Rick Engel likes to be first.
He opened Houston’s first brewpub since Prohibition in 1994, after Texas law changed the year before and permitted them. In February, after Texas law was altered again last summer allowing brewpubs to distribute, his Uncle Billy’s Brew and Que on Barton Springs Road was the first brewpub in the state to start sending its beers to other bars and restaurants.
Now Uncle Billy’s is undergoing massive expansion of both the restaurant and brewery, with the goal of more than doubling brewing capacity through a shiny new brewhouse system. Engel also wants to expand accessibility of the brewpub from Barton Springs, a highly trafficked road that becomes a walker’s thoroughfare during events like Blues on the Green and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, so Uncle Billy’s recently added an indoor and outdoor bar with 24 extra taps.
The renovations are supposed to be done by September, at which point Uncle Billy’s current brewers — brewery consultants Brad Mortensen and Hans Johnson — will start to churn out more beer. The Humbucker Helles and the Green Room IPA have slowly started showing up in cans and on draft around town, primarily at one of Engel’s other bars, Little Woodrow’s, but also at Craft Pride, the Whip In and Chicago House. With the expansion, about 40 more places will be able to carry Uncle Billy’s beers, and the brewpub will produce more beers for its own tap wall as well.
“We hope to reintroduce the brand,” Engel said, noting that in addition to those changes, the brewpub will add an indoor stage for live music (there’s always been one outside), and a revamped menu will include smoked seafood, everything from shrimps to scallops.
“Maybe even smoked hummus because you can smoke just about anything,” he joked.
Uncle Billy’s is also gearing up to start a collaboration brew with Christine Celis, daughter of Pierre Celis, whose Celis Brewery in the early 1990s kickstarted Austin’s craft brewing industry. She’s bringing the Celis name back to the forefront with her own brewery — her father, overwhelmed by his brewery’s success, had sold it to Miller in 2000, which ultimately shuttered it — and in the meantime she has begun collaborating on making beers with other local breweries. With Uncle Billy’s, she’s helping to brew an Austin Java Coffee Porter, the first batch of beer that will be made using the new brewing system. (Austin Java is another one of Engel’s businesses.)
But most important to Uncle Billy’s is that the brewpub continue to create good beer. Engel said that when he began to plan the brewhouse expansion, which will almost triple brewing capacity from 2,000 barrels a year to 5,000, he stumbled across Mortensen and Johnson’s brewery consulting business, Grain to Glass. They “help breweries take their businesses to the next level,” according to a press release, and that was exactly what Engel wanted. While Uncle Billy’s searches for a new head brewer, someone who’s worked at a brewpub that’s been distributing, the two guys have taken over the brewing program, bringing back some old Uncle Billy’s favorites and figuring out the best way to use the new system.