Celis Brewery might have been the first brewery in Austin, but Celis White was not the first beer our booze-loving city could claim as its own. That honor instead goes to a lager made by a longtime veteran of our brewing industry — and in the same year the North by Northwest brewpub turns 20, the pioneering beer has returned to the tap wall.
The Pecan Street Lager is on draft as a seasonal release at NXNW now through April, or until the kegs run out. Faithful to NXNW owner Davis Tucker's original recipe, the lager represents what people were drinking in the late 1980s, well before the proliferation of craft breweries and their wild-sounding barrel-aged fruited sours and triple dry-hopped Northeast-style IPAs.
"It’s kind of a cross between what I would say is an authentic German lager and an old-school West Coast pale ale," NXNW head brewer Kevin Roark says. "At the time, it made sense to make because there weren’t a lot of styles out back then. (Davis') favorite hops are Cascade, his favorite style is a German lager, so I'm not surprised that’s what he made. It’s a very Davis beer. I’d like to get it out on the market, but I just don’t think enough people know about it."
Not a whole lot of locals knew about the Pecan Street Lager then, either. Trailblazers such as Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing had started attracting attention, but by and large, Budweiser and the other macro breweries — including a big one in Texas, producing Lone Star — reigned supreme at bars, restaurants and retailers.
If you've done the math, you've probably figured out the Pecan Street Lager was not an original NXNW beer. Tucker began contract-brewing at Spoetzl Brewery, the maker of Shiner, in 1987, more than a decade before NXNW began proving to Austinites that brewpubs could make equally good food and beer.
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Tucker is blunt about the uphill battle he endured in persuading people to give his lager a chance. His biggest hope, he says, was converting those who were already partial to imports like Spaten or Paulaner. After all, his love of authentic German lagers had been the inspiration behind the Pecan Street Lager in the first place.
"In 1987, there really was no educated beer drinker in Texas," he says. "I had to sell to individual customers one at a time. I found that because I was literally the new kid on the block competing with the big guys, I had to work differently. I had to come at 9:30 at night to talk to the grocery manager because I knew no rep from the big breweries was going to be there. I had to get smart and show up when they weren't around, even if it was late."
He had named the beer after Austin's most famous entertainment district — Sixth Street — which in the 1800s had been called Pecan Street. But it led to another problem.
"I would get people asking me all the time, 'Is there pecans in it?' And I would say, 'No, no pecans in it.' I know I said more than once, 'Who would put pecans in a beer?'" Tucker says, cracking a grin. "OK, I’m great friends with the guys who made (512) Pecan Porter (which contains pecans), and it’s good. But that’s part of the changing world. Back then, it just would never have occurred to anybody to do those kinds of things."
Pecan Street Lager survived for only a few years. By the early 1990s, Gambrinus — a Texas-based company that once sold Corona Extra and other Mexican brands — had purchased Spoetzl and was no longer interested in helping Tucker produce his beer. He was able to find a small brewery out of state that would make it but "didn’t expect that it would be difficult to sell a Texas beer made in Minnesota. So that was the beginning of the end of Pecan Street," he says.
His career in the brewing industry was just getting started, however. When brewpubs were legalized in Texas in 1993, Tucker and a few business partners opened Copper Tank at East Fifth and Trinity streets. Although Copper Tank would flourish for a little more than a decade before filing for bankruptcy in 2005, he stayed with the business for only a few years before founding NXNW.
Head brewer Roark joined the NXNW staff in 2007 after "getting his first taste for craft beer" at another '90s-era brewpub, the Bitter End Bistro and Brewery. (The Warehouse District spot closed in 2005 after a kitchen fire and the landlord's decision to terminate the lease.)
Now, Roark's not sure that a beer like the Pecan Street Lager would be conceived of today. Lagers are popular in Austin — just look at the success of the ABGB, which has won Brewpub of the Year for the third year running at the Great American Beer Festival thanks to lagers like the Rocket 100 Pilsner. But IPAs might well be the most popular beer style, both here and around the country. Thankfully, the Pecan Street brew has some pretty cool Austin history behind it.
"This will appeal to both German lager fans and old-school pale ale fans. And people who just want to try a really cool Austin beer from the 1980s," Roark says.