As Austin's water stopped flowing, generous breweries kept residents hydrated
A pandemic is a hard time to be in the booze business. Historic winter storms don't help — but help is exactly what Austin-area breweries did when the community needed it.
A week of freezing weather across Texas starting Valentine's Day weekend left many residents without power for days on end, and the crisis soon shifted to water supply. People's pipes froze. Water service was turned off for some or only operating at low pressure for others. And if you had water, it had to be boiled under a citywide order.
"We realized on Wednesday night just how real the water situation was getting for the community," says Will Jaquiss, owner of Meanwhile Brewing Co. (3901 Promontory Point Drive, meanwhilebeer.com). The brewery was one of dozens in the area that filled up containers of free, potable water for anyone in the community who needed in the days following the storms.
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Meanwhile started offering free water to anyone who needed it the morning on Feb. 18. Lines stretched from the taproom entrance, through the parking lot and to the street, Jaquiss says.
See, breweries keep a lot of of the clear stuff on hand.
"The water is the most important ingredient in beer," says Tim Bullock, general manager and co-founder of St. Elmo Brewing Co. (440 E. St. Elmo Road, stelmobrewing.com). The liquid has to be good quality, since what's in the tank affects the taste of the product, and it's also used in the rigorous cleaning of the production equipment.
"Pretty much every brewery you visit will have a few large tanks just filled with reserved water," he says.
Bullock says St. Elmo has about 1,500 gallons on reserve; Jaquiss estimates Meanwhile keeps around 4,000 gallons of purified water on hand.
When the water crisis started, Jaquiss says his brewery felt compelled to "help any way we could." Meanwhile actually lost water service, too, and a fire sprinkler on the property burst midweek. It took Jaquiss an hour to navigate the icy roads to the brewery to check it out. When water returned to Meanwhile over the weekend, they were able to boil more.
The brewery was busiest for the first three days: "Friday was overwhelming with the amount of people that were there," Jaquiss says. On Sunday and Monday, Meanwhile also focused on getting water to Austin Fire Department and on washing food-grade buckets for Austin Mutual Aid.
All told, Jaquiss estimates the brewery gave out about 6,000 gallons of water.
Bullock stopped by St. Elmo on Feb. 15, the first day of the widespread power outages, "just to check on everything." He noticed that some of the pipes were frozen but the brewery had running water elsewhere. That Thursday, St. Elmo lost water pressure but still had power, so they opened at noon on Friday and had staff ready to help people seeking water.
About 150 people showed up when St. Elmo opened, and Bullock says the line didn't die down much that day. As of Feb. 24, they were still offering water to anyone who showed up needing it. On Feb. 22, St. Elmo donated 40 gallons to St. Edwards University for their dormitories.
Mind you, this all happened as Austin closes in on a particularly brutal year for the service industry.
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"Breweries, bars, restaurants — our whole reason for being is being together, enjoying experiences," Bullock says. "That doesn’t stop whether or not we’re in business. We saw shelves at grocery stores around town — they got ransacked. ... We weren’t open. We weren’t making the beer. What else were we going to do but give the water away to people who needed it?"
The people most willing to help out, Jaquiss points out, are often those who can least afford to do so. At various junctures since last March, local breweries have had to shut down and reopen their taprooms due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Austin's entertainment scene is still a shadow of its normal self.
"It’s been pretty awful last 12 months," Jaquiss says. "A lot of businesses are suffering. A lot of people are suffering, financially and personally with loss, whether it’s losing someone, someone getting sick, or losing a business."
It’s hard not to develop a sense of empathy in times like these, he says. "We had all this water around, and people needed water. Simple as that."
More breweries that helped out
Here's a (not comprehensive) list of a few other beermakers in town who filled up Austinites' jugs when they needed it.
- 4th Tap Brewing, 10615 Metric Blvd.
- (512) Brewing Company, 407 Radam Lane.
- Adelbert's Brewery, 2314 Rutland Drive, No. 100.
- Austin Beerworks, 3001 Industrial Terrace.
- Batch, 3220 Manor Road.
- Beerburg Brewing, 13476 Fitzhugh Road.
- Black Star Co-op, 7020 Easy Wind Drive.
- The Brewtorium, 6015 Dillard Circle A.
- Central District Brewing, 417 Red River St.
- Compadre Brewing, 16920 Joe Barbee Drive, Building 1 in Pflugerville.
- Hopsquad Brewing, 2307 Kramer Lane.
- Infamous Brewing Company, 4602 Weletka Drive
- Lazarus Brewing Co., 1902 E. Sixth St.