DRINKING NOTES FROM A BIG COUNTRY (PART 1)
Lone Star StateSitting on my own in the airport at George Bush (first of his name) International Airport in Houston feels like an appropriate time and place to reflect on the adventure of the last couple of weeks. It's hard to believe that it has been only 12 days since landing in the US and that since then I've managed to grab a few local craft beers in five different states.
The whole tour has been an absolute blast and I'll talk about it in several digestible parts to give me a chance to collect my thoughts and give anyone reading this a chance to grab another beer between chapters.
It seems quite fitting that I finish this tour where I started, in Texas, and I'm please to report, like all six airports I've been to in the states (I did a few connecting flights), it's not hard to find local craft beer on tap. I'm currently enjoying a St Arnold Christmas Special, a quite drinkable light ale which keeps the added seasonal spices at a suitably subtle level.
Houston We Have a Problem, a Drinking Problem...Driving around Texas just gives you an idea of the scale of this country. I can't quite get over how much space they have here. The Texans for the most part came across as very friendly and quite excitable at times. When I first landed I was greeted with a hearty "How are y'all doing!". A brief look over either shoulder confirmed it was still just me stood there and I struggled to hide my confusion at the use of the somewhat plural greeting. I wonder if it comes from living in a state where it's often hard to believe it's all just one person stood before you.
The first place I checked out was the Hay Merchant in Houston. Arriving on a Tuesday night was a stroke of good luck as it was steak night and being Texas it frankly seemed rude not to. The thick slab of perfectly cooked steak came with a caramelised fish sauce which wasn't fishy at all but just packed bags of flavour and I wolfed it down before you could say Umami.
|The tap handles in this place are amazingly varied and rustic|
A quick glance down the beer menu, consisting of around 50 taps, it was staggering just how many draft beers were on offer and just how strong most of the beer on offer was. The weakest thing on the menu being 4.8% and with the average closer to 7% and I knew I'd need the steak just to soak up the booze. It's clear that the local taste for beer is heavily in favour of the strong hoppy styles. I sampled the Karbach Hopadillo and the St Arnold Art Car both hop-a-licious IPAs as the menu promised and at $5 a pint it was a welcome relief from some of the expensive beers I've had recently in other countries.
One Horse TownFollowing the conclusion of a 2 day conference in Houston, myself and a work colleague headed over to Beaumont to visit an industrial site. After sitting through a safety induction (which seemed to focus mainly on handing in your guns before entering and not feeding the crocodiles whilst walking around the site) I knew I was in for another cultural experience.
On the evening we asked the hotel to call us a cab and they handed us the card of the only taxi they knew of (everybody drives themselves everywhere here it seems). The business card stated "Just Call Wayne" and 15 minutes after following these instructions our carriage arrived. After getting in the cab I asked the Stetson wearing driver if he was Wayne. With a look of confusion he replied "No, I'm John, Wayne does the day shifts". I had to resist the temptation to suggest that he should therefore rename the taxi company "Just call John / Wayne".
Driving through Beaumont it seemed a sleepy industrial town and apparently has a population of 118,000 although quite what they all do on a night is beyond me. We headed to a place called Suga's (Imagine saying "Sugar's" in the style "Bubba's") which came highly recommended as the most happening place in town. As the two of us walked in and the patronage of the establishment doubled I couldn't help but wonder if they ever managed to fill the place which had easily enough seating for 200. In terms of local craft the barman offered up a bottle each of St. Arnold Elissa IPA (a more malty, East Coast version of the Art Car I'd had the night before), a St Arnold Amarillo Hefewiezen (which fruity hoppy character slightly distorted the style but made it far more to my liking) and a Shiner Bock which was fairly light bodied and bland for a Bock in my view but was a pleasant final bottle of the evening.
At one point I commented to the barman that none of the beers were labelled with the alcoholic content and that in the UK that would be illegal, to which he just smiled and said "Welcome to Texas!" At the end of the meal (some fantastic deep south style seafood) the barman called a taxi for us. When John / Wayne showed up to give us a ride I really got the impression that Beaumont is just a one horse town.
A Wonder I Found the PlaceOn my last day in Texas I headed over to 8th Wonder Brewery with the promise of a tasting room and a brewery tour. This place is a little off the grid (a popular system of road layout in the US) and the taxi driver asked to use the satnav on my phone in order to navigate to the address. After a few minutes of driving through a rough looking industrial estate with some fantastic street art I finally reached my destination. It took most of my will power to not respond to the driver's request for a tip with a retort along the lines that he should have in fact tipped me for my navigational services. But smiling amiably I gave him a dollar for the trouble (it was only a $5 ride) knowing full well I might be jumping straight back in if the place ended up being closed.
Fortunately the place was not only open but heaving and as I walked into this converted industrial unit with it's innovative use of beer kegs for structural supports, cable drums for tables and butchered shipping containers for outdoor shelters I couldn't help but be impressed. It's a fantastic testament to the allure of this place that so many people had made the effort to venture to the area, so bereft of anything else worth seeing other than the graffiti.
|8th Wonder's Outdoor area "Wonderworld"|
The bar at 8th Wonder was serving a selection of beers brewed on the premises and, like many such establishment, were operating a beer token system to speed up service at the bar. Thankfully this helped the three capable bar staff easily deal with the crowd. Unfortunately the one solitary soul operating the beer token counter was not managing quite so well under the sheer demand for the branded bottle caps which passed for hard currency in this place. Fortunately for me I'm British and queuing without complaining for lengthy durations is undoubtedly in my genes and the roaring atmosphere and friendly fellow endurers of the line made the time pass far smoother.
I grabbed a Hopton IPA which smelt and tasted incredible with the cascade dry-hop it boasted certainly packing a citrusy punch. I also sampled the Alternate Universe, a German Alt Beer which was well balanced and definitely malt foot forward, and the Mission Control, a Brown Porter which packed a hit of coffee and toffee notes in. All in all the three beers were excellent and for $15 including the branded glass and with a food van serving pulled pork sandwiches out back I thoroughly enjoyed the visit and it more than made up for the disappointment of not getting to see the brewery itself.
Taco's Saved My LifeAs I left the brewery I took in some more graffiti. I do believe that some good street art in the right places can help to brighten up the place. As the inevitable march to all live in concrete jungles continues it's important that the environment in which we live is attractive.
"Anyone that knows me well will know how I can relate to any graffiti artist stating that tacos saved his life"