The Rise of Houston’s Drinks Scene

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Julep’s Alba Huerta is one of Houston’s fastest rising stars behind the bar. The Cajun Fig Soda is one of the seasonal cocktails on the Southern-inspired drinks menu.

An aerial view over the city of Houston can be a little overwhelming. An elaborate maze of roadways, buildings and concrete stretches for miles in every direction, and the seemingly boundless metropolis is as ceaselessly active as a swarming bee hive. As diverse as it is sprawling, Houston is home to an exquisite com- position of ethnicities and industries, a characteristic that has influenced a cultural fabric interwoven with threads of Texas heritage and a youthful vibrancy. The closer you zoom in—particularly towards the city center—the more luminous this tapestry becomes, shining through not only in its neighborhoods, but in its style, food and drink.

You’ll find it on just about any night: cocktail-parched patrons queuing up at the bar, ready to imbibe at Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge. It’s been this way since 2009, when business partners Bobby Heugel, Kevin Floyd, Steve Flippo and Morgan Weber opened the bar in the city’s ever-evolving Montrose area. At the time, Houston’s bar scene was scratching the surface of change. Quality cocktails were the driving force behind restaurant bar programs including (the now closed) Monica Pope’s Tafia and Beaver’s bar, and Hugo Ortega’s Backstreet Café. But Anvil’s opening was arguably the catalyst that ushered in a new era for Houston’s night scene.

Houston is built on the energy, aerospace and petrochemical industries, and the Port of Houston shipping channel is the leading international commerce port in the country. Such heavy economic trade has fostered one of the country’s most diverse populations, with more than 2.2 million people of widely varying ethnicities. But for years, the city’s restaurants and bars either emulated the trends of other cities, or followed the direction of larger restaurant and bar chains. Steakhouses largely ruled fine dining, until the addition of continental establishments such as Brennan’s and Tony’s, along with the creation of Southwestern cuisine through chef Robert Del Grande’s Cafe Annie (now RDG), brought the city its first James Beard Award.

In the past seven years, creative entrepreneurs—most of them Houston natives, and most making their mark before the age of 30—have combined ambition, grit and a commitment to heritage in ways that have redefined what it means to be Houston.

Instead of looking to outside influences, they’ve dug deeper into the roots of the city to help reveal an authentic identity. And while you see pieces of this in the arts and music sphere, as well as in a more richly developed restaurant scene, you’ll catch a focused glimpse of it in Houston’s cocktail, bar and coffee culture.

“What’s exciting about this time is we’re seeing a very distinct and defined establishment of proprietors in Houston who are dedicated to a specific craft,” says Bobby Heugel, a 6th generation Houstonian who started his career path at local bars such as Benjy’s and Beaver’s. Heugel is cited by many as the mastermind behind Houston’s movement, but the tireless, swift-moving 32-year-old humbly credits a generous list of colleagues and counterparts who have helped along the way. Heugel references one of his best mentors, Sean Beck—sommelier and beverage director of Back Street Café, Hugo’s and Caracol—as someone who has regularly kept him on the right track. “Sean is someone who has consistently put out some of the best wine programs in the country,” Heugel says. “He’s been around the city for a while, and understands this business. He hasn’t been afraid to tell me when I was acting up or needed to calm down about something.”

Branching Out
Just a few miles from Montrose in The Heights, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Heugel’s former Anvil business partner Morgan Weber joined forces with chef Ryan Pera to create Revival Market in 2011, a market and deli featuring house-made charcuterie. In 2014, the two extended their presence in The Heights to include Italian-inspired restaurant Coltivare. While the restaurant has received national attention for its food, the bar has managed to attract equal acclaim with its menu of classic and innovative cocktails using vermouth and Italian liqueurs, featuring drinks such as Jealous Moon, in which Fernet-Branca and Amaro Cio Ciaro meet lemon juice and a hoppy pale ale. “Italy has a huge drinking culture, but very little of it includes cocktails,” says Weber, who met Heugel while tending bar at Benjy’s. “But taking the components they produce and mixing them into a drink is a very American thing to do.”

This summer, the 33-year old Weber drew on his love for bourbon to renovate a corner gas station into an icehouse with a specific focus on beer and bourbon. Along the back of the bar, the new 8 Row Flint—named for the strain of corn cultivated by early Native Americans—features barrels of bourbon tapped to pour by the glass.

Although Weber diverged from the Anvil partnership, he and Heugel work together on the board of another concept, the Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs (OKRA), a charity saloon at the corner of Congress and Main in the downtown area, that donates its proceeds to Houston-area charities voted upon by patrons. Several dozen area restaurateurs and bar owners are involved on the saloon board, and work the bar in different shifts throughout the month.

