Photos by Gina Turner
People who drive past the Lake Conroe dam can’t see B52 Brewing from the highway, but it’s likely they’ve heard about it. The brewery and biergarten, tucked away on six-plus wooded acres within shouting distance of Highway 105, is quickly becoming a phenomenon in the local area and beyond. “People venture from all over the world to come and hang out with us,” says Marin Slanina, general manager.
B52 Brewing was the brainchild of Ron and Pam Daniel, who have owned property on Milroy Lane for many years. As the story goes, the couple’s sons, Chad and Brent (and daughter-in-law, Jessica), moved to Costa Rica and took their hobby of brewing craft beer with them. To entice them to move back to Texas, Ron and Pam offered their property for use as a craft brewery. How the business got its name is a tale that varies according to who is doing the asking and telling. What everyone seems to agree on, Marin says, is that the B52 bomber represents American power and greatness, and seemed like a fitting symbol for the business. B52 Brewing opened to the public in 2014.
On most Mondays and Tuesdays, B52 Brewing is relatively quiet except for a steady hum of activity in the brewhouse, where a small crew tends the production of several varieties of craft beer. On Wednesdays through Sundays, however, when the brewery is open to the public, the B52 staff works diligently for several hours to prepare for guests. The Postcards team recently visited B52 Brewing, where we got an insider’s look at a typical day inside the wooded enclave. We also got a quick peek at the process of brewing craft beer, although no secrets were revealed.
Wednesday, 2:00 p.m. – B52 employees start hours ahead of time to prepare for the arrival of as many as 1,200 visitors. Their goal, Marin says, is for guests to have a pleasant, enjoyable experience “from the second they step out of their cars.” Staffers start at the most remote spot on the property, which is also the first place visitors will see. The brewery’s two-acre parking lot can accommodate 150 cars; however, heavy spring rains have been unkind to the crushed granite surface. Employees level the parking lot the old-fashioned way, with shovels and rakes.
3:00 p.m. – Each day that the brewery is open, its website, b52brewing.com, is updated by 3 p.m. so guests can browse the latest menus. At any one time, B52 Brewing has from 30 to 40 different beers on tap. The selections change continually, so menus are updated accordingly. Craft beer, made in small batches, often bears little resemblance to the mass-produced beer that can be purchased at grocery and convenience stores. B52 Brewing embraces this artisanal tradition, providing distinctive brews that vary as much as the Texas weather. A day’s menu might include “I Thought Hurricane Season was Over,” (a beer conditioned with passionfruit, orange, lime, and vanilla beans), or its India pale ale (IPA), which is reminiscent of simpler times and is therefore named “Before the Internet.” Always on tap is owner Ron Daniels’ favorite, “Breakfast Stout,” which is conditioned with oatmeal and whole coffee beans.
4:00 p.m. – By now, employees are tidying the brewery’s vast, wooded biergarten, which is equipped with 50 picnic tables and 40 barrels, all shaded by pine, oak, and sweetgum trees. Staff members ensure tables and chairs are in place, and also check to make sure that games—such as tetherball, cornhole, ping pong, and life-sized Jenga and Connect 4—are ready to be played. Meanwhile, the felines on staff are doing their job, too. Seven “brew cats” roam the acreage day and night, ridding the property of mice, snakes, and other pests that might be attracted to the grain kept on site. “They’re my favorite teammates,” says Marin, who has years of experience in the food, beverage, and sports entertainment industry.
4:30 p.m. – It’s time to tackle the restrooms, which are kept in pristine condition. Marin is particularly proud of the new, multiple-stall restrooms that, in a previous life, were a shipping crate. Wood floors, walls, and doors give the restrooms a comfortable Texas look.
4:45 p.m. – Employees begin setting up the bars in the taproom and on the patio, making sure everything is clean and ready to pour. The merchandise wall is spiffed up, arcade games are turned on, and an eclectic mix of music begins to play. Today, as is typical, the mix is what Marin calls “chill music,” but music sometimes suits the theme of the evening. For example, Celtic music is played on St. Patrick’s Day, polkas are played during Oktoberfest, and Cinco de Mayo features music from south of the border.
