The people of the State of Texas consist principally of men, women, and children, with a sprinkling of cowboys. The weather is very good, thermometer rarely rising above 2,500 degrees in the shade and hardly ever below 212. – O. Henry
Article by Meagan Wilson
Photos by Benjamin Wilson
The desert is hot
It’s a bright, scorching West Texas afternoon when we come down out of Big Bend National Park, and into the wasteland of ramshackle dwellings and weird, artsy buildings that is Terlingua. The town looks like someone took a bucket of buildings and upended it over the hilly desert. After eating unsatisfactory BBQ in a bar and grill that looks like a cantina had a baby with a biker bar and then appointed a college town hangout as the godfather, we head off to see the Terlingua ghost town.
To our dismay, the denizens of the modern-ish settlement haven’t seen fit to leave the historic site alone. Many of the nearby artists’ shacks are fashioned, at least in part, of stones pilfered from the abandoned mining town. Despite this, the remaining stone buildings are awash in golden light just before sunset. We spend some time taking advantage of this fact.
It’s a holiday weekend, the last before Big Bend National Park more or less shuts down for the summer. There’s not much lodging available in Terlingua. There is a motel of sorts about 14 miles up the road. It’s a good spot to get some shut-eye. Wandering around in 107+ F heat will tire a body out.
Getting to Alpine the next morning requires traveling less than 1.5 hours up TX 118 N. Based on its possessing a diner with decent coffee, I’m prepared to consider Alpine a reasonable town.
At a cool 4,475 feet, it offers a refreshing break from the Chihuahuan Desert heat. The town is a popular jumping-off point for excursions into the national park, and is also home of Sul Ross University and Big Bend Brewing Co. Naturally, the latter is why we’re here.
I’d made arrangements to meet up with Tony Drewry, the brewery’s External Relations Coordinator, in the afternoon. To kill the time, we do what any God-fearing Jeep owners would do on a Sunday morning; we go exploring. In this part of West Texas, 118 N, 90 E and and 17 N form a rough triangle, with Alpine, Marfa and Fort Davis at the points.
Out here, where the beer is from
Alpine has neighbors. Sort of. Travel about 50 miles northeast of Alpine, and you get to Fort Davis. It’s a smaller settlement, with a very friendly (this is Texas, after all) mountain town vibe. They have a coffee shop/bakery/natural foods store with excellent brownies and coffee. The views in Davis Mountains State Park aren’t anything to sniff at, either.
Go about 26 miles west of Alpine, and you’ll run into Marfa. Though neither as kooky or disorganized as Terlingua, it has a slightly weird, almost indifferent vibe that doesn’t quite work for me. Some of the buildings look pretty cool, though. So that’s the triangle.
Big Bend Brewing Co. operates out of a (modern) barn, with a taproom located just a few steps from the actual brewery. Tony Drewry isn’t hard to find; it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, and neither of the fairly young bartenders are him. That leaves the tall dude with cool tats and a great beard as the most likely culprit. He looks like a biker, and talks like someone who really loves beer. Which he is.
As is so often the case with brewery interviews, the conversation with Tony involves a pretty epic bottle share. I enjoyed all of the beers; out here, the beer is good. The two most noteworthy examples are Total Commitment and SW 15 Texas Desert Bock. The former is a limited-edition American Strong Ale, hand-bottled and hand-labeled. The bottle Tony cracks open is 214 of 432. At 14.2% ABV, it’s the strongest beer BBBC has ever brewed. It required 5 strains of yeast to reach the target strength, and has the fruity esters and warmth to show for it. Note, it’s not “hot.” This baby has been aging for a while, and goes down nice and smooth. Scrawled notes indicate that Total Commitment was released at the annual Valentine’s in Valentine party.
SW 15 Texas Desert Bock is an 8% ABV rauchbier with a good balance of smoke cha
racter and malt sweetness. If you’re thinking neither of those are your mug of beer, don’t worry. BBBC produces a range of styles, including IPAs and a 5.5% Hefeweizen.
Tony is ridiculously knowledgeable. While sharing beers at a park bench-like table in the taproom, Tony relates what amounts to an oral history of craft beer in Texas, at least for the past two or three decades. Big Bend Brewing Co. isn’t all that old; it was founded in 2012, by a guy from Alpine and another from Chicago. More drunken notes allude to the former BBBC brew master, Steve Anderson, having been involved with the band Scratch Acid before becoming a highly influential figure in Texas craft beer. Sadly, he passed away in November, 2015. That’s where the BBBC blog posts end, too.
More about “Out here”
In many ways, West Texas is still the frontier. The area around Alpine is beautiful, remote, and largely unspoiled. There are roads, and there’s even internet. But if your experience or impression of Texas happens to be centered around one of the large cities, or even the small agricultural towns near them, Alpine is something else again. It’s approximately 500 miles from Dallas, and much of the intervening space is fairly empty. Oil towns, sprawling ranch land, farms; it’s not highly populated country.
According to Tony, Big Bend Brewing Co. is “the most remote brewery in America.” Next day mail takes two to three days, and even in town, the
power goes out every month or two. You try running a modern brewery, with its temperature controlling needs, when there’s no power. That’s precisely what happened with the BBBC spon beer (that may or may not have been released yet at time of writing).
The brew turned out the be a “happy accident.” One time when the power went out, the brewers set a fresh batch of wort out in back of the brewery, figuring they’d have to dump it later. But it spontaneously fermented, and over the course of a year, it became a unique wild beer. These are just the sorts of things you have to roll with, if you want to make beer in the half-wild country of West Texas. The people out here are a combination of friendly, hospitable, tough and hardy that you only get on the edges of what most people call civilization. And the beer, well it reflects the character of the people who make it.