Texas ExesAlcalde

Taste Makers

Story by Chris O'Connell | Photos by Anna Donlan | Videos by Corey Gray

As Texas becomes a haven for brewers, winemakers, and distillers, these six Longhorn brands are leading the way.

Taste Makers Intro

Taste Makers

Story by Chris O'Connell | Photos by Anna Donlan | Videos by Corey Gray

As Texas becomes a haven for brewers, winemakers, and distillers, these six Longhorn brands are leading the way.


Outlaw Country Musician Terry Allen’s 1979 double-disc opus Lubbock (On Everything) opens with a song called “Amarillo Highway.” It's a gauntlet Allen throws down to convey that, even though he “don‘t wear no Stetson” he’s “as big a Texan” as anyone. His proof? For one, his truck is loaded up with cans of Pearl and Lone Star beer; talismans of a true Texan, and, up to Texas’ sesquicentennial, among the sparse few alcoholic beverages (legally) produced in the state.

Strange Land's Austinite Pilz
Strange Land's Austinite Pilz

No offense to Pearl and Lone Star, but in the days since Allen zipped through the High Plains, the Texas booze landscape has dramatically evolved. What was once a relative booze wasteland, with scant wineries and breweries scattered across the state, is now a mecca for micro-distilleries, craft breweries, and boutique wineries. If the song were written today, the narrator could sing about a Texan downing a can-conditioned pilsner made right here in Austin or perhaps throwing back a shot of a Hye-born, honey-finished single-barrel bourbon.

It should be unsurprising, then, that Longhorns are leaders in the field, including those we’ve profiled: the man who challenged Texas’ archaic distilling laws; the family prescient enough to plant a Hill Country vineyard 20 years ago; the former Air Force engineer who sees carbonation differently; a trio that is making craft cider a thing; a biochemist who predated the Texas craft beer trend by a full decade; and the man who showed Kentucky that Texas could make fantastic and complex bourbon, too. This list is by no means complete, but rather just a sampling of Texas Exes who are leading the Texas booze boom.

The Newcomer

Strange Land Brewery

Founder: Tim Klatt, BA, BS '06, MS '13
Known for: Natural carbonation and unusual styles
Beer to try: Austinite Pilz

“Right now the market is insane,” says Tim Klatt, founder of Austin’s Strange Land Brewery, a tiny operation out on Bee Cave Road. “I have no idea what the hell is going on.”

By 2014, when Klatt and co-founder Adam Blumenshein opened, the craft beer landscape in Texas was already crowded. In his first year, Texas experienced its largest growth during the beer boom, adding 72 new craft breweries, more than a 60 percent increase. If it was crowded before, it’s now I-35 after opening night at DKR.

So how did Klatt distinguish his frosty beverages from the field? By zigging when the others zagged. Specifically, he bypassed the hop wars.

“I have an overall program of brewing high-quality beers that feature herbs other than hops,” Klatt says. “We brewed a tripel with orange-blossom honey. We brewed a gruit with three funky herbs: wild rosemary, sweet gale, and yarrow. It has this fascinating taste that transcends pure hoppiness.” During our tour, he poured me an unusual beer I’d never heard of. Called Dewi Sant, this midnight-black, 13.5 percent ABV monster is a long-gone Welsh mead-beer mashup called a braggot. When Klatt was homebrewing in Albuquerque during his time in the Air Force, a member of his club made some of the ancient ale, bringing it to his attention.

Tim Klatt
Malted Barley
Austinite Pilz
Klatt in his taproom; malted barley; Strange Land's flagship beer, the Austinite Pilz.

Apart from his unusual brews, Klatt also separates Strange Land from the rest of the noise through a unique style of carbonation.

“One of the dirty secrets of the trade,” Klatt says, “is that CO2 in beer is both a byproduct of big oil and an added ingredient.” His solution? Naturally condition all his beers in their containers—large-format bottles, cans, and kegs—with brewer’s yeast and a touch of fermentable sugars at the time of packaging. It’s a trick he picked up from the old, great Belgian breweries. “There actually is a taste difference—it has a much better mouthfeel,” Klatt says. “It doesn’t have that acidic taste from added CO2, and it doesn’t make you feel as bloated.”

Still, natural carbonation has come with its challenges. Earlier this year, he learned that cans of his porter had exploded in stores, causing a recall.

“I have nightmares about this,” Klatt says, now able to laugh about it. “There was a learning curve [to natural conditioning]. It’s cleanliness, keeping frost contamination out. You have to fix it … and pray for forgiveness.”

