First in a series.
At the advent of the modern craft beer age (the late twentieth century for the younger readers), small independent brewing was a relatively simple business. Passionate brewers made good beer, then hoped to sell just enough to afford to make more good beer. If they were ambitious, they carved out a little space in the hot, industrial warehouse used for brewing for a few tables or a small bar to entertain loyal patrons and called that their “taproom.”
Admittedly, nothing has ever been simple or easy about the Texas brewing industry. However, the commercial model itself was fairly basic, and little different from many other small businesses: Create a singular product (beer) and then sell that product. New challenges and complications seemed to arise almost every year, from zealous state lawmakers to predatory national competition to strongarm corporate distributors. Yet even with the struggle to thrive commercially, the bones of the business of brewing remained the same for quite a long while; it essentially became only a question of scale, of how large your brewery could (or wanted to) grow.
Jacob and Lindsay Sloan epitomized this small business model when they opened On Rotation in East Dallas in 2015. “We built the first taproom to be a place to discover craft beer,” says techie-turned-brewer Jacob Sloan, “an approachable bar where we could feature our own beers alongside craft beers from other locals and beyond.” As its name implied, they were focused more on the experimental and experiential side of craft beer than mass production, providing almost a live brewing laboratory environment for a constantly changing menu of creative small-batch brews.
“We’ve found that having food gives us an increased ability to showcase the depths and breadth of flavor beer can offer.”
However, the craft beer business model itself seems to be changing, with an almost forced evolution these past few years accelerating the plans of some brewers to take bold opportunities for greater potential gain. Savvy brewers have always worked to maximize their facilities for the benefit of mutual commercial interests, with small merchants, amateur artists, local bands, charities, food trucks or yoga instructors sharing space when available. More than even local commercial bars, craft breweries embraced the “pub” (public house) ideal of community business and social centers.
“We quickly found that there was a greater appetite for our own beers than we expected,” says Sloan, now with several successful years under his biz as the North Texas craft beer market flourished. “When we ran through the logistics and numbers, it made more sense to move into a new location rather than stay in our [original site]. We essentially outgrew the space and started looking in early 2019 for a new home where we could grow.” That new home would be the newly christened Braniff Centre adjacent to Dallas Love Field, a high-end development for mixed-use retail, dining and entertainment.
On Rotation’s path is not unique, as several other area craft breweries are also in the midst of major expansion plans. What is now different than years prior is that the growth is not simply one of extending space and brewing capacity but re-conceptualizing what a local-to-regional craft brewery can provide beyond the original sales model. Full commercial kitchens and upgraded taprooms are almost always an immediate add as new revenue streams; including formal music venues and branded retail swag allow for even further commercial opportunities; expanded barrel-aging or even in-house distillation programs are also becoming popular.
Jester King Brewery mastered this idea when they opened in the rural Hill Country outside of Austin in 2010, that of the brewery as destination. Saint Arnold Brewing did the same with their cathedral-themed restaurant overlooking the Houston skyline at their expansion in 2018. Craft brewers now looking to “level up” must do more than just more-of-the-same with larger tanks, larger warehouses, larger taprooms, larger distribution footprints. They must offer the full package of drink, food, entertainment and soft tourism. Consumers no longer want just a quality craft beer while sitting at the bar—they want an all-afternoon family experience.
Newly opened this past summer, On Rotation (now formally On Rotation Brewery & Kitchen) seems to have done just that with the nod of a handful of 2021 Best in DFW People’s Choice awards from The Dallas Morning News. Sloan has taken his neighborhood beer lab into a fast-casual beer/dining experience: “We’ve found that having food gives us an increased ability to showcase the depths and breadth of flavor beer can offer, and we plan to dive deeper into that as we expand our beer dinner and pairing program.”
The result is stylish, modern and comfortable with an open-concept brewhouse sharing the main space with a colorful background mural. Plenty of patio space is available out front (unfortunately facing the parking lot and not the airport; would be nice to watch planes take off and land). But the nearby aviation presence is acknowledged with unique table tags resembling international boarding passes that include links to food and drink menus. The kitchen currently specializes in fried chicken dishes featuring a gluten-free crust and scratch-made sides, which allows Sloan to dial in some light, tropical and floral beers for pairing.
On Rotation’s original DNA is still perceptible in this new spot, now more urban gastropub than production brewery. The small batches may be larger and easier than they were originally but the new place is still authentic to its model while offering more by way of products and services, environment and ambiance. The right kind of growth and progress can be a very good thing.