How Texas’s Famous Pitmasters and Brewers Are Helping the State’s Restaurant Workers
In Texas, few things are as iconic as barbecue and beer. Barbecue is a long-loved tradition in the state, and a spat of documentaries and national press has made stars of smokers and pitmasters over the past couple decades. On the beer front, Texas went from just a handful of craft breweries in 2009, to just under 200 around 2015, to more than 340 by 2019. Texas breweries new and old have received a steady flow of brewing awards from America’s largest annual beer competition and festival in recent years.
Still, the state’s barbecue restaurants and breweries have struggled this year amidst the pandemic, just like the rest of the food and drink industry. Forced closures and capacity restrictions made an already small profit margin smaller. Meat shortages raised beef prices on crucial classic cuts, while breweries faced so many sales restrictions and shut downs that, by July, a survey of brewers found that two-thirds of Texas breweries didn’t believe they could stay open through the end of 2020, according to Eater.
In short, Texas’s thriving barbecue and beer culture is facing just as much of a turning point as the rest of the hospitality industry. But that hasn’t stopped some of the most prominent names in both from leading the way in survival and recovery for businesses and, more importantly, the people who keep them running.
“It’s been a challenging few months, and the fight isn’t over, but we see a light at the end of this tunnel.”
James Beard-award-winning chefs Aaron Franklin and Chris Shepherd recently partnered with Houston-based Karbach Brewing Co. to raise funds for the Southern Smoke Foundation with a beer that pairs well with barbecue called Horseshoe Pils. The money will go to restaurant worker relief to help the industry in Texas as a whole.
“Giving back has been part of Karbach’s DNA since its founding in 2011, and as soon as the pandemic hit, we started looking for ways to give back,” says David Graham of Karbach. “We originally set out to brew Horseshoe Pilsner with inspiration from Aaron Franklin for his annual Hot Luck Festival, but when March rolled around, we decided to add a donation element and bring Chris Shepherd in to support the Texas hospitality industry via Southern Smoke.”
Southern Smoke is an emergency relief fund that Shepherd started in 2015 to raise money ($763,000 to the MS Society) for his friend Antonio Gianola after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 2017, Southern Smoke focused on helping those in the food and beverage industry after Hurricane Harvey, and eventually gave $501,000 to 139 people. During COVID-19, the organization has donated more than $3.4 million to more than 1,800 people at the time of writing.
Shepherd and the Southern Smoke team have continuously risen to meet the crisis of the moment.
“The industry needs this organization,” Shepherd says. “It’s not an option to get worn down. We have an incredible team — that’s grown exponentially since the COVID crisis started — and my job is to keep them motivated. And to make sure they have access to their own mental healthcare, as our case workers are dealing with devastating situations every day.”
Karbach is raising money to help the state’s restaurants survive, but the idea for a barbecue-perfect beer started before anyone had an idea that 2020 would be marked by a global pandemic. Franklin and some of the Karbach team were chatting over a drink when they decided to make a Central Texas, German-style pilsner for Hot Luck, which is Franklin’s food festival.
The idea for the beer had a philanthropy arm from the start. That’s where Franklin’s connection to Southern Smoke came in. He’s cooked at the Southern Smoke Festival every year since 2015 and has donated $10,000 to the emergency relief fund. Karbach has raised $200,000 for philanthropy with past beer sales and hopes to raise $100,000 for Southern Smoke through Horseshoe Pilsner.
Contributions to the emergency relief fund couldn’t come at a more necessary time for the industry. When asked about how the events of 2020 will change the Texas barbecue community, Shepherd’s first response is that it’s “hard to say.”
“Without sufficient help from the government via the Restaurants Act, every independent restaurant in the country is in danger of closing,” Shepherd says. “Southern Smoke provides as much assistance as we can, but we don’t have the funds to help every independent restaurant in America survive.”
The fund is one way for the barbecue community to help the entire restaurant industry, but it’s not as if barbecue is immune to the challenges of 2020. Beloved barbecue spots like Red Barn BBQ, a Mexican-influenced spot in McCallen, Texas, have been forced to permanently close. Other barbecue spots have pivoted away from their brisket-first reputation (likely because the cut has become prohibitively expensive) and service styles to stay open.
When COVID-19 sickened workers at meat-processing plants early in the pandemic, costs for certain cuts of beef and pork shot up. In some parts of Texas, beef rose by $2 a pound in a week, according to Austin Monthly. Barbecue spots were forced to raise their menu items or provide something different entirely. Places like Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ incorporated cheaper cuts like chuck roast, lengua, and tripas to the menu, while InterStellar BBQ found pulled pork, chicken, and turkey as more affordable options, and Barbecue by John Mueller turned to smoked meatloaf and sausages like boudin and chicken poblano.
As Austin Monthly notes, the approach harkens back to the Czech and German butchers who preserved meats through smoking and whose influences came to define Central Texas barbecue.
A few barbecue restaurants have found ways to thrive during the pandemic despite all odds. Roegels Barbecue Co. in Houston quickly found an audience for takeout family meals, according to Texas Monthly. Giving back seems like the barbecue way across the state. Roegels donated hundreds of meals to Methodist Hospital and Memorial Hermann hospital early in the pandemic.
Texas breweries have made a strong effort to help, as well. Weathered Souls Brewing started a beer collaboration with breweries around the world called Black is Beautiful, with proceeds going to organizations that support racial justice and equality.
“The hospitality industry is the backbone of our society here in Houston, as it is throughout our country,” Graham says. “It’s encouraging to watch the communities here in Texas work together to support those in need, and it inspires us to continue our mission to give back in any way we can.”
It’s fitting that beer and barbecue, both of which have so influenced the concept of Texas dining, is helping lead the charge to help one of the industries most impacted by COVID-19.
“If there’s anything this past year has shown us, it’s that the Texas beer and barbecue communities are strong and can persevere through just about anything life throws at us,” Graham says. “It’s been a challenging few months and the fight isn’t over, but we see a light at the end of this tunnel where we can all come together again and enjoy some nice Texas barbecue while cracking open a cold one.”