There are things we make happen, things that happen to us, and then there are the situations that we don’t realize have come to define us until we’re standing square in the bull’s-eye. In my case, I woke up one day and realized that, through no device of my own, I had become a beer nerd.
Some girls go weak in the knees for artists. Others set their sights on attorneys and investment bankers. I spent the better part of a decade hanging out with, and incidentally learning about beer from, a tight band of homebrewers who would go on to become some of the more influential members of the country’s now robust craft-brewing cadre. The role of semi-invisible girlfriend earned me entry into basement taprooms, equipment-filled brew houses, and exclusive underground tastings that made up Boulder, Colorado’s craft-brewing scene. I tasted, learned the lingo, took mental notes, and visited nearly every microbrewery west of the Mississippi.
That was nearly a decade ago. I recently saw my most significant ex from this period. We had two marriages, two children, and a catalog of life changes between us. But all we talked about was beer.
These days, I work as an emissary for small-batch brewing. When I go out with a new group of friends, here’s how it usually goes down: first round, I make an obscure suggestion that no one takes, usually something cask conditioned or seasonal. I pass it around, love it up, show off its merits. By the second round, I’ve got half the table talking about yeast and filtration. By the third round, no one places an order without looking to me for a suggestion. More than one friend has called me the Pied Piper of beer. There’s no way to argue; when you love something, you want to bring others along for the ride.
It was with this back story that I rolled into my new M Streets home in May, ready to raise a pint. My assumption was that Dallas, with its cosmopolitan charisma and can-do spirit, would offer up a robust microbrew scene. But an exhaustive search resulted in more confusion than consumption. Where were the scrappy upstarts? The tasting rooms filled with affable beer snobs? My God, where were the growlers?*
Turns out, Texas suffers under some antiquated restrictions that have rendered the concept of the small, start-up brewery—with growlers to go and an in-house taproom—impossible. Dennis Wehrmann, owner and brewmaster of McKinney’s Franconia Brewing, explains: “There are two licenses in Texas. There’s the brewpub license and the microbrewery license. The brewpub license allows you to brew beer in a bar or restaurant and sell it there, but you can’t sell it outside of that facility. The microbrewery license says that you’re allowed to brew beer, but you can’t sell it at your facility.”
So the winning formula found in states such as Colorado and Oregon, where a microbrewery can brew, sell pints and growlers on-site, and support their bottom line by distributing to local bars, is thwarted here by state legislation that forces the small brewer to choose: either establish a working brewpub/restaurant where your beers can be consumed only on-site, or sacrifice the taproom and build a full-blown commercial-grade microbrewery.
“The fact that you can’t sell the beer at the brewery is a huge issue,” says Nik Atomic, co-owner with Rodney Moss of Atomic Moss Brewing, a homebrewing label with commercial aspirations. “People come. They’re looking for a good time, to check it out. They’re interested in brewing, but you can’t even give them a product to take home with them. It’s just not beer country here. Portland, the West Coast, that’s beer country.”
Short of changing state law (which everyone I spoke with seems hopeful will happen soon enough), we are left to revel in what Dallas does have: a bloc of solid bars serving well-edited selections of some of the country’s finest small-batch brews. And though I may not have found what I was originally looking for, I am encouraged to the point of expansiveness by what I stumbled upon along the way. Here are the best beer bars in Dallas:
Talk about convivial! What’s not to love about The Old Monk’s häus vibe and affinity for Belgian ales? Ten years since his last crawl through the area, national Brewers Association director Paul Gatza still remembers The Old Monk as being all about Belgian ales before Belgian ales were cool.
Show up on a weekend afternoon, when you can grab the attention of Carsen “Jake” Jacobsen, manager and on-site enthusiast, who, alongside owner Feargal McKinney, shepherds guests through an appreciation of limited-run, cask-conditioned firkins (minikegs). For as long as it’s available, go straight for the cask-conditioned Avery IPA, a hand-pumped, unfiltered, unpasteurized, hoppy delight that is untainted by extra CO2 and reminds me of the very best of those semipro basement homebrews of old. Pair it with a Chimay-beer-cheese cheeseburger, and watch the stars align. As an alternate, go for a Maredsous Belgian blonde that is so silky, delicious, and drinkable that it will be gone before you know you’ve begun.
Extra points go to the Monk for its insouciant staff and cozy corners, the combination of which makes it a perfect first-date wooing ground, a dark and friendly place where, with a modicum of advance work, you can come off as casual yet clued in. Jake’s suggestion: show your date you can parse a beer menu by ordering a champagne-style bottle of the little-known La Chouffe Belgian bottled beer (best shared entre deux), pairing it with a Chevrion, Saint André, and Red Leicester cheese board. The combined influence of your ordering skill and the Monk’s natural amity will cause your date not only to swoon in gastronomic bliss but also wonder what other insider knowledge lurks behind your mild-mannered facade.
Wednesdays don’t have a lot to recommend them, so anything that can be done to energize this static point in the week is aces in my book. Enter Meddlesome Moth and its Wednesday rare-beer/firkin tapping. “I bought a number of firkins awhile back,” says Moth co-founder Keith Schlabs. “The intent was to have breweries fill them with something special and ship them back to us so that we could tap a different rare beer every Wednesday.
When the keg is done, we clean it and FedEx it to the next brewery. It’s not easy, but with breweries like Stone, Avery, Breckenridge, and Ska participating, we always have something unique.”
Not ready to go rare just yet? The Moth’s flights (five 5-ounce pours) provide a user-friendly entrée, and Captain Keith’s custom flights are decidedly epicurean in their approach. “I like to go with a progression of styles, take the customer from a light beer to a darker, more robust one,” he says. “We might start with an Allagash White from Portland and end with a very rich and complex imperial stout like North Coast Old Rasputin, hitting the various midpoints along the way with a saison, an IPA, and a brown ale.”
The minds behind the Moth have also lavished special attention on the humble pint glass by etching a moth into the bottom of each to promote aeration. Order a pint, get to the bottom, and see for yourself.
Two tips: first, if you see a medal hanging on a ribbon from a tap, that beer is on sale. Second, to stay abreast of the Moth’s shenanigans, follow Keith’s Twitter feed (@Schlabs), which goes a little something like this: “Allagash Interlude Firkin to be tapped in T-minus 86 minutes. 7 buck for a 14 oz pour of this Belgian Saison fermented with wild yeast!” Got that? No? That’s okay. Show up even if you can’t decode the tweets. Keith will be happy to explain over a pint.