Problem solving is partially what led Klatt down this path. The San Antonio native and Plan II/mechanical engineering major was on a ski lift in Vermont when an epiphany struck him: He had to leave the Air Force for the beer-making world. He had enjoyed the technical side of his life thus far, but was ready to combine that with something artistic.

“Every day I come in, and on one hand, I’m like, ‘What’s broke?’ And I fix it. That’s my left brain,” Klatt says. “The right brain is, ‘What’s the next beer I’m going to make? How am I going to do something new and interesting and push the market forward?’ I enjoy both sides of the process.”

The Educators

Texas Keeper Cider

Founders: Nick Doughty, BA, BS '03, MPA '09; Lindsey Peebles, BA '04, JD '10; and Brandon Wilde, BA '06
Known for: Full-fruit hard cider
Bottle to try: Grafter Rosé

Hard cider has long suffered the consequences of misconception. Notably, that it’s something to drink after prom, pulled from a trunk filled with bottles of Boone’s Farm and Mad Dog 20/20.

Sitting in what was once the bowels of a building called the Rock Church, a circa-1880s stone building in Manchaca, Texas, I’m about to get an education in apples.

“People think that cider has one note: a super sweet Jolly Rancher,” says Brandon Wilde, who, along with his childhood friends Nick Doughty and Lindsey Peebles opened Texas Keeper Cider in 2014. “When people say they don’t like cider, that’s our challenge.”

“Nothing pleases me more than to see the locals who come in for bottles to-go on weekends. Some of them are country dudes. I don't know what happened, but it's like, ‘You left your Bud Light and came over to craft cider.’”

Wilde, an experienced homebrewer, and Doughty, who learned how to make wine in New Zealand, combine their talents to create inspired variations on traditional ciders, bottling everything from a pink-tinted rosé to a Belgian candi-fermented cider noir, which looks more like a porter than anything derived from an apple. They ferment everything on-site, using as many as 20 different apple varieties grown in upstate New York by a fifth-generation farmer. Their grapes and honey all come from Texas, and they hope to pull apples from a grower in Idalou, a town just south of Lubbock, in the future.

Three years ago, after the trio decided to band together to form a cidery, Peebles got her hands on a United States orchard map and started cold-calling to see if anyone had apples for them. Out of luck, she came across an online cider forum post by a grower who wanted to make cider but didn’t have a license. She called him that night.

Texas Keeper, named after a long-gone Texas apple variety, has a few simple principles, the most important being that they make only full-fruit ciders. In their first year, they made 1,400 cases. This year, they’re shooting for 5,000, and they hope to one day level off growth around the 10-12,000 mark. Anything above that and they’d be a craft cidery in name only.

“We don’t have plans to become a multinational cider company,” Doughty says.

“I don’t see how you could do that without moving to concentrate,” Peebles adds, “and we’re dead-set against that.”

Texas Keeper makers
Heirloom Cider
Texas Keeper tasting room
Doughty, Peebles, and Wilde enjoying a glass of Texas Keeper's Honey Thief cider; a glass of heirloom cider; Texas Keeper's tasting room.

To get to that level, the three principals realized they’d need to address an issue head-on: Most people are cider dilettantes. Education, served one frosty mug of cider at a time, is why Texas Keeper opened an onsite taproom last March. Visitors can listen to live folk and country bands while they learn why, for instance, the golden russet, which looks like a dusty old potato and is a fickle grower, is actually a fantastic cider component. One advantage Texas Keeper has is that Austinites are, by and large, ready and willing to learn.

“Nothing pleases me more than to see the locals who come in for bottles to-go on the weekends. Some of them are country dudes,” Wilde says. “I don’t know what happened, but it’s like, ‘You left your Bud Light and came over to craft cider.’”

Doughty adds some optimism. “As long as cider tastes good,” he says, “people’s preconceived notions don’t matter.”

The Family Operation

Pedernales Cellars

Founder: David Kulken, MBA '05
Known for: Growing Spanish grapes in the Hill Country
Wine to try: 2014 Tempranillo reserve

“When they started planting I thought they were crazy,” says David Kuhlken. He’s talking about his parents.

That’s because in 1995, when Larry and Jeanine Kuhlken, BA ’62, Life Member, planted their vineyard out on Highway 16, the busloads of bachelorettes weren’t yet clogging the narrow streets of Fredericksburg in search of 100 percent Grenache rosé.

Even after the grape-growing seemed feasible, as his parents sold to the scant Hill Country wineries in business around Y2K, he uses the word once more to describe what he called anyone who suggested he join the family business: crazy. Yet on a breezy morning in late October, we sit on the wooden deck of Stonewall’s Pedernales Cellars, the winery and tasting room he owns with his sister Julie and her husband Fredrik. When David approached his mother with the idea, she had one question: “Who’s going to be the winemaker?”

