Gunslingers weren’t uncommon in the saloons of Johnson City in the early 1900s. “The realtors told us there were bullet holes, but we didn’t believe them,” says Garrett Crowell of Nice N Easy, a new taproom housed in one of the oldest buildings in Johnson City. “Then we took the mortar off and found that they were aiming high!”
Situated just off Johnson City’s main square, the building is steeped in local legend. The current structure was built in 1917, and although tax records date the earliest liquor license on the site to 1908, there are rumors alcohol was served here as far back as the 1870s. “The stories depend on whom you ask or what you read,” Crowell says. “It was a rough part of Texas back then.” There’s even a tale of a 12-year-old LBJ and his friends tucking into “medicinal” wine on the premises during Prohibition.
Crowell and his partner, Adrienne Ballou, along with couple Margot and Matt Piper, bought their very own piece of Hill Country history in October 2020 and have spent over a year delicately restoring the place. They have been friends for almost a decade, having met via their roles at Jester King farmhouse brewery in Austin. Crowell was formerly head brewer, Ballou ran the fruit refermentation and barrel program, Matt was operations manager, and Margot volunteered. In 2015, Crowell and Ballou left the bustle of Austin and moved to Johnson City, where Crowell created Yokefellow Brewing; and Ballou signed on as a winemaker at Southold Farm + Cellar and founded her own label, Lightsome Wines. They teamed with Matt and Margot, who works at an environmental nonprofit, to realize the idea of combining the pleasure of slower-paced living and sustainable, terroir-focused beer and wine production.
The quartet undertook their renovations with care, determined to restore and preserve as many of the original features as possible. “It’s been a process of undoing the Band-Aids and duct tape that have been holding the building together over the last 100 years,” Matt says. Carefully peeling back layers of chipped plaster and rotten wood, the team have unveiled stunning original details, including repurposed pine shiplap and handmade terra cotta architectural brick from D’Hanis Brick & Tile Company in San Antonio. Whether the Saltillo tile, the thin brick from Texas-based Elgin Butler, or Texas pecan slabs from Berdoll Sawmill in Cedar Creek, Nice N Easy’s rehab emphasizes locally sourced materials that complement the building’s original features.
“We worked off the color palate that was already here,” Ballou says. “Earth, stone, red dirt, blue sky, pecan.” The team calls the style “desert adjacent,” reflecting what Crowell describes as “the landscape’s long, slow transition zone from semiarid chaparral to arid desert that begins at the edge of the Hill Country.” The result is a pared-down space with a charm both old and new.
A sense of place is at the heart of Nice N Easy. It’s apparent in Yokefellow and Lightsome’s rotating seasonal beverages. Crowell launched Yokefellow with the goal of making “easy-drinking beers of companionship.” His sophisticated low-ABV lagers, saisons, and pale ales have found a niche in the crowded Central Texas beer market among discerning drinkers, many of whom have been eagerly awaiting a formal outlet for Crowell’s otherwise word-of-mouth offerings. Ballou founded Lightsome to showcase Texan-grown grapes including Mouvedre, Muscat Blanc, and Touriga Nacional, filling a gap in the market for wine lovers seeking an authentic expression of terroir. With a food menu equally focused on simplicity, featuring feel-good favorites like chili dogs and Frito pie, visitors can kick back after a hike at Milton Reimers Ranch Park or Pedernales Falls State Park and taste the essence of the Hill Country.
“The community here is amazing and supportive,” says Ballou, recounting how Mark Smith, owner of Mark Smith Studio Gallery, taped encouraging notes to their door after each renovation. Smith is excited about Nice N Easy. “Their respect of the historic site and their handsome remodel are sensitive and well designed,” says Smith, who also helped the team taste test their recipes. “For months I watched them working so hard, often way into the night, and now I have my very own Cheers across the street.”