer is evolving. So is craft retail.

BTBF-2016_logoIt’s no secret that American craft beer changes with the times. The beer in your glass responds to consumer demand and brewer creativity as well as the unseen influences of ingredients, costs and regulation. But the end-product is not the only thing changing.

The many and various ways that craft beer is retailed and ultimately sold to the consumer evolves along with changing market forces and demands. Just as environment shapes the organism, consumers are collectively and unknowingly shaping the craft beer environment.

Think about buying a craft beer back at the turn of the century (for the kids, barely 20 years ago now). Craft beer was a commercial novelty, enjoyed and supported by a strange but loyal following, and the only places it could be purchased were licensed brewpubs or a few dedicated local, so-called “beer bars” such as The Ginger Man, multiple Flying Saucer locations, or a couple of independents. At inception, it was mostly a closed craft market with few access points.

A new business model has arisen from a maturing population fueling suburban sprawl: the “growler-fill station.”

Compare the situation today: It is difficult to find any larger restaurant or bar, even national franchises, without a selection of 30 taps or more. Where years ago a “craft beer” tap may have been grudgingly reserved, most likely for the brewery in the immediate neighborhood, now it is not unusual to find the latest seasonal or limited offering from distant states. Where once only premium liquor stores carried bottles of craft beer, now every major grocery chain has a dominant craft beer section.

Certainly, distribution and legislation have played their parts. Major distributors consolidated and local zoning laws relaxed, which greatly improved the availability of packaged products. Taprooms were legalized just a few short years ago, turning breweries’ sterile manufacturing facilities into vibrant social destinations. Even right now, another effort is moving through the Texas legislature to allow off-premise sales direct from brewery locations.

The consumer end is still reshaping retail as the demographics shift. A new business model has arisen from a maturing population fueling suburban sprawl: the “growler-fill station,” an economic strip-center location with a presence between retail store and beer bar. Patrons can conveniently fill their glasses or their growlers from dozens of taps without trekking farther to an established craft beer destination and retailers get to close at 9 PM, avoiding the expense, hassle and risks of operating a nighttime bar or pub.

We are watching the latest retail phenomenon develop as what may be described as the hybrid or “crossover” business model for craft beer. Retailers are combining other consumer businesses or entertainment venues with the standard growler-fill, reclaiming something closer to the original brewpub model of restaurant plus brew-on-site. These places build premium craft beer bars within or alongside an unrelated product such as a movie theater (Alamo Drafthouse, Flix Brewhouse), an arcade (Free Play, Cidercade) or even a more traditional coffee house (Civil Pour, Golden Boy and a few others).

Obviously, the motivation behind this latest retail model is to play to another market besides craft beer—which is a smart move while costs and competition continue to rise. So far, consumers seem to be embracing these creative chimera businesses, and most seem to be doing well. What’s next for the craft beer retail sector? Stay tuned and find out. SD

Originally published for 8th Annual Big Texas Beer Fest (2019 program).

The Common Table takes on Frisco with guns a’blazing

Dallas Craft Beer Examiner

The ceilings are high, and the tall windows let in a lot of light—especially at night with the electronic ad-screen across the street. The bar top is still pristine, and the structure is just one featureless retail slot of a larger commercial complex. The kitchen is the same, and the new beer tap system belongs about 15 minutes into the future.

However, once you talk to the staff, it’s all familiar as The Common Table. There’s something in the bar’s DNA.

Tonight’s focus is the latest beer-pairing dinner, a multi-course affair that TCT has perfected over the years at their original Uptown Dallas location. Although on hiatus for the past couple of seasons, the event has been resurrected for the opening of the new Frisco store as the “Ale-Star Series” that, so far, has featured some of the most prominent craft brewers in the United States and their hand-selected menus of beers.