David and Jeanine Kuhlken
Wine tasting at Pedernales Cellars
Juice in the basket press
David and Jeanine Kuhlken; Kuhlken sampling wine from the cellar; fermenting juice running off the basket press.

After finishing his MBA in 2005, David went through the UC-Davis viticulture and enology extension program, and interned and co-oped at the nearby Texas Hills winery, where they could set up their own barrel space. By the time they bought the property in Stonewall in 2007, they had two vintages in production.

Over the next few years, the Texas Hill Country wine scene exploded. In 1990, there were 26 wineries in Texas. Last year, 350 wineries were in possession of a G permit from the TABC. In a crowded landscape, David decided to grow and focus on Spanish varietals, which, in some cases, perform better than in their native lands, rather than the Napa valley standbys like cabernets and merlots.

“For it to be legitimate, it needs to be from grapes grown in this state. You can't just turn that spigot on.”

“We are producing one of the best tempranillos,” Kuhlken says. “There may not be space for that on every restaurant menu, but that’s a heck of a better place to go long term, because that’s something we can be competitive with not only here, but also in Oregon and California.”

Another challenge for Pedernales Cellars is making great, drinkable wines while staying true to Texas. That’s hard, both because Texas is an abecedarian wine state, and because of acts of God. In 2013, five freezes in the High Plains, where many of Texas’ grapes are grown, wiped out the crops.

“It was like a Greek tragedy,” Kuhlken says. “I had 100 tons [of grapes] contracted up there. We got seven.”

If Pedernales Cellars didn’t care about using Texas grapes—some come from the Kuhlken vineyard, some from the Hill Country, and some from the area just south of Lubbock—it might not have been an issue. But in Kuhlken’s estimation, the identity of his brand is inextricably tied to the provenance of his grapes.

“For it to be legitimate, it needs to be from grapes grown in this state,” Kuhlken says. “You can’t just turn that spigot on.”

The Trailblazer

Tito’s Handmade Vodka

Founder: Tito Beveridge, BS '84, Life Member

Known for: Being the first legal distillery in Texas

Cocktail to try: Tito's and soda

Would you like a bloody mary on your American Airlines flight? Are you watching an episode of Showtime’s Shameless? Hanging out at Morgan Freeman’s 70th birthday party? If you answered yes to any of these questions, there’s a 100 percent chance Tito’s vodka is involved.

Tito Beveridge’s ubiquitous corn vodka is everywhere now, in all 50 states and 94 different countries. It’s surprising, even to Beveridge (his real last name), who got his start infusing bottles of rotgut vodka with jalapenos and raspberries in the early ’90s as Christmas presents for friends. Back then, distilling alcohol in the state of Texas was illegal—or at least thought to be.

During Beveridge’s time at UT, where he majored in geological sciences, his years as an oilman, his time as an an environmental groundwater scientist, and his stint as a mortgage banker, the San Antonio native read a lot of environmental legalese. So when he contacted the TABC in 1994 and was told that distilling vodka himself was illegal, he got a copy of the code and read it front to back.

“They said, ‘What?’ Nobody reads the code,” Beveridge remembers. He was bumped over to the ATF, who also said he couldn’t do it. According to CFR-27, that code said that an individual couldn’t run a distillery, so he applied to be a corporation with the Secretary of State. After years of red tape, Beveridge opened the first legal distillery in Texas in 1997 on a 12-acre plot of land by the old Bergstrom Air Force Base that he bought for $33,000. He built a 998-square-foot shack to slide in under the 1,000-foot commercial code, found pictures of old moonshine stills before they were destroyed by Texas Rangers during Prohibition, and built his first rig with materials from Home Depot and Academy.

Tito Beveridge
Tito's cocktail
Beveridge in his East Austin office; Lauren Davis pours a Tito's cocktail at Weather Up.

With so many vodka brands crowding liquor store shelves, Beveridge decided he needed to make the most drinkable one of all at the cheapest price point. To compare, he bought every different type of liquor he could get his hands on.

“Most of them were like gasoline. The ones we liked the best were Ketel One and Stoli,” Beveridge says. “I would do mine with Ketel and Stoli and blind taste test my friends. I’d work on my formula until they picked Tito’s every time.”