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OKRA Charity Saloon is a one-of-a-kind watering hole where proceeds are donated to local charities. The bar has generated over $500,000 since opening in 2012.

Since OKRA’s opening in 2012, the saloon has donated more than $500,000 to charities, and the partners have flipped what used to be a run- down dance-club district into Houston’s first and only walkable bar district. There are nearly a dozen establishments within a block or two of each other, and more than half are owned and operated by partners of the charity saloon.

“What happened on that corner is one of most amazing things I’ve been a part of,” says Heugel, whose own area bar—a cleverly designed mezcaleria called The Pastry War—openly advocates for the authenticity of tequila and mezcal. “We all met and talked about which different concepts would work and who would do what at each space. We wanted all the bars to complement each other, rather than be competitive. I don’t know where else you see something like that.”

On the outskirts of downtown, Washington Avenue is home to Julep, a Southern-inspired cocktail bar owned by Alba Huerta. A former bartender at Anvil, Huerta looked to the sugar-kissed ease of Southern culture to set the tone for the bar. “Nothing hits the table that hasn’t been cared for,” says Huerta, who put together a team of creative bartenders who could carry the theme through with a seasonal menu.

At Julep, every cocktail tells a story: You’ll find a short list of rotating juleps along with drinks like the Snake-Bit Sprout, made with chamomile-infused gin (drawing on the use of chamomile as a snakebite antidote at the turn of the 20th century) and the Cajun Fig Soda, with Demerara rum and kumquat cream soda (the Southern nickname for kumquats is “Cajun Figs”).

Julep is around in part thanks to Heugel’s hospitality ownership group, The Clumsy Butcher, which works to devise business plans and focused food-and-drink programs for new establishments. But it’s only one example of how the art of quality-driven cocktail bars have taken flight in the city. Today, Houston’s cocktail selection ranges from the revitalized downtown district at Main and Congress to innovative programs at places like the Sanctuari bar at Triniti restaurant—which serves an artful array of beautifully layered, complexly designed cocktails under the direction of Laurie Sheddan—to Mike Sammons’ tongue-in-cheek Weights and Measures cocktail bar, which features cocktails like Judith’s Pho Cup, made with gin, lime, sriracha and herbs.

Drinking in the Diversity
Cocktails don’t dominate the Houston drinks scene—beer and wine have an equitable share. And when it comes to beer, some of the best spots are the most laid back.

Heugel cites D&T Drive Inn—an old 1950s ice house in The Heights, re-fitted as a drive-in style bar—as a favorite, and another local pick is Mongoose vs. Cobra. This tap room in a former grocery store and auto-repair shop was brought to life as a hip beer bar by Weights & Measures bar owner Mike Sammons. Petrol Station is another stop on the Houston beer circuit, an early pioneer of the city’s now-burgeoning craft-beer scene.

In Montrose, Kevin Floyd’s Hay Merchant opened as a way to support a passion project for authentic craft brews. A childhood friend of Heugel’s, Floyd has been a partner in everything from Anvil to the new downtown bar district. But beer has always been his love, so when the opportunity came around to partner with Houston chef Chris Shepherd to create two concepts in one building space, the direction was clear.

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Craft beer bar Hay Merchant offers a thoughtful selection of local and national brews to thirsty patrons.

Shepherd created Underbelly, a restaurant representing the diversity of Houston’s culinary fabric through a variety of ethnic influences, from Korean to German to Indian, a project that has earned him a James Beard Award. Sharing a wall and kitchen, Hay Merchant won acclaim for creating an impressive beer program.

The place is named in honor of Mitchell Louis Westheimer, a German immigrant recognized as a pillar of Houston’s early development, and who spent decades as a hay merchant. The massive wall along the bar is home to 85 taps—75 for draft beer, five for beer casks, and five for wine, cider and mead. The custom-designed beer system and intricate network of draft lines behind the wall is like something out of a mad scientist’s lab, but according to Floyd, the overall effort was worth it.

“We are stewards of a brewmaster’s vision,” he says. “We buy and serve a product directly to a consumer. We need to make you feel like you are tasting something as if you were actually at the brewery.”

Floyd also selects a limited list of beers for Underbelly, but when it comes to wine, he leaves that to the restaurant’s sommelier, Matthew Pridgeon. Pridgeon’s approach to Underbelly’s wine selection is just as focused as Floyd’s is with beer. Offering everything from Austrian Grüner Veltliner and Spanish Viura to Italian Aglianico and Texas-made natural wines, Pridgeon not only looks to a wide variety of wine regions to pair with the diversity of Underbelly’s cuisine, but also focuses on smaller, less well-known producers. “Wine is about the relationships and stories from the people who make it,” says Pridgeon. “The entire food menu includes ingredients sourced from people Chris has a personal relationship with. I wanted our wine list to reflect a similar commitment.”