The most recent was Texas’ own Jester King Brewery and featuring head brewer Averie Swanson. (Despite craft beer’s recent success, women are still woefully underrepresented in the industry.) As a very unique farmhouse brewery in Austin’s Hill Country, Jester King’s artisanal beers can be a challenge to pair with food given their sour, pungent and creatively wild-fermented beers and related blends. This led to a (mostly) all-seafood dinner, lighter fare such as seared halibut cheeks with an orange-ginger sauce and a delectable cheese course with house-made lavash and Red Hawk cheese from Cowgirl Creamery.

Jerry Jones built “The Star” in Frisco as the Cowboys’ new headquarters and practice facility, and it has been progressively attracting restaurants, bars and clubs like a planet capturing new moons. The Common Table, one of Dallas’ premier craft beer establishments since 2010, was actually courted to expand with a second location at The Star, which opened late last fall. Since then, it has been working to find its beer legs in the burgeoning craft beer environment of the newly paved ‘burbs north of LBJ.

One evening near the end of March, a similar event focused on Avery Brewing of Colorado with owner/founder Adam Avery as host. Avery (both the man and the brewery) are considered part of the industry’s old guard, pioneering craft beer across the nation before other states even acknowledged the business model. This dinner featured a more internationally inspired menu with Moroccan-style Colorado roasted leg of lamb, butternut squash and sweet potato tajine, and plump PEI mussels in a Spanish chorizo and tomato broth.

The Avery dinner might have been one food course shorter than typical, but that was hardly noticed once the paired brewery beers started to fly. With Avery’s longevity in the market and long-reaching skills of brewing and aging beers, glasses of Tectum et Elix (ale aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels), Fimbulvvinter (rum barrel-aged Belgian-style quintuple) and the scowling face of Winston Churchill on the label of Old Perseverance (bourbon barrel-aged ale with maple syrup and dark muscovado sugar) crowded the tables by evening’s end.

Once you talk to the staff, it’s all familiar as The Common Table. There’s something in the bar’s DNA.

This Frisco shop is helmed by Glen Stivison, an experienced manager of local craft beer establishments, and Chief Beer & Tunes Officer Corey Pond now splits his time between the two locations. The new place has extensive patio space, including the long outdoor seating that is its namesake, while a light wood wraparound bar anchors the inside space. A local music series that mirrors the Uptown TCT lineup has begun with the warmer months and should only improve throughout the summer.

Early March saw California’s Firestone Walker Brewing swing into North Texas for a beer dinner with owner David Walker hosting despite suffering through a mild respiratory bug. The brewery’s limited-edition Dark & Stormy, a rum barrel-aged ale with lime and coconut (designed to match the cocktail), shared the evening with more classic dining selections such as bone-in chateaubriand with charred onion au jus (liquid crack!), tiger prawn ceviche with mango and serrano chiles, and a strawberry rhubarb spinach salad with blue cheese.

The Common Table has a long history of both beer-pairing events and playing host to notable brewers both national and international, one of few places in Texas (and a mere handful in North Texas) that can rate such consideration. This reputation is earned through the relationships that Pond has personally cultivated with craft brewers around the country, both as a business owner and an eager evangelist for and unashamed enthusiast in the movement. To his credit, he is not difficult to find at either of his bars, often tugging on his vape with a coffee cup filled with Founders Breakfast Stout nearby.

What may be the best evidence for TCT’s draw is the dinner that kicked off this current series in late February featuring Brooklyn Brewery. This night was hosted by brewer emeritus Garrett Oliver, former head brewer turned author, speaker, presenter and all-around craft beer bon vivant (and to The Common Table’s reputation, not the first time he has hosted a night here). Where Oliver goes, serious craft beer cred is automatically bestowed.

The Brooklyn Brewery beer-pairing dinner on a cool evening in February stands out as one of the finest craft beer events I’ve ever attended. Not only were diners treated to a stunning A5 Wagyu tomahawk steak (properly seared with help from Dee Lincoln Prime across the street) with bone marrow butter, other courses included a fine New Zealand lamb carpaccio and an amazing Manhattan littleneck clam chowder that is still spoken about.

