HARLINGEN, Texas (ValleyCentral) — Ask any Texan to name the state’s most-iconic beer label and you’re almost guaranteed to get one of three answers.
Lonestar, Shiner or Pearl.
However, naming the state’s fourth most-iconic beer — or fifth and sixth — would almost certainly make for a lively debate, depending on whatever region in Texas you find yourself sidled up to a bar.
This is especially true amid a modern-day craft beer renaissance.
“You could argue that the craft beer culture is different in some of the big cities: Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas,” said Brian Brown, author of “North Texas Beer: A Full-Bodied History of Brewing in Dallas, Fort Worth and Beyond.” “They’re all kind of different.”
Could the state’s next iconic beer come from a new recipe being brewed today? If so, Texas would need to run a long length of taps for any potential taste-offs. For example, during the Texas Craft Brewers Festival on Oct. 1, 74 brewers served about 230 different beers–a collection of brewers and brews that excluded the macro-brewers known as “Big Beer.”
Or could Texas’ next iconic beer somehow be revived from its history?
A craft-beer renaissance implies a storied past, and Texas has plenty of beer history on tap that traces back to German-immigrant communities in and around three of Texas’ biggest cities: Houston, Austin and San Antonio. That history includes Texas beer icons that have been lost to time as their recipes are now forgotten.
However, in crafting modern beers, Austin tends to take a hip approach with occasional interest in digging up old recipes from the past. And the same is true for modern craft brewers in San Antonio and Houston, Brown told ValleyCentral.
“Whereas Dallas tends to be a little bit of a trend chasing town,” Brown said. “You know, everybody appears to be making IPAs, nobody here really has shown much interest in historical recipes, or, you know, historical names beyond things that only go back, a few decades.”
But because of Prohibition, many of the recipes for many of Texas’ best brews were lost to time.
Ronnie Crocker, author of “Houston Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Bayou City”, told ValleyCentral that one of the most-popular pre-Prohibition beers in Texas was Southern Select.
Before Prohibition, there were two big breweries in Houston, Crocker said, and one of those was Houston Ice and Brewing, who hired a German named Frantz Brogniez as head brewer. His creation, Southern Select, won an international award.
“It was a big deal,” Crocker said. “And that was a popular beer right up to Prohibition, and then Prohibition wrecked the whole system.”
Brogniez spent Prohibition brewing in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.
After Prohibition, Brogniez returned to Houston as an old man and helped the Houston brewery owned by American business magnate Howard Hughes revive the recipe under the name “Grand Prize.” The beer was discontinued in 1963.
“There is a lot of nostalgia for Grand Prize since more people, their dad or grandpa, drank Grand Prize,” Crocker said.
Grand Prize memorabilia and a Houston bar named Grand Prize point to its impact in Houston.
After Crocker’s book was published, he got requests from some modern brewers who wanted to track down the Brogniez recipe. “There for a while, a lot of [modern Houston] breweries were doing [things like], ‘Oh, try our pre-Prohibition lager,” Crocker said.
Brown said a brewer in the Dallas area went as far as collecting wild yeast around the historic La Grange brewery to craft a new flavor.
“He tried to take some samples off some of the fauna there to get some wild yeast and brought it back just to experiment with it to see if he could create a beer with that terroir of the the area around the brewery,” Brown said. “But it never really advanced to the stage of a commercial product.”
The Prohibition period was a dividing point in Texas beer history, with many of the labels failing to reemerge after the prohibition of beer sales was listed in the United States. Those beers would have been traditional German or Bavarian lagers and could have been contenders to expand the list of iconic Texas beers beyond the famous three.
However, as history took its turn, an outsider overcame Texas.
“[Adolphus Busch] never built a Budweiser-branded brewery in Texas before Prohibition, which is interesting,” Brown said, explaining that he was a St. Louis, Mo., guy who didn’t like Texas water.
After Prohibition, some Texas beers were resurrected, and some faded in history. Lone Star, Shiner and Pearl become surviving Texas icons, but they faced the revival of “Big Beer”, which poured back into Dallas and the rest of the state.
“To be completely honest, the number one beer in Texas is the American Light Lager known as Bud Light,” Crocker said. “The Anheuser Busch brewery in Houston dwarfs by a large margin all the other craft breweries put together in how much [beer] they make.”