By Bobby Bush
San Antonio is a party town, well endowed with restaurants, many with Southwestern inclinations, bars and live music. The Riverwalk area, a not-too-tacky tourist destination, is a party-hound’s Disneyland. As much fun as this hot, dry Texas city is, however, it’s not much of a beer town. Corona, Shiner Bock, Lone Star and the blah budmillercoors trio, with Lite/Light siblings, dominate the landscape.
I’d been to San Anton’ about two years earlier and this time I was even more determined to find out where good beer lives here. My quest began just a few miles from the airport at The Laboratory Brewing Company. In the midst of major construction and urbanization, this circa-1997 brewpub was designed for local patronization only. Live music Wednesday through Saturday nights, a large outdoor beer garden, complete with bar, and a stark but functional indoor dining/drinking area, The Lab is equipped to party non-stop. And that’s exactly what I witness on my first, and only, previous visit. As big as the indoor area is, the room was cramped, a semi-talented local band blasted eardrums. Human gridlock made it a slow crawl to the bar at best. My memories of that trip, and the beers I tasted within, are not favorable.
But, as I said, this visit was different. A lazy Wednesday afternoon found The Lab nearly vacant as I skipped up to the small indoor L-shaped bar. From beyond its cool marble surface I examined four sweaty serving tanks. A helpful bartender appeared, serving my sampler tray promptly. The stage was set up for professional jam night. I commented to myself that it was at least 100 dB’s quieter than last time.
Concrete Blonde, the brewpub’s tricycle selection, was just that: translucent gold, light, dry and crisp. Cloudy gold with frothy white foam, Javelina Hefe was a yeasty clove, German-style wheat beer. Before going any further, I was introduced to Chris Brogley. Chris’ brother, Adam, has been The Lab’s head brewer for the past year. Adam was nowhere to be found, so Chris, who works for a wine distributor, provided a little insight into The Lab. In fact, for a wine-head, Chris was extremely knowledgeable about beer and brewing.
San Antonio, as Chris described it, is a Miller Lite town. That’s the target market for the brewpub’s biggest seller, Concrete Blonde. Brewer Adam calls this unadventuresome brew “the Miller Lite of ales.” Hey, it works, I responded, shrugging my shoulders. Adam brews in a claustrophobic room with a 15 barrel brewhouse, fermenters and a couple more serving tanks. The Lab produces the second highest volume among Texas brewpubs. And Chris answered a question that I’d almost forgotten to ask. Why such a bleak, stark name as The Laboratory? Seems the area was once an active limestone quarry. The building now occupied by the brewpub was a testing lab for a concrete manufacturing plant. Go figure.
I finished my tastes of hoppy bitter-ending Yellow Dog Pale and malty-turns-dry McNuttys Irish Stout, my favorite among the four, and thanked one and all. My second visit to The Lab was much more enjoyable and beer-rewarding.
Later that night I made a return stop at the other San Antonio brewpub, Blue Star Brewing Company. Owner/brewer Joey Villarreal (who also owns Joey’s, a bar in the downtown section that used to be a brewpub) was there to greet me, but also in a hurry to leave. Located in a renovated industrial area that now serves as an arts complex, Blue Star is dedicated to the art of brewing. In fact, internationally-recognized beer writer Michael Jackson was to visit four days later for a beer tasting seminar. It would be his first visit to San Antonio.
With little time to waste, the nitro Millennium was smooth, almost an IPA. English Ale was clean and light, while Golden Ale exhibited more flavor and hops. Pale Ale was nice with Cascade hoppiness, though the cask version was hoppier. Peat-cured malt accented Smoked Dark Ale. Stout, done Irish-style, was heavy with dark chocolate flavor. Joey allowed me a taste of King William Ale, a four-month-old barleywine. Bright orange and pushing 11.6% abv, its taste was candy sweet with dry finish. Give it another six months and watch out.
Great beers, good food, a busy 17 barrel brewhouse, and an ultra-positive beer attitude, Blue Star seems to be thriving. All is not so bad in Miller Lite land.
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush