I got your solution right here

There’s an age-old question among city planners, politicians, citizens and businesses alike: how do you bring life back to a piece of a city that has died? Maybe it was the main drag fifty years ago but all the commerce shifted to the other side of town. Maybe it was a happenin’ street downtown until the port closed and the sailors went elsewhere. Maybe it was the red light district and it just needs, y’know, a new business model and … several coats of paint?

While there’s no one easy answer for the question of revitalization, one thing is absolutely true; if people enjoy being there, they’ll come. So while the mayors and councilmen and the philanthropic honchos and the concerned citizens with their freshly-minted 501c(3)’s reserve conference rooms for long, contentious discussions of indeterminate value, hobbyists have discovered (been freed to, even) a way to get people to jam their cars into tiny parking spaces in front of the decaying hulk of some ancient historic building (which vandals have long stripped of historic value) and bring light and life to a street that hasn’t seen such since Billy Gibbons was best known for playing guitar in The Moving Sidewalks.

The way? Sell people some locally brewed beer. On its face this seems a simple solution. Too simple even, yet the data is in. According to the Brewer’s Association, in 2019 independent craft breweries brought 580,000 jobs and $82.9 billion to the economy, a number that has grown year after year as restrictions on small-time alcohol production loosen. These small breweries, opened primarily by homebrewing hobbyists looking to turn their kitchen experiments into a business, are drawn to areas of urban decay precisely because they are small. The real estate is cheap and plentiful, with plenty of space for gutting out old offices or warehouses and installing the space-hogging apparatus needed to brew at scale.

Buckstin Brewing Barrel Aging

As soon as one of these breweries opens its doors to serve its first drink people line up outside for a taste and other savvy entrepreneurs quickly snap up the surrounding properties to take advantage of the sudden popularity. What’s more, both the brewers and their clientele are enthusiastic advocates. These aren’t mere distribution centers for the same kind of cheap beer available at any gas station; these are hobbyists and connoisseurs turning their passions into professions. It’s personal for them, so it’s no surprise their emotional investment in the success of their businesses goes beyond mere profit motive. Their customers are often the same; they bear these little breweries the kind of loyalty that major corporations would auction their off-shore bank accounts for.

If small scale brewing is such a boon to areas desperately in need of such, why is it that they have only appeared in the last few decades? It was illegal, of course. If you thought that Prohibition ended with the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, you’re only technically correct. The number of liquor laws placed (and remaining to this day) on the books both before and after Prohibition wounds the sensibilities of anyone wary of state overreach, and their byzantine – and often farcically nonsensical – complexity would make Edward Lear weep in frustrated confusion.

For example, if you are fourteen years old in Texas, you can’t buy alcohol, but your parents can buy it for you. But not on Sunday. Unless they take you to a restaurant. Then they can, but there had better be food on the table too. None of you have to eat the food, of course, it just has to be there. So sensible!

Over the past ~century since Prohibition there has been a glacially slow trend towards amending or removing laws which have long outlived their usefulness (if ever they served their intended purpose to begin with). Yet this generally only happens when someone challenges a particular law in court. Otherwise they sit, dusty and unknown, until some unlucky sod happens to transgress their arcane stipulations and finds themselves on the receiving end of some (usually opportunistic) legal enforcement. Off Ramp previously covered the story of Shaun Bruno, of Bruno & George Winery in Sour Lake, who had to petition the State of Texas to change its liquor laws so that he could brew his family’s raisin wine legally (see Off Ramp Spring / Summer 2012).

If the federal government had its own dictionary, tax evasion would simply have this picture next to it. Possibly with the words, “GIT EM!”

All this is important because until 1979, homebrewing beer was legal … technically. If you were brewing beer in your shed, no problem! Just pay the federal excise tax of about $9 per barrel (31 gallons, and that’s 1951 dollars, so basically a fortune) and you and Uncle Sam are cool. What’s that? Too expensive? Well, if you ferment but don’t remit you’re a … wait for it … Tax Evader!

It was Jimmy Carter (a non-drinker himself) who signed H.R. 1337 carving out federal exemptions for brewing for personal use and ushered in the first wave of the craft brewing revolution. What followed was the founding of breweries such as Real Ale Co. and the Boston Brewing Co. and a rapid increase in market share of small brewery brands. A second wave of craft brewing hit shorelines beginning in the decade of the 2000s as various states began relaxing restrictions related to the “three-tier system” in favor of small brewers.

The three-tier system was implemented after Prohibition and separated producers from distributors from retailers. It was intended to purposefully make alcohol production and distribution inefficient, driving up the price and ostensibly preventing widespread overindulgence from happening again. The system worked, artificially increasing alcohol prices by complicating the process of moving beer from the brewer to the consumer. Combined with regulations against personal brewing, this pretty much ensured that no small time entrepreneur would ever enter the market. After a round of lateral acquisitions by major brewers over the last 30 years or so, the 50ish major brewers in the United States were reduced to two. The trend in mass produced beer was beginning to look like we’d eventually be drinking nothing but Millerweiser; basically 2% ABV water with hops flavoring.

