DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – It’s noon on a sunbaked Saturday along a semi-secluded industrial block of south Deep Ellum and a couple dozen people are comfortably sipping from 8-ounce glasses. They’re in a time warp of a beer garden –– it’s quite easy to forget that it’s flanked by warehouses and parking lots.
A band offers up Willie Nelson covers from a modest stage tucked in the corner while folks amble to food trucks that abut the fence. And, of course, there’s those frequent reprieves to the interior of the attached 3,000-squarefoot brewery –– it’s why they’re here, after all.
For the past eight Saturdays, Deep Ellum Brewing Company has opened its doors to the public for a tour. Four weeks ago, the nascent microbrewery tapped its first full-season brew, the Farmhouse Wit, a light wheat-styled beer that’s brewed without any wheat whatsoever.
But more on that later –– Tait Lifto is cutting through the crowd donning a Deep Ellum shirt and hat, a toothy smile spread across his face. He’s come to proselytize.
“I just want people to try the beer,” he said. “It’s all about the beer. That’s what we live and breathe.”
Lifto is Deep Ellum’s ‘Sales and Brand Ninja,’ so, in other words, one of his duties is to be overwhelmingly excited about the product he cares so deeply for. Tough job, he assures me.
The 37-year-old joined the force in January, two months after the microbrewery formally launched at the Common Table in Uptown –– which may be the only thing Lifto promotes as enthusiastically as his employer’s beer.
At that time, Deep Ellum was Dallas’s only microbrewery. Franconia hovers to the north, in McKinney, and Rahr is situated due west in Fort Worth. But Dallas-proper, the state’s third most populous city, had nothing to call its own.
“Dallas has needed this for so long,” Lifto says. “There’s, what, six million people in DFW? It’s ridiculous. You go down to Austin and there’s, like, 30 (microbreweries).”
Lifto and his colleagues are quite aware that they’re carrying the torch, so to speak. In the six months of its existence, Deep Ellum Brewing Company has released nine different beers. The Deep Ellum IPA –– by far their most popular –– Rye Pils and Double Brown Stout will be year round. The rest are varying degrees of seasonal.
Their 10th, a Barley Wine, is aging in rye whiskey barrels and will flow in January 2013.
Deep Ellum’s bold brews are poured in 116 different bars and restaurants in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, Lifto says.
Just 10 Dallas locations offered the brewery a tap when it launched.
“We’re mindful of how sometimes you can’t grow too fast, but our big deal is to make a splash and get out there in front of people and say, look, we’re here, we’re making beer … and be unapologetic about it,” Lifto said.
Since Deep Ellum opened last November, another three have, at the very least, announced plans to brew.
Peticolas Brewing Company is operational and calls the Design District home; Lakewood Brewing Company, in Garland, will formally open sometime this summer; and Four Corners Brewing Co. vows to roll out its beers on Labor Day.
It’s easy to live in this beer bubble –– the growth is certainly a good sign for craft beer fans. But, according to the U.S. Brewers Association, just 13 percent of the volume of beers consumed in America came from craft breweries in 2011.
However, that’s up from 12 percent the year before that.
“The reality is craft beer in Texas lags behind the rest of the country. Five percent of sales in Texas is craft beer,” Lifto says, his numbers backed up by the Brewer’s Association. “Overall regular domestic beer sales are down two percent from last year, but four or five percent of all of the picture is a hell of a lot less.”
And that is why Lifto proselytizes.
Of beer and Dallas
But Lifto came on following years of planning, paperwork and patience.
Deep Ellum’s brewer’s permit –– submitted to the state in April 2011 and approved at the end of the summer, public records show –– has three names attached to it: Scott Frieling, James Piel and John Reardon.
That wasn’t always the case.
Reardon, 32, is a longtime home brewer and former Dallas club owner. And, like many beer lovers with the dedication to brew his own, he had a far-out dream to open a brewery.
After “a bit of research and a bit of planning,” Reardon pounced and began filing paperwork.
“Little did I know there was another group of guys doing the same thing in Deep Ellum,” Reardon says. “In fact, I filed for a trademark on Deep Ellum Brewing Company two days before they filed Deep Ellum Brewing Company, LLC. with the state. Let’s just say some not-so-friendly letters went back and forth.”
That other group of guys was Piel and Frieling. Eventually, the three agreed to meet up, fittingly, for a beer.