Beveridge got his first big break in 1998 when the beverage program director at Las Vegas’ Bellagio casino called him and told him his vodka was the best in the world. Beveridge flew out to Vegas and trained the Bellagio bartenders on Tito’s, and just like that, he had a presence in a major market. Still, the first couple years were rough. Broke, and still fighting tooth-and-nail to get his product distributed nationwide, his high school friends held a “business intervention” with Beveridge, trying to convince him to close the distillery down. He wouldn’t relent. In 2001, Tito’s won the double gold medal at the World Spirits Competition.

“A friend once told me, ‘Anytime your competitors are saying anything derogatory about you, wear it like a carnation on your lapel. That means you’re putting some hurt on them.’”

“This year I won the Sidney Frank Award,” Beveridge says. “It’s named after the guy who started Grey Goose. It’s been this crazy, weird ride.”

Aside from airline deals and celebrity endorsements, Beveridge has seen success with his own eyes. Two years ago, he walked into a Manhattan bar with his best friend from kindergarten, and was dismayed to see an absence of his vodka on the back bar. He ordered some anyway, and to his shock, the bartender pulled a bottle of Tito’s from the well. Beveridge introduced himself, and conveyed his surprise that they even had it.

“He said, ‘Look, Tito. Everyone has this in New York. Everyone knows Tito’s is here. I’ll put a bottle on the back bar if you want, but it won’t last long. We pour a lot of this stuff,’” Beveridge says.

But that doesn’t mean he is hater-free. Beveridge has fended off rumors that he’s sold the business, and lawsuits alleging that his vodka isn’t made in Texas and isn’t a craft distillery. He says out of the 10 lawsuits, he’s whittled it down to one remaining. Successful as he’s been, he started to rest on his laurels a bit. He wrote a play and started painting in his free time. After the lawsuits started rolling in, he says, “he’s taking no prisoners.” In fact, Beveridge welcomes the onslaught.

“A friend once told me, ‘Anytime your competitors are saying anything derogatory about you, wear it like a carnation on your lapel. That just means you’re putting some hurt on them,’” Beveridge says. “If they quit talking about you, that’s when you have to worry.”

The Scientist

Live Oak Brewing Company

Founder: Chip McElroy, BA '79, PhD '89

Known for: Authentic, old-world-style beer

Beer to try: Live Oak Hefeweizen

Sitting in the Live Oak Brewing Company biergarten recently, with small, crisp leaves falling all around us, founder Chip McElroy is making a point about authenticity. He’s explaining why, for example Live Oak uses a complicated decoction mash, mostly imported hops, and horizontal fermentation to make his award-winning pilsners and European-style lagers with expensive German-engineered equipment.

“It would be like if I had bratwurst and sauerkraut on the menu,” he says, “and I brought you out a hot dog and some coleslaw.”

This is to say that McElroy takes beer very seriously. It started on a Czech bicycle and brewery tour in 1995, when he quickly realized that the outing was more bike than beer. He ditched his ride and took himself on a self-guided brewery tour, knocking on doors and asking brewers how they made pilsner. To his surprise, most were incredibly helpful.

In 2014, there were 117 craft breweries in Texas. In 2015, there was a 60 percent increase to 189, its largest jump ever. When McElroy opened in a former meatpacking plant in East Austin in 1997, there were four: Real Ale, Saint Arnold, Celis, and Live Oak. Back then, McElroy says, all the U.S. craft breweries were making pale ales. But he wanted to replicate those same beers he drank in Europe, like Pilsner Urquell, so he imported an heirloom variety Czech malt and brewed the same way the Europeans were. When I ask him why he goes through the trouble and avoids recent beer trends, he’s succinct.

“Because they’re delicious,” he says, as if I’ve asked him why he breathes oxygen. “It’s simple. They’re delicious beers.”

And with a background in chemistry and homebrewing and the gumption to learn tried-and-true European brewing methods, he was essentially working with a stacked deck.

Chip McElroy
Live Oak brewers
Live Oak Amber
McElroy holds a glass of Love Oak Pilz; Live Oak's Dusan Kwiatkowski, Jason Watkins, and Dylan Vicknair determining oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in a lager tank; Live Oak Amber.

“We were brewing against adversity, but we were making very clean lager beer,” McElroy says. “It’s difficult to make correctly. We were doing more sophisticated brewing than other brewers were willing, able, and maybe knowledgeable to do.”

For the better part of the next two decades, enormously popular beer like the Live Oak Hefeweizen and the rest of the Live Oak brand of beers were available only on tap at your favorite local watering hole or by the cup at a keg party. Realizing the potential in retail sales and desperate to leave the sausage plant, Live Oak set up a taproom and biergarten out by the Austin Bergstrom International Airport, and on Jan. 15, 2016, started selling cans of Live Oak Hefeweizen in stores. Since then, Big Bark and Pilz have hit shelves around the state.

