When the pandemic started almost a year ago, breweries were in a particularly precarious position. Forced to shutter their taprooms and facing declining sales as bars across the state closed their doors and restaurants limited capacity, Dallas-Fort Worth’s breweries contended with a future that looked more uncertain than ever.
And so, in the midst of all that chaos, Martin House Brewing Company decided to get creative.
The Fort Worth brewery had already earned a bit of a reputation as one of the city’s quirkiest beer destinations after the release of the Salty Lady, a sour German gose with a serious saline punch. Then came its program of “micro-seasonal” brews. While most breweries might run a seasonal beer for three or four months, Martin House started switching things up monthly, introducing limited runs of wildly creative beers that were brewed in small batches and only served on-site in the taproom.
The most successful of those micro-seasonal beers came in 2019, when Martin House collaborated with iconic Fort Worth pickle makers Best Maid to produce a sour beer spiked with pickle juice. Aptly called the Best Maid Sour Pickle Beer, it earned a rabid following in DFW and beyond, selling out immediately and spawning a new series of increasingly wacky brews that have kept Martin House in the mix during the pandemic.
“Every social media message and every phone call was from people trying to find this beer that we had no intention of keeping around for more than a couple of weeks,” says Martin House marketing director Shugg Cole. “We had people calling from across the United States, from Australia and Scotland. It just took on a life of its own. It was like a train, and we had to hop on.”
But when COVID-19 hit, the Martin House team realized that the micro-seasonal program would have to change dramatically now that people couldn’t come into the taproom to try all these cool new beers. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to make draft beer anymore because we didn’t have anyone to sell it to. We’re closed,” Cole says. “But we knew that we still had this smaller system, and decided to just make whatever the hell we want, however weird and crazy. We wanted to continue to push the boundaries.”
From there, the brews got even wackier. There were beers flavored to resemble Little Debbie’s Cosmic Brownies and Christmas Tree Cakes, and more savory options, like pizza beer, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos beer, cheesy popcorn beer, and a bloody mary-style version of the famed pickle beer. The team was seriously devoted to making sure that these beers tasted like the flavors advertised on the can.
To do that, the brewery engaged in intensive taste-testing, steeping spices into hot water and trying to figure out how to integrate just the right amount of tomato powder into the recipe for a traditional beer. “There’s a lot of trial and error,” says brewmaster Cody Martin. “Sometimes we come up with something that we think will work great, and it just doesn’t. But you can always find a way to get that flavor you want into the beer. I keep thinking we’re going to run out of ideas, but that was three years ago.”
What has been challenging, though, is figuring out how to get a slew of nontraditional ingredients into equipment that’s generally used to handle hops, barley, and water. “We’re working with heat exchangers, pumps, all sorts of stuff like that,” Martin says. “You have to be aware of what you’re working with. We’ve learned that the hard way a couple of times. It isn’t easy to get 60 pounds of sour cherry gummy rings through our equipment.”
There’s also been plenty of critique from the notoriously persnickety world of beer enthusiasts, many of whom have turned their nose up at such bizarre mashups of ingredients. “We have gotten a lot of hate because people just take things way too seriously,” Cole says. “This is just beer, right? It’s supposed to bring people together, not make you angry. I always try and drive home [that] beer is supposed to be fun.”
Despite critiques, though, the pickle beer and other innovative brews have clearly been a hit with many Texas drinkers, and have provided a stream of revenue for Martin House in a trying time. “Even in hard times, you can still count on people to drink beer,” Cole says. “We have a lot of loyal, loyal fans, and they’ve given us that opportunity to experiment with some different flavors this year. So yeah, I’d say we made the best of it.”
And even without the taproom, DFW drinkers are still lining up for Martin House’s brews — socially distanced, of course. The brewery only sells its micro-seasonal brews on a first-come, first-served basis. Drinkers stand six feet apart behind the brewery and wait to score their beers while music blares and staffers like Cole walk around and hand out free beers for everyone to drink as they wait.
Over the past few months, the brewery has also been in the midst of a significant expansion to its operations, adding a new canning line and six massive storage tanks to handle the demand for its wacky — and more traditional — beers.
With that expansion comes, not surprisingly, even more ridiculously creative beers in the future. Martin House is planning to bring back the wildly popular canned pickle beer michelada, along with a pickle brew spiked with tropical punch drink mix to resemble fruity Kool-Aid pickles. There’s a chicken wings beer in the works, too, and to go with it, a beer that allegedly tastes like ranch dressing.
Whether or not you actually want to drink a beer that tastes like ranch dressing, there’s no denying that Martin House is brewing up some of the most innovative beers in Dallas-Fort Worth. And right now, the plan is to get even more creative. “As long as our fans keep supporting us and drinking these weird and wild, wacky beers, we’ll keep making them,” Cole says.