On a weekend trip to Austin in March, I only had time to visit one brewery so I wanted to make it count. I’d heard a lot of buzz about Meanwhile Brewing Co. The producer’s Secret Beach IPA had recently medaled at the Great American Beer Festival, while noted beer writer Kate Bernot had put Meanwhile’s Helles Lager at the top of her most recent Beers of the Year list.
More importantly, on a jam-packed Saturday in which I only had a couple free hours during lunchtime, I noted from the brewery’s website that they offered food. That was critical.
As I entered the facility’s large backyard space, I was awed by an entire turf soccer field to my left — two goals and everything — and a bunch of kids in Austin FC shirseys kicking around while their parents drank. A playground for the littler ones likewise blended into the natural setting of live oak trees. Though barely past noon, the parking lot was already packed.
People sat around picnic tables and on Adirondack chairs with friends and family, enjoying the beer, the weather, and the music emanating from a band on a large stage. Off to the side, the food options were bountiful — five trucks fanned out, offering everything from wood-fired pizza to sandwiches and bowls to tacos to BBQ, of course, and ice cream, too. I opted for three tacos — lamb barbacoa, al pastor, and chicharró — from Pueblo Viejo.
While my food was being prepared, I walked over to a stand-up window, offering access to bartenders inside the brewery — and I ordered that list-topping Helles Lager, which was slowly poured into a slender pokal glass. With a fluffy head of foam atop the clean, slightly spicy lager, it was an ideal refresher on a sunny, 80-degree afternoon. It was truly an elite Helles lager. But still, what I most remember about this day, some three months later, are those chicharrón tacos.
In our early days of dating, my now-wife used to make fun of all the terrible places I’d take her just to drink beer. Industrial parks on the edge of a city. Warehouses in the supposedly “sketchy” part of town. Tiny dumps off the side of some rural highway. It didn’t matter. If a place had great beer, I wanted to taste it. I didn’t care about the ambiance, I didn’t care about the atmosphere, and I certainly didn’t care if these places had any sort of food program. In fact, they usually offered nothing more than bags of Lay’s on a hanging strip.
That attitude was true for a lot of beer geeks who came of age then. Back when good beer was so hard to find, finding good beer was all that mattered in one’s brewery travels. But things have radically changed over the last decade and now new breweries absolutely have to have quality dining options, too.
“It’s essential,” says Will Jaquiss, the founder of Meanwhile. The way he sees it, the marketplace has become so crowded, so competitive with over 10,000 craft breweries in America, that the days of just hanging a shingle, pulling hazy IPAs, and expecting success are long past.
“Having a really high-quality food program, something that helps differentiate your brewery besides high-quality beer — because everybody is going to say we make high-quality beer — is essential,” he says.
“We’re providing menu items at a higher level of execution and attention to detail that may not typically be applied to this echelon of food.”
For Jaquiss, however, that didn’t necessarily mean having his own kitchen. Before opening in October 2020, he and the rest of the brewery’s leadership went around Austin trying as many food trucks as possible, hoping to lure an all-star team back to their brewery. They started with Pueblo Viejo, a popular Mexican food truck started by Margarita Mendez and Nestor Méndez Martínez in 2010.
Building off that anchor, in the last two years Meanwhile has added Distant Relatives, a BBQ truck; Side Eye Pie, a wood-fire pizza purveyor in which Jaquiss has a small stake; Bésame, which offers Central America-inspired ice cream; and Songbird, an off-beat maker of sandwiches.
“Songbird is such an exciting concept because it’s approachable and casual, which is perfect for the families and young couples who frequent Meanwhile Brewing,” says chef Josh van den Berg. He’s a former winner of “Chopped” on Food Network who has worked at Michelin-star restaurants like New York’s Aldea. “We’re providing menu items at a higher level of execution and attention to detail that may not typically be applied to this echelon of food.”
In other words, the days of breweries, at best, offering Kraft Singles grilled cheeses made on a George Foreman are over. All five food trucks are permanently on site at Meanwhile seven days a week, with some open early for breakfast service, enabling Meanwhile to likewise offer a high-end coffee program in the morning before drinking hours have even begun.
“I mean, we have two James Beard-nominated chefs on site,” Jaquiss says, referring to van den Berg and Damien Brockway of Distant Relatives, a two-time nominee. “Which is pretty tight.”
Beer Pairings Supplemental
If we’re going to mention brewery chefs with awards, we can’t discount Kareem El-Ghayesh of KG BBQ, an immigrant from Cairo producing Egyptian-style barbecue that’s served out of a food truck at Oddwood Brewing, some nine miles northeast of Meanwhile. He, too, was nominated for a Beard this year.