Sitting inside at the largest double-live-edge live-oak bar in the world, we sip from Live Oak’s portfolio: a resurrection of a formerly extinct Polish beer called Grodziskie, a smoked version of his Bavarian-style Oaktoberfest, and, of course the hefeweizen, McElroy’s best-selling beer. He mentions hints of banana and clove in the latter, and as I throw back my tasting-glass, my neophyte palate is overwhelmed with just that. It turns out that annihilating taste buds with ridiculously over-hopped IPAs isn’t the only way to succeed in the craft beer business.

“We aren’t participating in the IBU [International Bitterness Units] war or the alcohol-strength-war,” McElroy says, smiling. “We’re participating in the delicious beer war.”

The Cowboy

Garrison Brothers

Founder: Dan Garrison, BS '89, Life Member

Known for: Inventing Texas bourbon

Bottle to try: Garrison Brothers Straight Texas Bourbon

Dan Garrison was a multi-millionaire for exactly three weeks. The year was 2001, and, after the Austin software startup he joined early was sold, he was sitting on thousands of valuable shares. Less than a month later, the bubble burst, the stock plummeted, and Garrison found himself owing the IRS $150,000 in capital-gains taxes.

“I did what any responsible father of two would do,” Garrison says. “I decided to go to Kentucky and get really drunk for a week.” In the next three years, he would return 35 times to travel the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, pestering tour guides—“It was, ‘Tell the Texan to take his hat off and shut up,’” he says—and eventually befriending the inventor of single-barrel bourbon, his hero, former Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee.

One thing bugged him, though. On every single tour, the guide would mention that bourbon was region specific, like Champagne.

“I believed I was going to make bourbon whiskey come hell or high water.”

“It started to piss me off. Does all our cheese come from Wisconsin, and our oil come from Texas? That’s not the way we work here,” Garrison says.

When he got home, he wrote a letter to the ATF and asked them if he could make bourbon in Texas. They wrote back, “Of course. Why would you think otherwise?”

“Nobody had asked them that question before,” Garrison says. “I thought, This is a gold mine. I get to be first.

In 2004, Garrison convinced his mother-in-law to purchase 68 acres in Hye, Texas, just 20 miles east of Fredericksburg. He spent nights and weekends by himself in the Hill Country exploding pipes and pumps with corn oil all in the spirit of chasing his dark-liquor dream. A year and 125 different types of barrels later, he pulled some juice from the year-old, 122-proof barrel No. 6, according to him, the best barrel he had ever tasted. By 2007, the state made him the first whiskey distillery in Texas history, and Garrison Bros. was in business. Sort of. The problem with selling bourbon whiskey, especially Garrison’s, is that it needs to sit, undisturbed, for three to four years. It requires an incredible leap of faith in your product.

“Or you have to be so stupid that you don’t know any better,” Garrison says. “I believed I was going to make bourbon whiskey come hell or high water. It was pretty risky.”

Dan Garrison
Waxing a Bourbon Bottle
Garrison Brothers Whiskey
Garrison in the barrel room; waxing a bourbon bottle; Garrison Brothers Straight Texas Bourbon.

Even without a product to sell before 2010, spirit-lovers flocked to Hye to tour the first legal whiskey distillery in the state. Today, hundreds of people each weekend kick back in rocking chairs and sip tea spiked with Garrison Brothers' flagship bourbon. His spirits have won numerous awards in the short time he’s been distilling, including his Cowboy Bourbon, which was named 2014 and 2017's US Micro Whiskey of the Year in the corresponding editions of Jim Murray’s prestigious Whisky Bible.

“I wanted this to be the mecca of Texas bourbon,” Garrison says. “This sounds corny, but I mean it. When you come out here, you become part of our family. You leave feeling a sense of connection to this piece of land, and the people who manage it.”

Garrison takes me on a tour of the distillery, and at the end, he shows me the granddaddy of it all, the room most normal tour-goers never get to see.

“Clear your lungs out before you step inside,” he says. “Then take a deep breath.” He lifts a heavy metal gate, and just past the threshold is row upon row of white-oak barrels—about $28 million worth, he tells me—each filled with what will eventually be bottled and sold as 94 proof straight Texas bourbon. The aroma isn’t overwhelming, but the sweet oakiness is thick in my nostrils. It’s glorious, like my entire face is bathing in the good stuff.

“Coming up here in the mornings when the air has been flowing through the barrels in the night,” he says, a smile crowding his face, “that’s my favorite part of the business.”