Big River Brewery is a family affair

PHARR — Steve Padilla, Big River Brewery owner, stands on an elevated platform dumping bagged ingredients into a 155-gallon stainless steel mash tun.

As hot water fills the container, he combines and stirs intermittently to avoid clumps.

The water used at the Pharr brewery is treated in a deionization tank and reverse osmosis machine, as well as with an ultraviolet light.

It’s then heated to precisely 172 degrees, and when added with the room-temperature grains, should reach the desired 152 degrees.

“At 152, I’m activating two types of enzymes: alpha-amylase and beta-amylase,” he said. “Those two enzymes are what produce long and short-chain carbohydrates. I want to get both.”

The balance produces a full flavor, he said. To brew is to control and understand the variables. It’s in this industrial beer-brewing lab where Padilla cooks his concoctions.

As he agitates the stew with a large metal paddle, he asks for constant updates of temperature and volume. Soon, they’ll test the pH level to check the progress.

“I can tell already just by looking that we’re doing great,” said Padilla, sweat soaking his brow. “So really what I’m doing on this side of the brewery is making food for the yeast that I’m going to feed later on.

“By extracting the sugars and the carbohydrates from the grains, I’m preparing that for the fermentation.”

Multiple 155-gallon tanks allow Big River to be fermenting up to four beers at a time. While Padilla works on what will be a lager, his son fills kegs on the other side of the brewery.

The brewery is a family business. Steve’s son helps his brew while his wife and daughter man the taproom. Currently, the crew brews to keep up with the needs of their taps and a few local accounts, but they expect to increase production with demand.

“It’s a full-time job,” said Bertha Padilla, Steve’s wife.

Between Steve’s jobs as a nurse anesthetist and brewer, he puts in 12 to 16 hour days.

Steve started homebrewing on his stove as a hobby five years ago while attending grad school in Pennsylvania.

“After that, I was intrigued by the process,” he said.

It wasn’t until the family moved back that they saw the opportunity in their passion.

“We realized there were no breweries in the Valley,” he said. It took 13 months to get the brewery open, which included remodeling the facility on West Nolana Avenue.

The air-conditioned taproom is inspired by similar spots the husband and wife visited — like popping popcorn for guests, which was borrowed from a Pennsylvania brewpub.

They appreciate the craft brew culture, they said, and wanted to help support that locally. There’s a small, local craft beer community, and they have to travel out of the Valley to get their fix.

The taproom gives visitors an introduction to not just brand and their beers, but possibly to the idea of small-batch beer.

“Some people aren’t familiar with what a brewery is,” Bertha said. “People aren’t familiar with craft beer and they’re used to just drinking Dos XX and Bud Light.”

They say the response has been positive, and the taproom is often full.

“It’s been overwhelming,” Steve said. “It’s been much better than I anticipated.”

It’s rewarding for the family that people are willing to try new beers, Bertha said, like the Cha Cha Blonde, Midnight Magic Stout, Walt’r Whyte Wheat or Wanderlust IPA, to name a few.

“We’re different. We’re not a corporation,” Steve said. “We’re more of a boutique … for individuals to come in and try unique beers.”