Here a bunch of people not-evading-taxes bring more income into downtown Beaumont by legally buying legally brewed beer.

The legalization of homebrewing and the relaxation of the three-tier system for brewers smaller than a certain size changed all that. As more and more craft brewers entered the market, something miraculous occurred. Consumers developed a taste for a certain kind of beer, and it had little at all in common with the mild, pale lagers that dominate 90% of the shelf space in most stores. The flagship beer of the revolution has been the India Pale Ale, a beer that’s almost aggressively flavorful and a poster child for an “acquired taste.” Turns out beer drinkers didn’t want a comfortably bland brew in a brand name they could find in any wet county in the United States; they wanted to experiment with strong, complex (and sometimes ridiculous) flavors. Backyard brewmasters who opened their businesses on a wing and prayer gave them that, and in return consumers walked out of the cornfield and played baseball showed up in droves and paid premium prices for beer.

Given that modern beer drinkers are willing to pay quite a bit more money for craft beer, it’s questionable whether the price of beer was ever the problem to begin with.

The origin of Pour Brothers Brewery sounds like a barroom boast. “We quit our jobs and now we sling beer for a living!”

Boast or not, that’s what happened. A couple of dads enrolled their daughters in iRule Dance Studio in Beaumont and started hanging out and playing golf on weekends. When Michael Broussard told his new friends Nick McLaughlin and Joel Hollier he was a homebrewer, they all thought it would be fun to substitute brewing for golfing from time to time.

Then one day one of them said, “We should quit our jobs and open a bar.”

That sort of statement is of the dangerous kind; it takes up lodging in the mind and resists eviction. Before long the three were determined to open not just a bar, but a brewery and taproom. Within two years, it was done.

Buckstin Brewing Company’s origin story shares the theme of hobbyists coming together and taking a risk. Justin Buchanan-Lopez and Gabrielle Blanco were homebrewers working jobs that didn’t inspire them. He loved brewing beer and worked in the oilfields. She was a teacher and brewed her own wine. After Gabrielle went back to cosmetology school and opened a salon, it was time for Justin to take the plunge. After a few years of careful planning, the two opened Buckstin Brewing Co. together. It seems that the sort of courage required to quit one’s job and commit to an uncertain dream is a prerequisite for craft brewers.

The process of opening a brewery isn’t quite like other small business ventures. The quality of the product is completely irrelevant if there’s no space to brew it at scale. That rules out most strip malls, shared rental spaces, and any building that can’t support a few hundred feet of empty floor space for all the vats, vessels, bottles, buckets, pots and pitchers necessary. For Pour Brothers, it was a former clothing warehouse that did the trick. A large, fenced in yard on the corner of Wall Street and Neches offered a place to have outdoor events. For Buckstin, Buchanan-Lopez and Blanco decided that it should be in downtown Nederland in a spot that had good foot traffic and some local history. They found a space on Boston Avenue that was big enough, though it was a fixer-upper.

“The building was in horrible condition,” says Blanco, “but we had a great remediation company and construction crew who turned a tear-down into a beautiful taproom.”

The major difference between these breweries and the businesses that formerly occupied these locations is the degree of collaboration brewers tend to pursue with their community.

Pour Brothers has made extensive use of its fenced yard to host Boomtown Market, a monthly opportunity for local crafters and artists to sell their work in a festival-like atmosphere with live music and food trucks. Local artist Ines Alvidres often participates, creating community collaboration art by drawing a template and helping market-goers fill in the colors. Several of her pieces are hanging inside the brewery, and Joel Hollier has expressed interest in setting aside space to function as a satellite gallery for other artists. Pour Brothers is also working with the Art Studio, Inc. to find other ways to bring art to the brewery.

Buckstin Brewing Company had a rough opening in late 2019 with COVID just around the corner. As a result, live performances have been restricted and much that the owners would have liked to have done has not happened. Instead they’ve focused their efforts on business collaborations, such as the two beers and one specialty coffee they have brewed so far with The Avenue Coffee & Cafe.

It’s events and collaborations like these that economically lift the area around a brewery along with it. So long as archaic regulations continue to be loosened and beer megacorporations aren’t allowed to tweak laws in their favor *coughSeaWorldcough* new breweries will continue to open and bring in visitors. The Brewers Association estimated that in 2014 as many as 10 million people toured small and independent breweries with a small-but-not-insignificant number of people surveyed (1.6%) taking more than 10 trips a year to breweries more than two hours away from home. If you build it, they really will come.

Whether you’re a beer tourist on a mission or a traveler looking for a fun place to stop you’ll be glad to know there are four breweries in the area. You should try them all!

Struggle Street Brewery
2140 Calder Ave, Beaumont, TX
Buckstin Brewing Company
Buckstin Brewing Co.
1211 Boston Ave., Nederland, TX
Neches Brewing Company
Neches Brewing Co.
1108 Port Neches Ave., Port Neches, TX
Pour Brothers Brewery
585 Wall St, Beaumont, TX