It’s not just trucks parked at breweries that are upping the beer and food games. Thanks to friendlier laws across the country, most breweries are now getting into the food business as well.
“It’s a tough market, to have finer-dining cuisine with beer.”
Charleston’s Edmund’s Oast offers the same sort of elevated pub grub and house-cured meats that earned its original brewpub a James Beard nomination in 2015. Portland, Maine’s Oxbow Blending & Bottling has an outpost of Duckfat Frites Shack, offering lobster rolls and Belgian fries ideal for noshing next to the brewery’s mixed fermentation ales. The Boston area’s Lord Hobo Brewing now has three locations, each relying heavily on food like fried cod sandwiches and chicken and waffles to draw drinkers from around the metro area.
On a recent trip to the brewery mecca of Asheville, N.C., I was surprised how many locals encouraged me to visit certain breweries — Sierra Nevada’s East Coast outpost included — based not on the beer options, but the food. The pinnacle was surely Cultura, a 2020 James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. Owned by Wicked Weed Brewery, whose “Funkatorium” is next door, Cultura focuses on Noma-style fermented foods with appropriate beverage pairings, many of which aren’t even the brewery’s beers but instead natural wines, ciders, and even cocktails. (How in the heck AB-InBev, Wicked Weed’s parent company, found itself owning a $125 tasting menu restaurant where beer is a second thought is anyone’s guess!)
Believe it or not, there are even higher-end dining programs at breweries these days. Take Moody Tongue in Chicago, which offers acclaimed chef Jared Wentworth’s fine dining to pair with the brewery’s culinary beers. The 28-seat restaurant offers a hyper-seasonal tasting menu that might feature anything from sea urchin chawanmushi to veal tendon to wagyu beef. It runs $285 per person with a $75 supplemental beer pairing. In both 2021 and 2022, Moody Tongue received two Michelin stars, only the second brewery to ever do so. The first, Band of Bohemia, a brewpub also in Chicago, closed during the pandemic.
“It’s a tough market, to have finer-dining cuisine with beer,” said co-owner and brewer, Michael Carroll, at the time of Band of Bohemia’s first star, though I’m not sure that’s true any more.
Admittedly, though, some of my favorite brewery dining options these days are more laid back options, though no less interesting.
(Moody Tongue’s co-founder Jared Rouben was accused of sexual assault in 2022. He denied the allegations.)
In South Brooklyn, Threes Brewing offers space to The Meat Hook, which serves “elevated takes” on cheeseburgers, wedge salads, and Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, and even offers brunch burritos on the weekends. Even more casual is a few blocks away at Finback Brewery, which serves dumplings, wings, and crab rangoon made by co-owner Basil Lee’s mother. They’re so good that some locals I know visit the brewery just to eat, barely paying attention to the world-class slow-pour pilsner on the Lukr tap.
Spaces Where Beer Is Made
Indeed, eating at breweries is not just for beer fans these days. No longer can breweries merely survive off the flight orders from “Dads Untappd.” Luckily, quality food is luring the hoi polloi to breweries at a time when the industry is facing incredible challenges and many spots are closing.
No less than Pete Wells, The New York Times’s chief restaurant critic, recently reported on the trend of New York’s “most inventive” pizzas coming from — where else? — pop-ups at breweries across the city. He opens the story with an incredible line:
“I was sitting next to a forklift inside a brewery in Queens when I understood that everything I knew about New York pizza was wrong.”
Wells was dining at Fifth Hammer Brewing in Long Island City; the dish in question: an Egyptian fava bean falafel pie. He likewise wrote of a pizza he enjoyed at Wild East Brewing, a few blocks between Threes and Finback, where pop-up pizzaiolo Za Report served him a pie with hickory-smoked mozz, dried cherries, and Luxardo cherry liqueur-infused ricotta. He additionally name-checked pizzas at local breweries Grimm Ales and Evil Twin. Never once did he mention the beers he (presumably) drank while reporting the story.
“[S]paces where beer is made and drunk are to pop-up pizza what the Central Park Ramble is to warblers,” Wells wrote, suggesting that as craft beer has become less esoteric, less aggressive in flavor, and more secondary to life and enjoyment, there becomes room for more people to visit breweries to, well, discover the great food being served there, too.
Or, as Jaquiss, says, “If you want to grow and be able to share your beer with a wider audience, you gotta be firing on all cylinders, especially with the food.”