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Wine bar Camerata focuses on making wine fun and approachable.

But while Pridgeon and Shepherd want the food and wine to respect the producers who make them, they also believe that wine should be fun. This is why they enlisted a local comic-strip artist, Matt Tabor, and local rap artist Bun B, to create a unique wine list that includes off-the-cuff descriptions of the wines, comical drawings of the individual characters, and irreverent commentary about wine consumption. “We’ve taken elements of fine dining and made them laid back, so it only made sense to do the same thing with the wine list,” Pridgeon says. “We have serious wines on the list, but we don’t take ourselves so seriously that we can’t have a little fun with it.”

Sommelier David Keck of neighborhood wine bar Camerata is also all about making wine as fun and approachable as possible. A longtime Houston resident, Keck often found his go-to outlet for wine in Sammons’ 13 Celsius wine bar, an early standard bearer for great wine in Houston. Keck wanted to offer guests a similarly enticing alternative to the weighty steakhouse-style wine menus found around the city. “People want to be challenged to find new things,” Keck says. “I also wanted create a program that other people in the industry could enjoy.”

The wine list includes about 125 selections with a by-the-glass list that changes daily. And as Keck anticipated, the wine bar has become a regular haunt for other wine-industry professionals who spend time at Camerata studying for professional certifications and running through blind tastings offered from the bar.

Having formerly studied opera at Juilliard and as a Master Sommelier diploma candidate for the Court of Master Sommeliers, Keck has an eye for education. He offers weekly tastings for wine-industry professionals, and hosts Saturday afternoon, reservation-only wine classes for consumers. “It’s meant to be an informal opportunity for people to expand their knowledge of wine,” Keck says. “There shouldn’t be some strange mystery shrouding the world of wine. What’s been most exciting is seeing how people in Houston really want to know more about different wines they’ve seen or heard about. Wine is picking up steam in a really cool way here.”

Home Field Advantage
Originally from South Houston, David Buehrer virtually inherited his career path in coffee after working through high school at a Cambodian donut shop owned by his best friend’s parents. When he graduated, they offered to have him buy one of the locations in Kemah, on the outskirts of town. He took them up on it. “I didn’t really make a lot of money doing it, but they taught me everything about my work ethic,” Buehrer says. “When people are going to work at 4 in the morning, you have to know how to show them a smile and get their day started on the right foot.”

Buehrer is now a fixture of the specialty-coffee scene, and he currently owns the Greenway Coffee stand in Greenway Plaza, Greenway Coffee Company and Blacksmith, in partnership with Heugel, Shepherd and Floyd. These places help satisfy Houston’s thirst for great coffee, as do establishments such as Double Trouble, which serves Greenway’s coffee in the daytime and cocktails (including frozen Palomas) at night; and Southside Espresso in Montrose, which is adding a second location in the East End later this year.

Greenway and Blacksmith helped put Houston on the coffee map, as did Catalina, a shop owned by Max Gonzalez that opened a few months before Greenway, in 2007. “I didn’t know anything about coffee,” says Gonzalez, who began planning and construction on the shop when he was 24. Gonzalez remembers finishing construction on a Wednesday and opening two days later. “I was waiting a long time for people to come,” he says. “I sold $142 worth of coffee that day.”

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Catalina Coffee owner Max Gonzalez also recently launched Amaya Roasting Company, where coffee is roasted for Catalina and other local wholesale buyers.

Today Catalina’s business is booming, and Gonzalez also launched Amaya Roasting Company, which roasts coffee from all over the world to sell through Catalina and wholesale buyers. Buehrer and Gonzalez could technically be viewed as competitors, but you wouldn’t know it when talking to them. Perhaps it’s because they both boot-strapped their way into a fruitful career, or maybe they understand how vast the Houston community is, and see a demand for good, quality coffee. But it’s likely because the two genuinely want the other to succeed. “That’s how it is for all of us who are making things happen here,” Gonzalez says. “In the past few years, we’ve found an identity. Now, it’s just the norm for bars to have a really good cocktail program, or to get good coffee easily.”

But in addition to the sheer ambition found among Houston’s talented network of entrepreneurs, Gonzalez notes that something deeper connects each of them to each other, and to the city. “We didn’t move to Houston from somewhere else. We’re from Houston,” Gonzalez says. “A lot of our friends moved away over the years, but we stayed. We all became young adults here. And we’ve made this culture what we want it to be. We made Houston our own.”

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2015 print edition.