Not to be outdone, Oliver brought with him a couple of his famous “ghost bottles,” unapproved small-batch or experimental beers that generally do not leave the New York brewery outside of the pockets of employees. The expected Black Ops imperial stout, a wild ale named Kiwi’s Playhouse, and a Belgian-style golden ale named Aglovale (an Arthurian reference) all paired magnificently with each course of the meal—none of which compare to the included complimentary signed copy of Oliver’s book The Brewmaster’s Table and the simple thrill of just hanging out and chatting with him.

It’s still very early days for this place on the bar/restaurant scale, but spawning a clone has not seemed to slow them down. If you have never enjoyed a beer-pairing dinner, Frisco’s The Common Table is an excellent place to start. SD

Timing is everything, and CraftPAC’s time is now

BTBF-2016_logoThe last thing you would expect to read at a Dallas beer festival would be an article about the Oklahoma craft beer scene.

Most of the nation has always regarded Oklahoma as a little backward, a rural conservative state with few major industries beyond farming and natural gas. Their outdated alcohol laws do not help this reputation—to North Texans especially, as our proximity has made us somewhat familiar with Oklahoma’s legendary backward beer laws and regulations. As arcane and prehistoric as Texas beer laws can be, we could at least take some comfort in knowing that Oklahoman craft beer fans had it worse.

In only a few short months, Oklahoma will have less restrictive beer laws than Texas for the first time ever.

This is about to change in a very significant way come this October. In May 2016, the Oklahoma legislature passed SB 383, which included the most sweeping updates to their alcohol laws since Prohibition. It modernizes if not eliminates many pointless statutes and “blue law” restrictions, and effectively restructures the ABLE Commission (Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement, their state’s version of the TABC).

No more stocking shelves with warm beer, or the infamous “3.2” limit. No more ABV caps for brewpubs, or ridiculous restrictions such as no persons under the age of 21 (which can impact modern craft breweries and gastropubs eyeing a family demographic). No more sales restrictions or special permitting at festivals. An expansion of homebrewing rights, wine and beer licenses for grocery and convenience stores, and broader operating hours/days for retailers. The new laws even allow for direct sales from breweries and stronger brewer rights with regard to distributors.

The law was intentionally given a distant two-year effective date (2018) to allow all the players in Oklahoma—breweries, retailers, distributors, even counties and municipalities—time to react to changes and update their own needs and practices accordingly. (Eighteen counties in the state are still dry.) Since that time other changes have followed, just about all of them progressive and beneficial to the craft beer indutry, including a statewide referendum (State Question 792) validating the aforementioned bill. Oklahomans are warmly embracing the craft beer movement.

Why is any of this relevant to Texas? Earlier this year, the Texas Craft Brewers Guild launched CraftPAC ( specifically as a lobbying body to advance the business and industry needs of the state’s craft beer movement. Its sole purpose is to educate Austin lawmakers and support candidates and legislation who will act for the needs of independent Texas brewers both large and small, hopefully moderating the influence of the more powerful wholesale lobby. With our state’s brewing industry maturing rapidly, it is unlikely we will see a public referendum; therefore, CraftPAC has to be the voice at the legislative table for consumers and small brewers alike.

In only a few short months, Oklahoma will have less restrictive beer laws than Texas for the first time, including the coveted direct sales rights that our state’s brewers have fought so earnestly to change. Less regulation means more competition, with Oklahoma set to instantly become a strong competitor located just beyond the Red River (and their craft brewers are just as good as ours). Texans do not like to consider themselves second to anyone, so now is the time to throw our support behind CraftPAC and their efforts if we, brewing and selling as a state, do not want to be left behind. SD

Originally published for 7th Annual Big Texas Beer Fest (2018 program).

Visiting area breweries on the Dallas Brew Bus

Dallas Craft Beer Examiner

As a general rule, the rain keeps me at home and out of pubs and local breweries. Low turnout, putting on pants and messy, slick streets are just not worth the effort on such grey days.

However, today someone else was driving.

