Whiskey and Beards

A night out with an Austin legend: Drinking whiskey with the Austin Facial Hair Club

Night out with an Austin legend: Whiskey with Austin Facial Hair Club

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Members of the Austin Facial Hair Club gather on the patio of the Liberty. Photo by Guillermo Hernandez Martinez
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Whiskey drinks all around for the AFHC. Photo by Guillermo Hernandez Martinez
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Tyler Pratt interviews Alex LaRoche, Bryan Nelson and Taylor W. of the Austin Facial Hair Club. Photo by Guillermo Hernandez Martinez
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Members of the Austin Facial Hair Club head into the Liberty. Photo by Guillermo Hernandez Martinez
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Tyler Pratt and Tyler W., Alex LaRoche and Bryan Nelson. Photo by Guillermo Hernandez Martinez
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Bryan Nelson and Taylor W. Photo by Guillermo Hernandez Martinez
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Alex LaRoche says goodbye to Bryan Nelson.  Photo by Guillermo Hernandez Martinez
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Over a decade ago, in a rush to quickly get rid of my ever-growing forest of facial and body hair, I accidentally shaved off my right nipple.

In truth, I probably only nicked it. But in the years since, my mind exaggerated the incident to include torrents of blood and I've convinced myself that it was almost sliced clean off. Whatever the case, it grew back. But at that moment, standing in a towel in the bathroom of my college dorm with a blood stained razor and pack of Band-Aids, I rejected shaving and accepted my status as a hairy man.

If the '60s and '70s were golden, hairy years (for both sexes, really), the '90s and 2000s were full of smooth men with clean faces and hairless chests. And if one was cursed with unseemly growth, it was promptly trimmed or sculpted. 

Enter the Austin Facial Hair Club, a society of gentleman bound together by beards, as well as their love of beard culture and masculinity. 

Now, look around; you’re probably somewhere near a magnificent beard. Austin employers no longer implement the no facial hair rule, while once smooth UT frat boys have kept their khakis, but ditched their razors.

Both Hollywood and hipsters have embraced the beard and countless news outlets are publishing articles praising the "Lumbersexual" or declaring you need to date a hairy man. And just maybe, while home over Thanksgiving, your mother didn’t even say a word about your "unkempt face." This is the era of the bearded and furry dude.

Enter the Austin Facial Hair Club, a society of gentleman bound together by beards — each one like a snowflake — as well as their love of beard culture and masculinity. And what do manly men do when they get together? They hang out, tell stories, and drink beer and whiskey. I like all those things, especially the whiskey part. 

I first met the AFHC at this year’s Aqua Olympics, an event hosted by Fun Fun Fun Fest. The AFHC was raising money for the club with a dunk tank and by participating in a tug-of war across Lady Bird Lake. They were tough and gruff, several were bare chested and they were all looking like manly men. But one look at the AFHC members and you'll see that these aren't just any beards, these are epic creations: long, ZZ Top-esque beards that curl and wisp and look like they came from the Oregon Trail.

Intrigued, I asked a few of members to join me for, of course, some afternoon whiskey. 

The Brixton
Austin Facial Hair Club members Bryan Nelson, Alex LaRoche, Taylor W. and I are sitting around a table at The Brixton on East Sixth Street drinking whiskeys with big cubes of ice. Not only do the guys have impressive beards, all three are specifically of the ginger variety. Very gingery, actually. Taylor W.’s beard is the shortest of the three but it’s very full, with a mustache of incredible length. LaRoche has a mighty red and shiny beard, which he often shapes into magnificent curls. And Nelson has the longest beard of the three, complete with a thick mustache that hides his mouth. (I’ve since run into Nelson a few times and each time his beard takes a different form. Most recently it was in a very thick braid, like something you’d imagine on a Viking or on a Lord of the Rings character.)

"[Facial hair] is like a dog show with all the different breeds," LaRoche explains. "There’s three major categories: mustaches, beards and partial beards."

LaRoche is referring to the categories in beard competitions, which is the reason the group was originally formed. Nelson founded the Austin Facial Hair Club in 2007 with the intention of having Austin's bearded community compete in the World Beard & Moustache Championships in Alaska in 2009.

The club ended up attending — and they were a bit of hit. "We were the only state there that had a team," Taylor W. says. "We had coozies and we were cheering and screaming. We ... were drunk. We were a force rolling into this event."

"There weren’t competitions around the country back then," LaRoche adds. "They just didn’t exist. There was [only] one or two every year around the world."

But after the AFHC went to Alaska, all that changed. The guys starred on two seasons of IFC’s Whisker Wars. They were on ESPN and featured in publications like GQ, Esquire and the Wall Street Journal.

"After that [competition and TV show] there were beard teams in every town ... all over the U.S.," explains Nelson. "There are competitions every weekend."

"Probably two a weekend," Taylor W. chimes in.

"More than two per weekend," counters Nelson.

 “All facial hair is valid,” says Bryan Nelson of his personal motto. 

"Which is awesome," LaRoche continues. "It’s fun. It can be a little overwhelming [because] we don’t want to always be [traveling]. But the competitions are awesome because 99 percent of them are raising money for local charities. It’s all charitable. It’s all local. It’s just bearded guys and girls that love bearded guys."

As a team, the AFHC attends about five competitions a year. Over the years, AFHC has collected an array of awards that includes: Best Groomed, Most Magnificent, Gnarliest, Fiercest Chops and Sweetest 'Stache. They've even snagged a Lifetime Achievement award.

"There are like five or six different mustache categories based on historical figures," says LaRoche. "Dali, a Hungarian mustache, an English one. And they are all different. Either with waxing, or sticking it up a certain way. There’s also the Fu Manchu. And then with beards, it’s the same thing. Short beard, longer beard, Verdi, longer beard with styled things, like using a bunch of hair spray and flipping it out everywhere."