“After a couple meetings, it was like, ‘why not do this together?’,” Reardon remembers.
And so they did. In October of 2010, the city of Dallas classified the brewery as a “light industrial” operation. This freed up the choices Reardon, Piel and Frieling had in selecting a location for their brewery.
Shortly after this declaration, Reardon teased in the comment section of a Pegasus News article that they’d settled on somewhere in South Deep Ellum.
“While we agree that it does not make much sense to locate ourselves in the thick of things, we still wish to be close enough to weave our way into the future framework of Deep Ellum,” Reardon wrote.
The brewery’s future home would be 2821 Saint Louis Street, a small offshoot block of Malcolm X that’s visible from the mid-air split of Interstate 30 and U.S. 75 in southern Deep Ellum, just as Reardon teased.
Piel and Frieling, both trial attorneys, aren’t actually considered employees. Reardon runs the daily operations while his partners act as, well, partners.
“They help when they can, but they’re not involved in the day-to-day,” Reardon said. “They’d love to be, but they can’t support that just yet.”
In January, Drew Huerter moved from St. Louis to Dallas to serve as Deep Ellum’s brew master. The 28-year-old previously brewed at the now-defunct Mattingly Brewery, a 1.5-barrel brew house that had Huerter coming up with a new beer each Wednesday.
“I really hate the name, but it was Peak-A-Brew Wednesday,” he said, “Lame name, cool concept.”
After two years there and 75 different brews, Huerter moved to Schlafly, a much larger 45,000-barrel brew house that, according to the Brewers Association, was the 39th largest craft brewery in the country in 2011.
Deep Ellum, Huerter says, gives him the freedom he had at the tiny nano brewery with a yield and drive similar to Schlafly.
“This is the best of both worlds; I get the freedom I got at that place but with the resources of the Schlafly brewery,” Huerter said. “It’s nice.”
While attempting to achieve “total beer domination” –– Reardon’s words –– Huerter’s been let loose.
For proof, look at that aforementioned Farmhouse Wit –– it’s brewed with triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye. That’s rare, Huerter says. The only other brewery he can recall experimenting with it is the unapologetically bold Escondido, Calif.-based Stone Brewery –– a name that Lifto hopes Deep Ellum will be whispered alongside.
“I think we’re going to make a huge impact,” Lifto says. “I think we’ll get national recognition and be on the same playing field of the craft beer community across the nation as Dogfish, as Russian River.”
These are bold statements, but so was co-opting the name of what is arguably Dallas’s most recognizable neighborhood. This is something they’re mindful of.
“Us coming in an area that’s already so well defined in terms of its own brand and for us to pick up that name? We had to kind of embody what we already are,” Reardon says.
Then he continues with a rapid-fire history lesson of Deep Ellum, his voice and cadence increasing by the word: “From the turn of the century to jazz to the demise back in the 50s and 60s; with the birth of the freeways and the, sort of, hipsters in the 80s, even like the skinheads and the punks and all that shit and the fallout in the 90s; we love every bit of that, we don’t shy away from that, but we want to be the next chapter, but still … with remembrance of it all.”
Before the DART Green Line zipped travelers into Deep Ellum, there was the Good Latimer tunnel –– a 70-plus-year-old historic structure covered with city-approved graffiti. For many, it was the gateway to the entertainment district; the murals and graffiti that lived along its walls are forever matched with the memories that formed on the other side of the tunnel.
“I remember going to Deep Ellum in the nineties and having some fun partying down there and going into the tunnel,” Lifto says. “I remember seeing Nine Inch Nails in ’94, ’95 at the Bomb Factory. That was something else, man.”
Even when recalling that memory nearly two decades later, Lifto walks through the tunnel before he gets to it.
While it was demolished in 2006, it’s immortalized in Deep Ellum’s slick tasting room. It’s a mural consisting of high-resolution photographs taken by area photographer Sean Fitzgerald before the destruction. It’s all there: The chubby tiger, the cartoonish DJ, the Elvis Pez dispenser, the defecating Pegasus.
Just as the Deep Ellum crew hopes to educate the public about quality beer, Lifto and Reardon both say they aim to give their city the spotlight, too.
“The Deep Ellum name has a lot of history behind it,” Lifto says. “It kind of, just, hits something in people’s souls when they think about Deep Ellum.”