My first taste of a beer from Bexar County Brewery was at the Letter B in Whittlesey during the Straw Bear Festival. On a bitterly cold day in January, I ordered a porter, what I hoped might be a winter warmer, but I wasn’t expecting the warmth to come from the creeping heat of chilis!
Brewer Steve Saldana, who came over from Texas and established the brewery with the aim of brewing “aggressive American styled beers”, happened to be in the pub at the time and confirmed the beer was dry hopped with chilis. La Perla Negra En Fuego. It warmed up a cold winter day, a bit too much chili afterburn for my tastes, but Steve later admitted it was too subtle for his tastes. “I really wanted to put twice as many chilis in”.
It turns out that the term ‘aggressive’ doesn’t really do justice to the range of brews, all unfined ‘natural’ beers. Take Vaquero, a 3.7% pale ale with meadowy hops and soft pineapple flavours that’s creamy and sessionable, not so much ‘in yer face’ as ‘down yer neck’. Apparently though, this is down to pulling the punches again – “It’s barely stronger than water” says Steve.
We visited the brewery, housed in a unit on an industrial estate in Peterborough, on a grey, rainy Sunday in March. It’s hardly an inspiring location for inspired beers to originate from. I almost expected we’d find it in a patch of piney woods and prairie that beers like ‘San Jacinto’ and ‘Seis-Banderas’ evoke.
“We’ve got work to do” he said, handing us empty pint glasses. It turned out the ‘work’ involved pouring beer, drinking beer and talking about beer. The most enjoyable was ‘Come And Take It’, a strong, bitter, hop forward IPA, hazy with Apollo hops and bursting with juicy grapefruit and sherbet.
Then came another chili challenge, taking a base beer and adding first Cascavel and then Hatch chilis, each addition lifting the beer and lingering longer on the tongue. Experimenting is at the heart of this brewery; stressing yeast to get the banana flavours in the Chocolate Covered Banana Strong Mild, investing in a smoker for the forthcoming mesquite smoked beers. There are hits and misses, such is the nature of experimentation, but this is preferable to playing it safe.
The biggest challenge seems to be convincing other people to drink these unfined beers, because unfined beers can be cloudy, and cloudy beer is apparently not always well received. This is understandable given that it can indicate bad beer, or point to poor cellarmanship. But what about beer that’s intentionally cloudy, unfined and therefore naturally hazy? To change the perception that cloudy beer is bad beer, ideally the brewer would be there at the point of sale, or at the point where a dubious looking beer is returned to the bar, to step in and explain why the beer looks like that. Which is exactly what Steve sometimes finds himself doing, overhearing feedback on his beer at festivals and in pubs, and offering an explanation as to the merits of misty beer.
Plans are afoot for Bexar County Brewery beers to be served at the Alexandra Arms and other Cambridge pubs. In the meantime, they’re due to feature at the following events:
29 March – 1 April: Green Man, Grantchester – Easter Beer Festival (Come and Take It, Chocolate Covered Banana Mild)
17 April: Meet the Brewer at The Mill, Cambridge
20-25 May: Cambridge Beer Festival