When Curtis Whatley moved to Mission 20 years ago, he began brewing his own beer because so few beer varieties were available. Last November, he sold his brewing equipment, in part because the Valley now boasts five microbreweries, producing signature and seasonal craft beers ranging from stouts and lagers to ales and porters.
A growing group of passionate home brewers, along with commercial microbrewers, help me understand that it is not just about drinking beer. It’s about the skills, pleasure and adventure involved in making beers. Beer makers can shop for brewing equipment at RGV Brew in McAllen and join the club Border Brewers to compare notes with like-minded people.
Enticing aromas of yeast and grain fill Mike Garza’s kitchen, along with a 5-gallon, stainless steel, allin-one brewing kettle connected to thermometers and clear plastic hoses. “On a day like this, I pretty much take over the kitchen,” Garza says one Sunday afternoon. Now twice a month, assisted by his wife Erica Casanova, he sets up a mini-brewery in their Brownsville home. The previous day, the couple, both music teachers, had produced a mash brew of Scottish ale. Today a Belgian triple ale is bubbling in the vat as the temperature inches higher, pulling every bit of the sugar out of the grain as water percolates through. This beer, Garza says, is a little complicated and requires several months of conditioning time in a keg.
Three five-gallon kegs of homebrewed beer chill in a retrofitted refrigerator called a kegerator. From one of its three exterior taps, Mike draws me a glass of his Pale Ale, a beautiful and delicious beer with a hint of citrus. The only downside to brewing, the couple agrees, is cleaning up afterwards.
You can find brewers Valley-wide. In Weslaco, outside the Valley Nature Center’s fall fundraiser Brew in the Woods, I sip John Valdivia’s honey brown ale which has a hint of roasted pecans. He also brews Monette’s Pale Blonde for his wife. Another brewer offers me a perfectly balanced pumpkin ale, and then a Mango Wit and a Snickers Stout. An Irish Red Ale, made by 5×5 Brewing Company, prompts me to arrange a visit to them in Mission.
Founded by three military veterans, the 5×5 commercial microbrewery brands its beers with military themes and nose art labels: Spitfire Golden Ale, Moore Field Blonde, 44MM Stout. Cody Mazur, 5×5 brewmaster, stirs mash in giant stainless-steel vats. Steam rises around him as he explains that beers typically brew for a day and then ferment for approximately two weeks. The microbrewery’s fermenters hold 300 gallons each. A few beers, aged in bourbon barrels, take months to reach their prime. Large bags of malt and Belgian and American grains are stacked behind the short bar of the taproom, which is hung with military flags and memorabilia.
Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons, the taproom is 5×5’s marketing portal. Craft breweries, like wineries, are now destinations. I sip the beautiful Brunette Bombshell, enjoying its wonderful texture.
“We let our beer do the talking for us. Our quality and consistency show what craft beer is about,” says co-founder Sean Downey. “We only keep about 2% of what we make, and sometimes that’s not enough. We have a great turnout when we do events,” which spread out onto the patio. As the Valley’s largest distributing microbrewery, 5×5’s kegs are delivered to about 130 local restaurants and bars. Tours are available by appointment.
Six months after 5×5 started distributing beer in 2018, their production space they more than doubled, to keep up with demand. Downey predicts further expansion and believes the Valley can support up to eight breweries. He is open to mentoring those interested in setting up a brewery. “We believe competition breeds innovation.”
Big River Brewery, run by Steve and Bertha Padilla in Pharr, is known for its “adventurous” beers and is the only other microbrewery to distribute beyond its taproom in Pharr, on Nolana. Cherry Trappist Ale and Belgian Dark Strong Ale are among the dozen beers the brewery produces, puts in cans, and sells to taverns and restaurants. The microbreweries Blue Onion, Brewsome and South Padre Brewing Co. sell on premises only. Additionally, many bars now carry craft brews.
The monthly Border Brewers meeting at Weslaco’s Blue Onion is a bring-and-sample event. This gives me an opportunity to sip an amazing variety of tastes, colors and aromas: Nordic Witbier, Amber Ale, Guava Limeade IPA. Comments range from “This is a good all-day drink,” to “There’s a certain flavor I’m not getting.”
“It’s a little orange peel,” answers homebrewer Ernie Ward, who made that beer. “A lot of my friends like to stop by,” he adds. “I always try to have some beer in the kegs and some fermenting.”
Tony Mahoney, an MVEC member and brewer for 30 years, says a home brewer would love to be hired as a brewmaster and have his beers featured on a menu.
Julian Ybarra has done that: he made the jump from homebrewer to Blue Onion’s brewmaster. He points to the 16 brewers around the table: “This is pretty much my test panel. I love combining flavors, finding balance.”
If you want to become a brewmaster, South Texas College will offer a 22-week beer brewing course in 2020, the first in Texas.