Loyd Messer dresses the part of a retired farmer well: collared long-sleeve shirt covered by denim overalls and a clean Bud Light cap. The only missing parts of his uniform are the plug of tobacco under his lip and his 50-horse John Deere tractor, but that’s only because he’s doing some business in town right now. Soon, it’s mid-afternoon and Messer’s errands are finished—time for a last stop to get “one of them root beers” at Pint & Plow Brewing Co. My brother Jake and I partnered with Josh Hare to open this craft brewery, restaurant, and coffee shop last year in Kerrville, and we and our staff know Messer means a pint of our La Madrugada Porter, which recently knocked Bud Light out of first place as his favorite beer. “It was the first beer I was able to drink after my last surgery,” he says. “They poured me a little one to make sure first. I couldn’t believe how good it was.”
We don’t put much stock in consumer analytics, but it’s a safe bet that Messer represents a common customer demographic for us, at least for certain parts of the week. As one local official recently told me in confidence: “Kerrville has more deaths each year than births. It’s a popular place for people to die.”
The median age of Kerrville is 48 with roughly 50 percent of the population composed of retirees. By contrast, Austin’s median age is 32 and retirees make up approximately 10 percent of the population. But simply calling Kerrville a “retirement community” doesn’t quite capture the full reality; it requires more direct language. And that’s why, when we first pitched the idea to open a craft brewery here, people who don’t live in Kerrville were quick to use some of that direct language. “It might work in Austin, but it won’t work in Kerrville,” they said. “Try Fredericksburg…or Boerne.”
“Any idea new to this town will get that response,” Bridget Symm says with a laugh. Symm is a fellow Kerrville resident who owns Bridget’s Basket, a vegetable farm with a brick-and-mortar store that also sells meats, cheeses, breads and artisan foods and goods from local producers. She also grew up here. “Kerrville has always resisted change and development,” she says. “Kerrville doesn’t really give a flip about what’s cool or trendy in other places, so the rest of us sort of have to make our own cool, based on what we know.”
To a high school kid growing up here, this was a bummer. But this is the exact reason why Kerrville has maintained a relatively robust and active economic culture through every regional and national downturn in its history. And also why it accepts the good of outside influence without sacrificing its soul to do so. Kerrville is a rock.
Yet, like many of our seemingly sleepy Hill Country towns, present-day Kerrville seems poised on the edge of two fronts. One system, a taproot of our western roots, is driven by independent and passionate people whose connections to one another are creating powerful lightning bolts of innovation and creativity. The other, rolling from the urban centers, rumbles in with new ideas, styles and interests from outside sources. In some places, this collision of systems has been a perfect storm for violent development that disturbs the native culture and supplants it with a sterile copy of a formula developed from corporate headquarters in another state.
“We see more and more people visiting from other places,” says Melissa Southern of the Kerrville restaurant Rails Cafe, a long-time local favorite. “Those visiting from cities or other places often come with a more developed craving for a farm-to-table offering, because that’s what they’re used to.” But Southern’s motivation for seeking out local ingredients has never been to impress the out-of-towners. “The reason we prefer sourcing local ingredients is because they taste better, are fresher, more nutritious and look better on a plate.”
One of the best places to source that freshness is the Kerrville Farmer’s Market. People come to the market to catch up on local stories, ask about relatives, talk with growers and people in the local food community, buy fresh foods and connect in one of the last remaining ways that doesn’t involve a screen. One of those market-goers is Josh Raymer of Bakery JoJu, just up the road in Fredericksburg. We met Raymer while connecting with other local producers who provide fresh meat, cheese and produce to our brewery’s kitchen. “I love coming to the market,” says Raymer. “There are so many passionate people that live out here, doing amazing things. In other places, they’d be rock stars, but out here, they don’t care about that. They just prefer to quietly perfect their craft, without the distractions of attention.”
Raymer sees rock stars in people like Shawn and Shelly Sattler of Sunshine and Honeybee Farms, who grow heritage varieties of wheat in Doss, roughly 40 miles north of Kerrville. Raymer met them at the market and explains that he and his longtime acquaintance and fellow market-goer, James Brown of Barton Springs Mill in Dripping Springs, were looking for farmers willing to grow older and non-Plant Variety Protection (PVP) varietals of wheat. “It was the human interaction at our market that brought these adventurous souls to us,” says Raymer, “and now Shawn and Shelly have planted three test varieties that will hopefully be bread and seed wheat for the future.”
These connections keep the community tight, but we all know there’s a wolf at the door. Tourism has become big business in the Hill Country, and Kerrville isn’t exempt. According to the Kerrville Chamber of Commerce, California is the second most common state of origin for those visiting Kerrville from other towns (the first is Texas). But Kerrville hasn’t yet been witness to the explosive booms seen in neighboring Fredericksburg and especially Boerne—where “Boerne, R.I.P.” bumper stickers can be found on older ranch trucks just like Loyd Messer’s. And this is the heart of the uniqueness that Kerrville seems to possess: the ability to stand conservative, independent and steadfast, but also welcome new ideas, concepts and businesses into the fold without making too much of a fuss about it. It’s the reason we can successfully produce and sell craft beers here and enjoy farm-to-table cuisine in many places around town; the reason that no one bats an eye at The Vinegar Joint that sells wellness vinegar tonics and elixirs; and the reason an upscale fashion boutique was able to open downtown—ideas that might be categorized as trendy in any other part of the country, but here, it’s just neighbors working. “I like to think of Kerrville as a pioneer community,” says Kelley Slagle of The Vinegar Joint. “It’s refreshing to see a place not inundated with copies of a single idea.”
As we enter our second year as the first brewery in Kerrville’s history, the challenges have transformed into a sturdy welcome mat. In a town of less than 25,000, we have almost 2,500 likes on Facebook; we’ve hosted baby showers, engagements, birthdays, staff meetings and soccer parties within our walls. There are regulars—young and old—who come in to either the coffee shop or the brewery five days a week—thanking us for giving them a place to go and for providing something that Kerrville “badly needed.” At any given time, openly gay couples, Presbyterian ministers, bikers, hipsters, tea-sippers and beer drinkers commune together under one Kerrville roof. In towns all around us, the winds of change are picking up—will this rock hold? Our bets are on yes…in Kerrville’s own unique way.
By Jeremy Walther • Photography by Max Walther