5:00 p.m. – Guests, some with growlers in hand, gather to sample the “Off the Wall Wednesday” brew. “We release a new beer every single Wednesday,” Marin says. Justin Slanina, creative director of brewery operations, masterminds the brews, which are announced on B52’s website each Monday. “One keg, one keg only” is made, Marin says. “When it’s gone, it’s gone and will never come back.” Off the Wall Wednesday beers are conditioned on a variety of ingredients, from Froot Loops® to Oreos, from toasted marshmallows to maple syrup. Flavors that are particularly popular may be incorporated into other beers at a later date. Some of each Wednesday’s brew is canned, as are new Friday releases. (B52 Brewing released over 100 new packaged beers in 2018 and hopes to surpass that record in 2019.)
Beyond 5:00 p.m. – The 30 to 40 beers on tap are served to customers by certified beer servers, or cicerones. Much like sommeliers, or wine stewards, cicerones are trained to enhance the beer-drinking experience of their patrons. “Please trust us,” Marin says. “We educate ourselves so we can educate our guests.” Although beer is the beverage of choice for many guests, B52 Brewing also makes its own non-alcoholic root beer and lemonade, which is popular with underage guests.
A food vendor (one of a rotating list of 50) is on site each day the brewery is open. Vendors offer a variety of entrées, including pizza, tacos and hamburgers, as well as more exotic food. Guests are encouraged to purchase entrées from food vendors, although they are welcome to bring special occasion cakes with them.
Many guests are fond of the taproom, where oak barrels of beer are seasoned. “The room was actually created for the barrels because they need a climate-controlled space, but humans like the same climate,” Marin says. The indoor taproom is open on Wednesdays through Sundays. The patio bar is available on Fridays through Sundays; if the weather is beautiful, trivia games, held every Thursday, are moved to the patio, with service at the patio bar. Even during hot weather, guests enjoy the biergarten. “We get a gust of wind and it’s very pleasant,” Marin says.
B52 Brewing has earned a remarkable 4.8 star average from Google reviewers, who praise not only the craft beer, but also the friendly, knowledgeable staff. Many reviewers also compliment the wooded setting and relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere. One reviewer states: “Best brewery in Houston. Best brewery in Texas. Absolutely love this place. The beer is amazing.” Another agrees, saying: “You must experience this place!”
B52 Brewing is open on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m., on Fridays from 3 p.m. until 11 p.m., on Saturdays from 12 noon until 10 p.m., and on Sundays from 12 noon until 8 p.m.
A day in the life of craft beer
While giant breweries mass-produce beer, craft beer is brewed in small batches. “Craft beer is making beer fun again,” Marin says. “You can try things, you can tweak things, you can adjust things instead of brewing the same thing over and over. We are a manufacturing plant, but it’s small, it’s unique, it’s creative, and it gives us an outlet to have a lot of fun.”
The popularity of craft beer has exploded in the past five years, she says, a phenomenon she attributes to the change in brewing laws. Unlike the brewery licenses of yesteryear, brewpub licenses—which craft breweries can obtain—allow breweries to create and sell beers without individual label approval. This means that craft breweries can tweak their recipes in multiple ways without having to send each beer to a lab for analysis, create a custom label, and then send it to Austin for approval. This one-size-fits-all labeling enables B52 Brewing to “create a beer, put a label on it and go,” Marin says.
Justin, who has six years of brewing experience, oversees the production of beer seven days a week. Although each beer is different, all start in the same way. Wort (made from water and sugars) is made in 20-barrel tanks. Two tanks of wort are made, and are then transferred to 40-barrel fermentation tanks, where yeast is added. The yeast consumes the sugar and excretes carbon dioxide and alcohol. B52 Brewing reserves one of its 40-gallon tanks for the brewing of pilsner, its flagship beer. The brewery also has 10-barrel fermentation tanks for making smaller batches of beer.
The possibilities are seemingly endless. Hops is added to some brews while hot to give the beer a bitter flavor; it is added to other brews when cold. Fruit is sometimes added, too. While some beers are aged in stainless steel tanks, others are aged in barrels. Even the barrels add character to brews. Some previously held whiskey, giving the “Bourbonator” (a barrel-aged doppelbock) its memorable flavor; B52’s special Cinco de Mayo brew was aged in barrels that previously contained hot sauce.
“Stagnicity and being complacent is the root of all evil when it comes to craft beer brewing,” Justin says. “The progression and evolution of our liquid is a constant and ongoing process in order to create a superior product and experience.” His favorite beer, he says, is the next one.