50 years of good times at Austin’s Draught House
For about a year and a half in the early 1990s, no one walked through the hardy wooden doors of the Draught House Pub & Brewery to order a beer. Brewer and manager Josh Wilson counts the days of the bar’s only closure toward the institution’s anniversary anyway — which means a big milestone has arrived.
Well, sort of.
In 2017, the Draught House celebrated its 49th anniversary. Then, last year, Wilson discovered through perusing old American-Statesman articles at the Austin History Center that the Draught House opened a year later than people thought: May 30, 1969.
No anniversary party was held last year. Now that the record is straight, the cozy tavern with a large beer garden out front will host a 50th anniversary celebration all day Saturday with lots of rare, often barrel-aged releases and live music from the Flying Balalaika Brothers and DJ JBL.
The bar’s birthday being a whole year off all this time seems fitting, somehow, given the mythology that surrounds it. Wilson and his former business partner reopened it in 1995, added a brewing system and have been in the thick of the local craft brewing industry that kicked off that decade and has flourished since. It’s the kind of place that has employees who have worked there for almost as long as Wilson has and regulars who have been drinking there for even longer.
And it shows no signs of going anywhere, either, in a rapidly changing Austin. Recently, Wilson gave up the steady rotation of food trucks for one owned by the bar and parked permanently to one side of the beer garden — to guarantee Draught House patrons a bite with their brew. Little House serves up what you might call freshly prepared bar food, such as double-fried fries, scratch-made falafel and hummus, and buffalo wings.
Another change, still coming, is the opening of the upper level of the Draught House’s Tudor-style building, constructed on land formerly zoned for a single-family residence by the bar’s original owner, Wayne Overton, in the 1960s. Wilson and his staff have been trying to develop upstairs for several years, with plans to turn it into a second bar area and events space that will have “less of a heavy man cave vibe to it, a little lighter, with more wines,” he said. The city permitting process has taken far longer than he expected.
He and business partner Dan Moran purchased the Draught House from Overton’s widow, Gay, 25 years ago with the goal of “just trying to maintain it, sort of honor the vision the previous owner had for it,” he said. “It was fairly well-realized, except that it didn’t really have the beers that we were trying to pour. We just made it more craft-centric.”
At the time, the Draught House had 18 taps (an impressive number to have back then). They expanded that number to 70. And they installed the seven-barrel brewing system in the tavern’s former kitchen that makes a vanilla porter and other house options. Still, a lot about the Draught House has remained the same, down to the original Coors-branded lamps overhead. It’s kept the lived-in feel of a British-style tavern, thanks to the dim lighting, dark wood paneling and roughly hewn wooden tables that, story goes, Overton made himself.
Wilson had learned to make beer at the now-defunct Bitter End Bistro and Brewery, one of the handful of ’90s-era brewpubs in Austin that didn’t survive long into the new century. From Brooklyn, he was a film student at the University of Texas when happenstance would change the course of his life.
“I needed a job,” he said. The Bitter End “had a sign in the window, and I was walking past. They literally said, ’If you can start right now, you can go clean these tanks.’ I had no brewing experience, but I ended up dropping out of film school. ... I picked up brewing the way a lot of people did back then. It was harder to get information because it was pre-internet, so there was a lot of sharing stories with people, reading what literature was available.”
From that moment, things happened fast. In between the Bitter End and the Draught House, Wilson helped to open a short-lived San Marcos brewpub, too. But he’s been at the Draught House — which, per Gay’s wishes, was called the Draught Horse for a time — ever since. He sold it in the late ’90s to current owner Glenda Smith, who had a dentistry practice nearby, and stayed on to brew beer and “make pretty much all of the decisions” about running it.
Those include, of course, what beers go on tap beyond the dozen or more house offerings. In the early days of Austin’s now thriving craft beer industry, Wilson would meet with new local brewers and tell them he would carry their beer, a small way to help get their fledgling business off the ground. He knew how hard it could be. Nowadays, there are far too many to keep up that practice. He asks that samples be left behind for him to try, and if they’re good, he’ll carry the beer.
He’s noticed over the years that there can be a small uproar when a beloved beer leaves the taps. Among the regulars who occasionally give him grief about the loss of a particular brew is Benan Cakmak — he is a frequent visitor of the pub and has been going since he was a teenager.
Now 56, Cakmak has been a familiar face at the Draught House for about 40 years. He remembers when the Overtons used to run it — how the kitchen would make steaks and burgers, and once the food ran out, Wayne would shut it down and go to the UT game. Beer (common domestic options like Coors, as well as popular imports like Guinness and Foster’s) would be served in large icy goblets.
Since then, he’s made friends with many of the other patrons. The supervisor at a construction company, Cakmak comes in every other day or so, orders a Victory Lager or the Draught House Marlon Blando, and often meets with his boss to talk about the next day’s plans. He likes that people at the pub are willing to help each other out beyond simply hanging out with pints. Have a problem, he said, and they’ll present a solution or point you in the direction of someone who can.
“There’s a doctor that comes here named Arvin,” Cakmak said. “My mom had cancer about four years ago. He helped direct me to the right doctors to get the cancer located and the surgery done. Knock on wood that nothing’s ever coming back.”
In that way, Wilson said, the Draught House is “like an old-school British pub where the local community gets together and trades information.”
Craft beer-loving couple John Lowe and Dena Hughes haven’t been coming to the Draught House for nearly as long, but it is a special place for them, too. It was the site of their first date almost six years ago, where, as Lowe found out much later, “Dena bounced a check to have cash to pay for her beers to show she didn’t expect the man to pay,” he said.
He remembers visiting the pub in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when house beers and imports dominated the tap list. (In about 2000, Wilson said, people moved away from craft options for a few years because of their inconsistent quality.) The Draught House’s vanilla porter was so popular, Lowe said, that out-of-towners would call the bar regularly, checking whether it was on tap so they could drive in and get some.
For a time, Lowe and his friends “all lived in the general area, like walking or biking distance, so it really became a place to just meet up and hang out and have some beers and play games, especially since we probably knew one of the beertenders,” he said. “My friends and I may have spent a good chunk of time trying to carve our names in the tables.”
Many of the bartenders have been working there for more than two decades and have become knowledgeable about craft beer as a result.
But just offering exciting beers on tap — like one of Lowe and Hughes’ favorites, (512) Wild Bear — no longer cuts it, Wilson said. The Draught House had weekly glassware giveaways for about 10 years, until it was clear those were no longer an allure. The same goes for special releases. Once, those would’ve drawn a line of “15 people waiting to get in before we had even opened. It’s not like that anymore,” he said. “It’s hard for people to get excited.”
Lately, he’s been putting stock in a different formula that he hopes will help the Draught House be around for many more years.
“I feel like the neighborhood pub where you’re hitting as many things right as possible is kind of like a better model,” he said. “That’s not necessarily opposed to special releases or events. But I feel like if you can be a little bit family-friendly, have really good food, have a good outdoor space, good employees, good music, good atmosphere, if you can hit all that stuff and also have a good location, then you’re going to have a strong chance of doing well.”
The Draught House’s 50th anniversary party runs from 1 to 10 p.m. Saturday at 4112 Medical Parkway. For more information, visit draughthouse.com.