Where to Drink in Houston, Texas

Destinations by | Feb 2017 | Issue #121
Illustrations by Sam Brewster

The last time the Super Bowl was played in Houston, in 2004, the city had a smattering of very good beer bars, but just one craft brewery and a single survivor of a 1990s brewpub boom. The massive Anheuser-Busch plant on the industrial east side had stopped offering public tours. There was an active homebrew community making impressive beers, but that didn’t matter much to visitors in for the big game.

Thirteen years later, as NRG Stadium prepares to host Super Bowl LI, Houston’s thirsty guests will find a thriving beer scene with multiple breweries, large and small, each with a distinct personality and guest experience. Five new breweries opened up over a three-month period last summer alone.

Houston’s beer history dates to the city’s earliest days, thanks to the influx of German immigrants in the mid-19th century. From the 1890s until Prohibition, Adolphus Busch ran a major brewery here, and in the early 20th century the Belgian-born Frantz Brogniez made an international name for himself at the competing Magnolia Brewery. Post-Prohibition operations included the Gulf Brewing Co. owned by Howard Hughes and the A-B brewery that recently celebrated 50 years in business.

The city’s modern beer story starts with Saint Arnold Brewing Co., now in its third decade of operation. From its original digs in a light-industrial park just outside the Interstate 610 freeway loop that separates the city from the suburbs, Saint Arnold’s Divine Reserve series sparked a previously unseen level of excitement in the city’s beer drinkers. The beers began to sell out in minutes, and Saint Arnold soon outgrew its brewery. Since 2010, founder Brock Wagner has operated from a renovated warehouse just north of downtown, overlooking the city skyline. Come for weekday lunch in the massive beer hall, and stay for the daily tours—but beware: Saturday tours can draw upward of 1,000 people.

Around town, look for Saint Arnold Art Car IPA or the dark-malted Kölsch Santo; at the brewery, try one of the special releases, including vintage or tweaked beers from the Divine Reserve and Bishop’s Barrel series.

In 2011, Karbach Brewing Co. opened with a splash, bringing in brewmaster Eric Warner of Flying Dog and Tabernash fame. With deep ties to the Texas beer business, the brand grew quickly on the strength of beers like Weisse Versa, Sympathy for the Lager, and the bourbon-barrel-aged Imperial Porter Hellfighter. Karbach has since expanded into a state-of-the-art brewery with an on-site restaurant featuring year-round, seasonal, and experimental beers. The brewery’s November 2016 announcement of its acquisition by Anheuser-Busch InBev portends even more dramatic growth in the years ahead.

And since spring 2015, the local Anheuser-Busch brewery, which pumps out 12 million barrels annually, has resumed daily tours that provide a much different perspective on large-scale beer production.

With nearly 50 breweries now open between Galveston Island on the Gulf Coast and Bryan-College Station to the north, a dedicated tourist could chart a full-on Houston beercation. But even a casual weekend visitor should check out 8th Wonder Brewery in East Downtown, or EaDo. With chairs and other artifacts from the Astrodome (the original ‘8th Wonder of the World’), its large outdoor area is popular with soccer fans headed to the MLS Dynamo soccer stadium nearby. The brewery’s Dome Faux’m Cream Ale is a revival of the style often served at the Astrodome back in its heyday.

A 15-minute drive to the west is Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co., known for its classics like Great White Buffalo Witbier and boundary-pushing brews like Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, FIIIGAAARO, a Quad with figs brewed for the Houston Grand Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville. The inner city also includes smaller, neighborhood-scale breweries like Town In City, Platypus, Under the Radar, and Sigma. Perhaps the most exciting newcomer is Eureka Heights, which opened in summer 2016 with a former Saint Arnold brewer at the helm and a lineup of sessionable beers like Wicket Awesome Extra Special Bitter and Buckle Bunny Cream Ale.

Just outside Loop 610 North, Brash Brewing serves up hoppy brews and potent Stouts, often on the deeper end of the ABV pool. Enjoy a Cali Green IPA or EZ-7 Pale Ale at a picnic table in the open-floorplan brewery, which is notable for its vintage arcade games and a jukebox loaded with metal.

Numerous restaurants and bars continue to sprout up in or near downtown, boasting impressive tap walls with an emphasis on beers made locally and across Texas.

Established haunts include Houston locations of beer-focused chains The Ginger Man, in Rice Village, a short drive from the football stadium, and the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium on Main Street downtown. Both have extensive beer lists, and both are friendly places to pass an afternoon or evening with access to beers from across the state, like Real Ale, Live Oak, and Southern Star.

Part of the city’s latest beer renaissance, The Hay Merchant pairs gourmet-quality bar food like PB&J wings with 80 taps of beer served in the proper glassware and at style-appropriate temperatures. Located in the popular Montrose neighborhood, the bar is adjacent to and affiliated with Underbelly, a restaurant from James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd.

In Midtown, the 42 taps at Mongoose Versus Cobra feature regional brews like Texian Brewing’s FM 359, a Brett Saison, alongside imports from Europe and the UK, while the subterranean Conservatory Underground Beer Garden & Food Hall in a former downtown movie theater offers 60 draft beers and grub like brisket fajitas from El Burro and the Bull, one of four food vendors. Also downtown is the upscale beef and beer bar Bovine & Barley, which opened last spring and showcases 36 taps of Texas-brewed beer from the likes of Austin’s (512) Brewing and Magnolia’s Lone Pint alongside snacks like steak on a stick (beef skewers) or beef on a rock (sliced rib eye served on a hot stone).

Just north of popular urban greenway Buffalo Bayou Park, Liberty Station has a neighborhood feel and a large, climate-controlled patio. Travel further north, outside the 610 Loop, to Cottonwood for Texas-style pub fare (think fried boudin balls) and more than 30 taps from the same owners of Liberty Station. Stay for the expansive outdoor seating area and live music.

Nearby, tucked away in the residential Oak Forest neighborhood, The Petrol Station pairs burgers like the towering Rancor Burger, with bacon, cheese, and a sunny-side-up egg, with a small but curated tap selection (Brash Brewing Black Masses Milk Stout) in a laid-back environment.

Finally, if you want to take home a souvenir, be sure to hit the massive warehouse near downtown that anchors the Houston-based Spec’s liquor store chain. Look for beer manager Joey Williams, a beloved local figure whose successful battle against brain cancer was commemorated with Sick in the Head, an American Strong Golden Ale made by Buffalo Bayou Brewing that benefits cancer research.