ROWENA — In the middle of cotton fields and a parched West Texas landscape sits a local watering hole where locals and others congregate the first Saturday of every month.

Horny Toad Brewery is fittingly nestled into Rowena, a town settled by German and Czech immigrants in the 1800s. This place that uses a quaint old gas station as its brewery, doesn’t bring in just the local folks, but people also make the drive from Abilene and San Angelo on that first Saturday of the month. The brewery has live outdoor music, food that is by donation only and everyone brings their lawn chairs to enjoy the day together.

Not even brutal Texas heat can chase many away as they sit outside listening to various musicians play. The music ranges from blues to country and everything in between. In this setting, the musicians form the backstop for the brewery, adding an element of energy to the atmosphere. The ice cold beers on tap cover the range of flavors from Irish reds to ambers and stouts. Many of the beers are sold in restaurants around west Texas, but nothing compares to sitting outside with a couple of hundred of your best friends and enjoying the smooth, rich flavors the brewery has to offer.

While temperatures continue to soar in the afternoon, the owners, Mike and Diane McNeill, along with a couple of helpers serve cold brew at the bar inside. The atmosphere inside is more relaxed than the atmosphere outside as a baseball game plays on the muted television and people sit and talk around the handful of tables. Mike is a quiet, cerebral man who cares deeply out his beer and the people who come to purchase it.

An army veteran, Mike McNeill points out the change a war can have on you. “Sometimes, events happen in your life and make you think of your life as before the event and after the event,” he said. “That is what my time in Iraq signifies; my life before Iraq and my life after Iraq. Without Iraq, I wouldn’t have started this brewery.”

McNeill started brewing beer at home in 2000 but had dreams of opening a brewery. “Almost everyone wants to go pro, no matter what it is you’re doing,” he said. “Making the leap was a big deal.”

Not only did McNeill “go pro” in 2012, he did it in true Texas style by creating a successful business through hard work and ingenuity along with a healthy dose of trial and error.

“I’m pretty sure that I was the first one to brew a mesquite bean beer,” he said. “It took a lot of work on the recipe and when I finally got it right, another brewer called me for advice on it. Brewers are a tight knit community but there are some things that are a lot of work and you want to keep them to yourself. Brewing mesquite bean beer is one of those things as it involved a great deal of trial-and-error.”

McNeill brews his beer 217 gallons at a time in three tanks named Blanche, Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie Parker was a native to Rowena and part of the crime spree she and Clyde embarked on in the 1930s involved Clyde’s brother, Buck, and his wife, Blanche.

The buildings used for the bar and brewery consist an old gas station and the attached tire shop. When McNeill decided to open the brewery he looked for locations in San Angelo. “The prices in San Angelo were too expensive,” he said. “Diane is from here in Rowena and one evening we were taking a walk and I saw this old gas station was for sale. I asked Diane if she knew the owners and she said ‘I used to babysit for them.’ We contacted them and bought the place.”

Fittingly, the brewery sits across the street from a short cemetery-style monolith that is engraved with, “Here lies our liberty, April 28, 1911.” Legend has it that there is a beer bottle and wine bottle buried underneath it because in 1911 Runnels County voted in prohibition, long before the nationwide ban that came nine years later in 1920.

McNeill had to get federal and state permits and it was a full year before he was brewing beer to sell. His dogged pursuit of success resulted in several unique and popular varieties that include his taproom best seller, Concho Cream Ale, along with the aforementioned Mesquite Bean beer, Kickapoo IPA, Pump Jack Porter and Angelo Amber Ale. His part-time job as a brew master became a full time job when he had to quit his job on Goodfellow to run his brewery.

“I thought that I’d do this part-time until I retired but it really surprised me how well it took off. After three years I had to make a decision so I started brewing beer full time,” he said.

His beers are carried by the local steak house, Lowake Steak House, along with a number of top-notch restaurants in San Angelo and other areas.

Approximately 300 people visit the brewery the first Saturday of every month, nearly doubling the town’s population. As a testament to McNeill’s hard work at building a business and perfecting beer flavors, the place is packed with customers at 3 p.m. on this particular Saturday afternoon. The temperature threatens to reach triple digits and many people are in-doors shying away from the daunting West Texas heat, except for those hearty souls at one old gas station that has become the hub of beer and entertainment in this map-dot West Texas town boasting a population of 483.