It was the holiday-appropriate ‘Merica Tour aboard the Dallas Brew Bus, a roving craft brewery-themed revue that has become a minor institution in the Dallas area. Operating semi-monthly now for more than four years, the DBB is a curated bus trip run by Matt Dixon (of Dallas Brew Scene and North Texas Beer Week) and wife Vanessa to select North Texas breweries and area craft beer locations. With most of my brewery visits being solo trips and having never been part of the ongoing bus adventure, a ride was long overdue.

The first scheduled stop on this patriotic road cruise was Lakewood Brewing in Garland, a trip across area highways under cloudy skies as the morning rains came to an end. This was the first tour to feature a shiny new luxury charter, quite a pleasant climate-controlled and modern audio system upgrade for the trip (rented district school buses are the norm). Thirty-eight fellow adventurers joined me today aboard clean, stain-free fabric seats, continuing the Dixons’ long streak of sold-out bus tours.

Far from a stale trap for craft beer tourists, the DBB is an interactive event with trivia, prizes, Dixonian anecdotes and a themed soundtrack throughout the ride. The crowd is mixed, mostly locals with a few out-of-towners, and includes patrons spanning the age and demographic spectrum who are encouraged to interact and stay lively. Less than a circus sideshow, Dixon is personally an unending source of first-hand knowledge for modern North Texas brewing and personalities (and indie music), so the fluid salesman-like patter along the trip rarely stops.

This is the fundamental appeal of the Brew Bus: The ticket is all-inclusive.

Upon boarding, riders receive a drinks card that is checked off with each beer ordered at the various destinations. This is the fundamental appeal of the Brew Bus: The ticket is all-inclusive. A collective logo sample glass entitles riders to fills at each brewery, so there is never a need to open a tab, show ID or even carry cash (exceptions for additional beers, merchandise, food trucks or staff tips at the participant’s discretion).

Lakewood did not disappoint, as their still-new taproom offered all varieties of seasonally brewed Temptress specialties such as a rare bourbon barrel-aged molé variety. Bottled water and a light snack are even included aboard the bus, a varying culinary fare usually provided by the maestros at LUCK—today, a cellophane-wrapped roasted pork sandwich with fresh coleslaw, which was far better than a bag of dry pretzels.

Dallas’ On Rotation was our second stop, by then the day beginning to dry out while the bus crew was just hitting their drinking stride. A self-proclaimed “craft beer laboratory” sandwiched between local brewing giants on this tour, On Rotation always affords an additional food source with hot pizza available from Cane Rosso located just next door in its suburban-like strip center near White Rock Lake.

Each bus stop is planned for about 90 minutes each which, allowing for variable travel schedules based on particular distances, is plenty of time to socialize, run through the sample card and explore new locations. (Today’s beverages included only those brewed in-house, not from On Rotation’s extensive commercial tap wall. However, their current Red, White & Blueberries is well worth seeking out.) Most places are happy for the off-peak influx of an eager craft drinking crowd arriving midday, although a thirsty bus unloading at the door can be a visceral shock for some if not aware of the schedule beforehand.

DBB tours usually encompass three local stops, most often from Dallas and the adjoining areas but Fort Worth locations have been included as demand allows and newer breweries arise. Featured breweries have included craft beer destinations as far away as Cedar Creek Brewing in Seven Points (roughly 50 miles southeast of Dallas), and a Tarrant County-based tour is already scheduled. Holiday themes are common (Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, “Endless Summer”), and the tour and its services are also available for private events.

Our final destination was Community Beer Company, which was also our starting point and a common spot for tour embarkation due to space, parking and a widely known central location. With riders now well-lubricated from a half-day of reckless sampling, we folded into the normal weekend taproom crowd at its late-afternoon peak due to clearing skies and broadcast sports; fortunately, the lines moved quickly and the wait was minimal. Community’s Passiflora IPA, a hoppy saison brewed with passion fruit, was newly debuted this weekend and quite in demand by bus riders and general taproom visitors alike.

Although the tour would not formally end for a while yet, riders melted into the mass of normal weekend patrons as the bus departed empty, all our official stops now completed. Any brief camaraderie our little tour group had quickly disintegrated as non-tour friends and designated drivers joined their charges in Community’s spacious front taproom with a band starting up at the far end. In the end, we simply added to the normal Saturday brewery crowds for as long as we individually cared to stay.

