The History of Taprooms
By Feature Writer Gin Benevidez
I know it’s been a while since my last article. Maybe it’s just me, but the thought of writing cheery pieces on beer history that are mostly just excuses to make terrible puns hasn’t been all too appealing during a time when so many of our local breweries are struggling. It seems like it’s almost a daily occurrence that TABC throws a new curveball their way. We’re getting to the point where it would make more sense if TABC stood for “That’s Absolutely Batsh*t Crazy” than what it actually stands for.
Despite the chaos, or perhaps because of it, I’ve been really missing taprooms lately. It wasn’t until I couldn’t go inside most indoor taprooms that I began to realize how much of my time I actually used to spend in taprooms. If you’re curious, it was a lot of time…maybe close to all of it. Taprooms felt like my home away from home, only better because they were where all of my friends were, draft beer was plentiful, and nobody kept tabs on their children. The taproom experience was, in a word, utopian.
Missing taprooms this much is an odd sensation because, at least in Texas, taprooms as we know them now – as customized creative spaces that provide an ideal environment for drinking straight from the source and are worthy of their own award category in the Austin Beer Guide – haven’t really been around for very long in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t until 2013 that legislation was finally passed to allow most Texas breweries to sell beer directly to consumers for on-site consumption, which created the impetus for several breweries to build spaces where their customers could comfortably stay and enjoy their brews.
If you’re thinking, “Hey, wait, I definitely drank beer at breweries prior to 2013,” do you remember the rigamarole of buying glassware and using tickets or tokens or paper bracelets or blood oaths? That’s because even though you might have been drinking the beer on-site, you weren’t actually paying for the beer. You were paying for the glass. And while some breweries do still operate this way, the fact that so many of them can sell their beer for on-site consumption has made having a taproom the industry standard. Thankfully, gone are the days where, if you wanted to have a beer at your favorite local brewery, you had to wait for that brewery to throw an event so you could spend all day sitting in a camping chair in their parking lot, drinking out of the same plastic cup over and over again, and hoping a kind soul would pass off their extra tickets to you.
While proper taprooms may be “new” to Texas, the concept and the need for taprooms have been around for centuries. They’ve just looked a little different than they do now. When beer became a marketable commodity in post-plague Europe, it was consumed where it was produced – in taverns, inns, and alehouses. Arguably all relatively homey places, as beer had been a household staple prior to this time. Going from a house to a business that was still essentially just a house was a natural and easy transition for the brewers at these establishments.
Taverns and alehouses were also prevalent as America was colonized, but eventually, when German settlers introduced the states to lagers and business began booming in a big way, the taproom evolved again. Major brewing companies that got their names in the 1800s were more like manufacturing facilities than houses, and that kind of production environment didn’t lend itself well to hanging around and kicking back cold ones. Instead of having on-site taprooms, these breweries built massive beer halls that acted as “tied houses,” meaning they were tied to that particular brewery and would only sell their beer. Supposedly the biggest beer hall was erected by Pabst in New York in 1900 and could seat 1,400 people.
I think it’s fair to assume that when a taproom can seat hundreds of people, it no longer feels like a cozy home. Not to say it wouldn’t have been tons of fun to drink beer with 1,399 of your closest friends, it’s just a big transformation for the taproom to go from small and homey to giant and commercial. But by the time national Prohibition hit, it didn’t matter what the typical brewery taproom felt like because it was gone. And it was several decades before the craft brewery taprooms we’re familiar with today finally brought the concept back.
As someone who has frequented our amazing Austin brewery taprooms, it seems clear to me that while commercial breweries may have moved the taproom out of the home, local craft breweries have worked hard to put some of the home back into the taproom. Our taprooms are bursting with personality and, in many cases, are treated as an extension of the hand-crafted brews being served there. They feel like the homes of those who work there – families of varying sizes consisting of brewers, servers, production workers, and everyone in between – and we are always welcome in their homes to enjoy their beers alongside our own family and friends.
For me, it comes down to that super cheesy saying, “Home is where the heart is.” These breweries have put so much of their heart into their beers and into their taprooms, that they’ve won over my heart as well. So during this time where we can’t visit taprooms like we used to, I feel far from home, and my heart is admittedly a little broken. I’m sure plenty of Texas breweries feel something similar. And while I know that one day we’ll be back to our friendly taproom days of yore, if we want to have any hope of getting to that point, it’s important right now to support our beer families who still call their breweries home. Please order a beer in whatever form your favorite breweries offer it, buy merchandise, and spread the word to others that our breweries are counting on us to get them through these tough times and see them home.