Houston, along with many other American cities, has gone cuckoo for craft beer. And why not? Craft beer offerings have improved and diversified over the past five years, and whether you like wits or the sultriest barrel-aged stout, there’s something out there for you.
More and more coveted out-of-state craft beers are making their way to Houston, including Chicago’s legendary Goose Island (thanks largely to the distribution power of new parent company, Anheuser-Busch) and Firestone Walker, based in Paso Robles, California. The small, unique releases from companies such as these stir up craft beer lovers into a froth, leading to scavenger hunts for stores that have actually received (and still have left) a supply of the precious brews.
The downtown Spec’s (2410 Smith Street) receives many of these, and beer collectors line up as early as 6 am on weekdays to make sure they get some when the store opens at 9 am. There’s a bit of a hoarding mentality for some purchasers—after all, they made a special effort to get their hands on these limited releases—and it’s led to some grumbling amongst long-time beer lovers. “I’m over the hype” is a common litany on social media.
Indeed, the collector frenzy seems diametrically opposite the laid-back image of beer drinkers and homebrewers. Shouldn’t beer be relaxing and fun? My husband and I are as much part of that standing-in-line exercise as anyone else, but I recently started considering that just because a beer isn’t scarce does not mean that it is not good. I asked Joey Williams, beer department manager at the downtown Spec’s, if he could come up with a list of 10 excellent beers that are regularly in-stock and easy to obtain.
He agreed, and the list he has come up with is outstanding. It includes some of my personal favorites, the beers I don’t hesitate to bring to a party, such as Rodenbach and Roquefort 10. I also appreciate the personal notes that Williams included in the list; these are a result of his deep knowledge and personal history with beer.
So, just in time for the holidays, here are Williams’ picks for 10 great beers that you don’t have to stand in line for. (Editor’s Note: If you enjoy this list, let us know and we’ll run a top 10 beer list from time to time. We have several more Houston beer experts lined up to give us their Top 10 list.)
American Barleywine, 9.2% ABV* Avery Brewing Company (Boulder, Colorado) American Barleywine was one of the first big American styles as originated by Sierra Nevada with their Bigfoot ale. Hog Heaven pushes the same envelope further with a more aggressive hopping and dry hopping for more hop head flavors and aromas. This beer garnered enough attention locally that Saint Arnold used it as inspiration for their recipe for Divine Reserve No. 6. *ABV is alcohol by volume
American Double/Imperial IPA, 8.2% ABV Stone Brewing Company (Escondido, California) The Double IPA style is one of the most popular styles in modern American craft brewing. Stone is at the forefront of using this style as a base for special releases, like RuinTen and Enjoy By. Ruination was the first bottled version of an American Double/Imperial IPA.
Imperial Stout, 9.0% ABV North Coast Brewing Company (Fort Bragg, California) Imperial Stout may be the most popular base beer for special releases, including all of the labels and variations aged in spirit barrels. Old Rasputin is a great example of these beers without crazy additions or barrel aging. For me as a former “Guinness guy,” Old Rasputin was my gateway craft beer.
Saison, 7.0% ABV Prairie Artisan Ales (Krebs, Oklahoma) Prairie is a recent addition to Texas shelves and a great example of craft farmhouse brewing. Their flagship saison, Prairie Ale, is fermented with a mixed culture of yeast. A combination of saison, wine and two wild (Brettanomyces) yeasts are used to ferment and contribute a rustic, farmhouse character. Many breweries have decided to ferment or bottle-condition their beers with Brett for special releases. This is a great example of what that might lend.
Belgian Strong Golden (Tripel), 9.5% ABV Brouwerij Westmalle (Malle, Belgium) Belgian styles have gained a lot of popularity in American brewing and both light and dark styles are popping up in limited release form. Westmalle Tripel, I believe, is one of the most impressive and best examples of a strong, light-colored Belgian. Largely yeast-driven (fruit/spice) in terms of flavor; highly effervescent and dry.
Trappistes Rochefort 10
Belgian Strong Dark (Quadrupel), 11.3% ABV Brasserie de Rochefort (Rochefort, Belgium) Rochefort 10 is regarded as one of the best beers available on Houston shelves on a regular basis. It’s interesting to note that Rochefort was available for a short stint in Texas years ago when the importer had taken it upon themselves to expand distribution without the support of the monks to brew more beer. So, the relatively small amount of beer spread out more quickly lead to a supply issue, especially with the size and voracity of Texas. We have only recently been able to get a steady supply of Rochefort, and beer drinkers are excited about that.
Rodenbach Grand Cru
Flanders Red, 6.0% ABV Brouwerij Rodenbach (Roeselare, Belgium) Sours are a rapidly growing segment of the special release group. Because of the process and time required to produce quality examples, few, if any, American breweries are staged to craft sours in quantities more than occasional limited releases. The classics of Belgium, however, have crafted entire brewing facilities to make these beers available to us. Rodenbach is the classic example of Flanders Red, a blend of old and young barrel-aged sours. Grand Cru is exclusively the old barrel-aged sour, meaning more of the depth and wine-like character found in Rodenbach. This is a new arrival to Texas shelves as of 2013.
Abbaye de Saint Bon Chien
Biere de Garde, 11.0% ABV Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes (Saignelegier, Switzerland) Another in the way of sour additions in 2013, the Abbey of the Good Dog, named for the brewery’s late cat, is a historical representation of the Biere de Garde style gaining popularity in craft brewing. Many limited releases are recreations/resurrections of dead or dying historical styles (e.g. Sahti, Berliner Weisse, Saison, Biere de Garde, etc.) Abbaye de Saint Bon Chien has been one of the beers picked up alongside many of the limited releases we’ve had lately.
Ola Dubh Special Reserve 12yr
Old Ale, 8.0% ABV Harviestoun Brewery Ltd. (Alva, Scotland) Barrel-aging is one of the most common ways of taking a year-round beer and making it a special limited release. Getting the chance to try the base beer side-by-side with the barrel aged version isn’t always an easy task, but another new addition to Texas shelves this year has been a line of English-style Old Ales from Harviestoun. Both the 12yr and 16yr are the same base beer, Old Engine Oil, aged for some time in Highland Park Scotch Whisky barrels, 12 and 16 years old respectively. This beer, in addition to being delicious, is a great way to see whether barrel-aging is up your alley.
Weizenbock, 8.2% ABV G. Schneider & Sohn (Kelheim, Germany) German brewing isn’t always the focus of exciting American craft beer releases, but Weizenbock is a strong dark style, reminiscent of the Belgian Rochefort (noted above) with flavors somewhat in line with a Hefeweizen. Originated by this brewery at the turn of the 20th Century, Aventinus is an impressive beer that people, for whatever reason, have overlooked. If you loved Saint Arnold’s Bishop’s Barrel No. 4, a bourbon barrel-aged weizenbock on cocoa nibs, or appreciated the appearance of Saint Arnold’s Weizenbock, you would love Aventinus, too.