Community’s location proves an ideal benchmark to include in the DBB tour (officially or not) as its position in the Design District allows for a variety of after-events with nearby breweries, beer bars or even activities at the American Airlines Center. However, the Dallas Brew Bus is more than enough for a great afternoon spent indulging in the local craft beer experience, whether one is experienced in the North Texas scene or not. SD

Where Does Your Beer Come From?


Dallas Craft Beer Examiner

As a craft beer fan and dedicated consumer, do you know where your beer comes from? Not the ingredients, not the brewery ownership, but culturally and conceptually?

Most of the classic beer styles we enjoy every day were created somewhere else, mostly in the Old World, and many originally individual and unique to particular regions. Before industrialization, brewers had to work with only the grains, adjuncts and water chemistries readily available to them. And until the dawn of microbiology as a science, brewers were often at the mercy of nature, too.

We enjoy a wealth of beer diversity in America, but we can claim very few formal beer styles as wholly created here. The first settlers in New England were mostly from the British Isles and Northern Europe, and brought with them an ale tradition that served as their everyday beverages long before commercialization. Citizens brewed and blended their own brown ales and porters of varying shades as their households and pubs had done for centuries prior.

Our biggest beer shift came with German immigration in the early nineteenth century, the largest ethnic influx our country has ever experienced. Magnates like Adolphus Busch and Eberhard Anheuser built empires of lagers on the heels of the steel and railroad industries, moving the balance away from ales well into the twentieth century. Ironically, “American beer” was defined for a time by uniquely German tastes.

In the twenty-first century, American beer is more an intellectual melting pot than ever before. We threw away ineffectual temperance efforts and with the rise of international travel, we have embraced old English and Scottish ales; sharp Czech pilsners; Bohemian weizen and bocks; Scandinavian sahti and Slavic kvass; soured beers from the Low Countries; bold Russian stouts and Baltic porters; and Belgian ales that are classic, experimental and ecumenical. We have adopted many beer styles as our own despite their origins, and produce distinctly American hoppy IPAs with native-born strains never known to old European brewers.

Lest we ever forget, this cultural fingerprint is still with us today. Kosmos Spoetzl built on Czech and German settlements in South Texas to brew his beers in the little town of Shiner. Pierre Celis almost singlehandedly rescued his native Belgian witbier style from extinction and became an Austin legend. Lakewood’s Wim Bens puts his personal taste on his products for Lakewood that reflect his own Belgian heritage. Fritz Rahr‘s German brewing family predates Prohibition in Wisconsin, and Dennis Wehrmann brews beers from the Franconia region where he grew up.

And the efforts have not ceased. As China, India and South American markets embrace the craft beer industry and their equivalent consumer base grows, what local malt-beverage styles have yet to be reproduced for a widespread American audience? Bradon and Yasmin Wages brought a Vietnamese bia hoi to their Malai Kitchen restaurants, and many local and national brewers continue to experiment with ingredients and influences from ginger to pulque. From Near East to Far East and everywhere between, what new immigrant brewer will bring a rich new flavor to our bars?

American craft beer is incredibly diverse, with thousands of fathers and mothers from around the world, and we are a culturally stronger nation for it. Let’s work hard not to forget that.  SD

Included in the event program for Big Texas Beer Fest, March 31-April 1, 2017

Common Table Poor Man’s Beer Dinner still on point

Poor Man's Beer Dinner

Dallas Craft Beer Examiner

Common TableToday, beer and wine dinners have become almost a yawning marketing commodity among the bar and restaurant industry. But in the days a half-decade ago when craft beer was just establishing its foothold in North Texas, beer-pairing dinners were rare and celebrated events.

