Add beer and barbecue to the list of reasons to stop in the dusty little town of Marathon on your next visit to Big Bend.
Come late April, house-made beer will pour from the taps and smoke will curl from the smokehouse at the new Brick Vault Brewery & Barbeque, just a few steps down from the historic Gage Hotel.
“We felt like the marriage of beer and barbecue was just like bride and a groom,” says Carol Peterson, general manager of the Gage, which owns the new venue.
She says the Brick Vault will bring Hill Country-quality barbecue to a cactus-studded patch of far West Texas, where not a stoplight shines within 40 miles, stars pop like a candlelight behind a pin-pricked velvet blanket and tourists from Austin come to unwind. The Persimmon Gap entrance to Big Bend National Park lies just an hour’s drive to the south, and owners hope the business will give visitors incentive to detour off Interstate 10 and stay a night.
“I think people will drive out of their way for good beer and barbecue,” Peterson says. “We know the pressure is great to make barbecue that people from around Central Texas will like.”
The restaurant and brewery stand on the grounds of what once was the town’s mercantile, which dates to 1886. The store originally housed the local bank, and when the mercantile burned to the ground more than a century ago, the brick vault survived. A gas station later opened on the site, and more recently a bar called the Famous Burro operated there. The property stood empty for nearly four years, until J.P. Bryan decided to buy it.
The Brick Vault becomes the latest of Bryan’s acquisitions, which began with the purchase in 1978 of the original historic Gage Hotel. Today he also operates the 12 Gage Restaurant, White Buffalo Bar, Captain Shepard House and several restored homes in Marathon.
Bryan, a history buff and direct descendant of Stephen F. Austin, restored the hotel, built by a successful rancher named Alfred Gage. Not much in rugged Brewster County attracted visitors at the time, but when the railroad came through, development arose and ranchers needed land to raise cattle. Acclaimed architect Henry Trost, who later built hotels in Fort Davis, Marfa, Van Horn and El Paso, designed the hotel. It was built at the pinnacle of Gage’s success, but he died within a year of its opening.
Bryan wanted to continue his pattern of reflecting on the area’s historic roots with his latest project. The 3,500-square-foot Brick Vault will include a front and back patio seating area, indoor seating and a full bar. He’s working to restore the brick vault so it can be used as a smoke room. The menu will include cabrito (goat), a South Texas favorite, and pulled pork, along with items long featured on Hill Country barbecue joint menus, like beef brisket, chicken, turkey, house-made sausage, coleslaw, German potato salad and macaroni and cheese.
“We felt Marathon needed more casual dining,” Peterson says. “We want everything to be just out of the smoker.”
Barbecue will be smoked daily, sold by the pound and sold until it runs out. The secret, says pitmaster Adam Molina, 32, who comes from Texas Meat Company in Boerne, is time and love. “You’ve got to put in time and care about what you’re doing,” he says.
The nanobrewery, under the direction of head brewer Brodie Pierce, will make beer to serve on the premises; none will be canned, bottled or sold off-site. Customers will sip Captain Shepard’s Pecan Porter, named for an early Marathon resident, and Altuda Pale Ale, after a small community between Alpine and Marathon.
The brewery will make one barrel of beer at a time, focusing on styles, including some made with molasses, that died out because of German beer purity laws. Customers can watch the brewers in action through a glass wall on one side of a room filled with vats, pipes and tanks.
“We want to get people into styles they’ve never heard of,” says Pierce, 33, who started home brewing after watching the documentary “Beerfest” and went on to enter a journeyman brewer program. He steps into the role after leaving Big Bend Brewing Company in nearby Alpine.
“We want to get people interested in drinking beer that they know where it comes from. We want to do a lot of traditional German- and English-style beers, session beers that are lower in alcohol and not as hoppy,” he says. “We’re more interested in having easy drinking beer you can drink while sitting outside eating barbecue.”