Early movers with Dallas beer dinners both in prominence of brewing figures they attracted as well as the outstanding craveability of the food and beer pairings were Meddlesome Moth and The Common Table, two of the more senior and respected local craft beer meccas. Whereas the Moth still hosts preeminent dinners of no decline in quality, The Common Table left the standard event model years ago for a still-novel concept: the weekly Poor Man’s Beer Dinner. Prepared afresh each time, an affordable multicourse meal is paired with stocked commercial craft beers but offered regularly and to order.

Recently realizing that a couple of years had passed since my last Poor Man’s dinner, their past Monday offering caught my eye with the theme of Hatch chiles, that seasonal consumer darling that overruns Central Market and seems to spawn marketing gold each summer. Often these dinners are constructed around a theme, usually by breweries newly arrived to Texas with their products, but being a fan of the fruit (yes, chiles are a fruit) I had to give this one a try. I’m happy to report that the quality of this meal deal remains top-notch.

First course
Hatch chile chicken tortilla soup paired with Duvel Single
Hatch chile chicken tortilla soup

A small bowl of chunky soup with thin, fried tortilla strips, the dish was deliciously flavored but burning with fiery chile heat. Although somewhat a chore to finish (at least for my bolillo heat tolerance), it was the hottest element of the entire meal, and woke up the palate with a full-faced alarm.

The paired course beer, Duvel Single, is Moortgat’s lighter version of their Belgian pale ale, single-fermented for the same flavors but without the strength of regular Duvel. One would think it an optimal match for the Hatch heat but alcohol does little to quench capsaicin once it makes camp on your palate.

Second course
Garden salad with Hatch chile avocado dressing paired with Sierra Nevada Kellerweis

Garden salad with Hatch chile avocado dressing

Seemingly plain in comparison, this simple mixed greens salad had a smooth, lightly creamy dressing with a pleasant cooling effect after the heat of the previous course. The flavor of the Hatch was captured and eased somewhat by the smooth, fatty avocado texture.

Sierra Nevada Kellerweis is that brewery’s unfiltered wheat ale brewed after a traditional Bavarian style. It worked with the fresh salad to tame the heat of the previous course as well as the flavors themselves pleasantly complimenting each other.

Third course
Blackened red snapper with Hatch chile risotto fortified with Fontina served on a lemon beurre blanc paired with Community Mosaic

Blackened red snapper with Hatch chile risotto (fontina) and a lemon burre blanc

This dish was outrageously perfect, and by far the star of the evening. Perfectly cooked snapper was served mildly blackened with mellow cajun spices to work with but not overshadow the still-lingering pepper heat. It was dressed with a tart lemony sauce and served on a bed of luscious Hatch chile risotto beautifully fortified with Fontina that almost overshadowed the entrée. (I would enjoy this added as a regular menu item, or at least a rotating special.)

Paired with Community Mosaic, the aggressive IPA brought enough sharp flavors for a fresh, palate-cleansing bite. On its own, Mosaic is one of my personal weekly go-to beers and easily one of the top IPAs to come out of North Texas.

Fourth course
Vanilla bean ice cream with candied Hatch chiles and crushed pecans paired with Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout

Vanilla bean ice cream with candied Hatch chiles and crushed pecans

One would never think of chiles as a dessert item but candied, sliced rounds of Hatch chiles still coated in sugar provided a fantastic vegetal flavor to the creamy scoop and crunchy pecan bed. All elements for the entire dish just synched, both in flavor and texture.

The last stocked bottle of Sam Smith was served just before my course was served, but calling an audible with Ninkasi Vanilla Oatis worked equally as well. With all respect to Tadcaster ( a legend on its own), Ninkasi’s oatmeal stout with vanilla was an even better match for this particular course.

Unknown at the start, this was Chef Nick Wells’ last Poor Man’s dinner as he leaves this week for a new kitchen not too far away (Dots Hop House, a new Deep Ellum venture soon to open from the owners of Denton’s Oak Street Drafthouse). Once again, The Common Table proves it has an expert hand in not only selecting a quality lineup of taps but also a kitchen still strongly firing on all cylinders.

Walk in any Monday evening between 6:30 and 9pm for a small treat of refined yet affordable cuisine. SD