The list goes on.

In 2017, Austinites will experience this facial art first hand when bearded men descend upon Austin for the World Beard & Moustache Championships. The AFHC is currently scouting downtown venues for the event, working on sponsorships and building up the club. "I’ve been going to competitions coast-to-coast to make sure we are on point with the different competitions that are going on," Nelson says of the planning. 

According to Nelson, they are anticipating participants and teams from 23 different countries. "We’re expecting the most competitors ever of any beard contest in world history, 900 to 1,000 competitors and somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 spectators," he says. "We’re trying to make it free. It’s going to be insane."

They guys are beyond excited. For the bearded community, this is going to be the Formula 1 of facial hair.

The Liberty
The Liberty is only a couple of blocks away, but we all pile into a car since one of the guys will need it later. Our four red beards are packed in tightly, but the guys take the opportunity to comment on my short beard. They can tell just by looking what I use to trim it. They compliment its color and fullness and suggest I let it grow more. (I’ve since taken their advice.)

At Liberty, the guys discuss the merits of their whiskey choices. They all agree on rye, but disagree on the brands. Old Overholt, Jim Beam, Knob Creek and Bulleit are all discussed. We settle on two ginger and Overholts, an Overholt rocks, a Knob Creek rocks and grab a bench outside.

As the afternoon sun finally dips behind the building, we sit around talking about all sorts of things like the last time they shaved (2005), their favorite bars (Rio Rita, The Grackle, Yellow Jacket Social Club and The White Horse) and their jobs. LaRoche works for a Fortune 500 company that makes computer parts. Nelson is a studio engineer and owns a record label. Taylor W. is a product designer who makes bags and luggage. Each of them joke that their beards are the reason they got hired.

The conversation turns to fashion. All three enjoy a well-made pair of boots and a good pair of structured denim jeans. Despite having so much in common, they each come from very different walks of life. I ask how they become friends and am not surprised to find out it was through their beards, of course. 

"Bryan scouted me at the farmers market selling granola," Taylor W. laughs. "He was like, 'Nice mustache.' I was like, 'Thanks.' And then he goes, 'Do you wanna come to a meeting?'"

"You can usually be friends with someone that has a beard," Nelson says. "A lot of time it’ll be a guy that will be like, 'Hey! I just shaved my beard yesterday.' Or he’ll go, 'My beard used to be this big!' And then I keep talking to him about his beard. It’s an inherently male quality that people take pride in."

"I would say I’ve met hundreds of friends through [AFHC]." Taylor W. adds before turning to Nelson. "What’s your motto, again?"

"All facial hair is valid," Nelson replies.

The beard also has its perks outside of friendship. I ask if the guys feel like celebrities around town and they admit that it does have advantages. "I would say that it does help with bartenders or with going to a club," Taylor W. says. "They see hundreds of people every night, [but] the beard is visual recognition. They’re like, 'Oh you’re that guy.'"

Not to say the beards don’t have disadvantages, too. "People interchange the three of us all the time," Nelson says. "[They'll say], 'Oh, weren’t you here yesterday?'"

"I went to [Nelson's] daughter’s birthday party," LaRoche adds. "And this little girl that’s known him for her entire life tapped me on the shoulder and called me Bryan."

Taylor W. chimes in, "I’ll have full conversations with people and they’ll be like, 'Okay, see ya later, Sterling.'"

Shangri-La
After our whiskey at Liberty, the guys have to split. Nelson's off to hang with his family, LaRoche has band practice and Taylor W.’s got a date. But, I really wanted to see a full gathering of the beards, so I meet up with all the dudes a few weeks later for an official AFHC event at Shangri-La

The guys are all gathered on the back patio of Shangri-La during Labor Day weekend, grilling hamburgers, listening to loud rock and drinking draft beers. The occasion is the opening of the Six Month Beard Sprint. Contestants get clean-shaved by a professional barber in order to see who can grow the most beard by their big "Come and Shave It" Beard and Mustache Competition in February.

As soon as I walk in my question is answered. Who comes to these facial hair club events? Well bearded men, of course. But there are also mustaches, chops, smooth faces, tattooed guys, country guys, big guys, skinny guys — and ladies, too.

One girl at the hang out is running the club’s merchandise booth. She goes by the name, "Good Taylor."

"I’m one of Austin Beardettes," Good Taylor tells me. "There’s a girls part of the Austin Facial Hair Club. We make our own beards. At our competition we have two girls categories, one realistic and one freestyle. We do a lot of merch stuff, too. We also get a lot perks being in the club. We get into things for free and we get to go on trips."

And undoubtedly, the guys enjoy the female presence. But is AFHC just for straight men?

 The AFHC attracts certain types of beard and beard-loving characters. Girls and guys that may be more hardass than hipster. A crew that’s a little rough around the edges. They’re not looking for drama and just want to have a good time.  

"We have a couple of gay members which is cool," says Taylor W. "We do get Facebook messages asking if this is a [gay] bear club. We’re like, 'No, it’s just a facial hair club, not a bear club. But it’s cool if you are. You’re welcome to join.'"

In fact, years ago when the group was raising money to go to Norway, they held one of their first events at now defunct gay bar the Rusty Spur. "It was a "Bear-Lesque" party," says LaRoche. "One of our members was in a band called stABBA, which was a heavy metal ABBA tribute band. He dressed in drag. We had other folks doing drag. We’re totally open. That’s, like, the world."

So can anyone be in the AFHC? Is there any sort of perquisite?

"All you have to do is show up," says Bryan. "Hang out and participate."

The AFHC currently has about 20 active members who come to official meetings, help out at events, participate regularly and compete. "And then there's the greater club," says Taylor W. "Like, [pointing at me] you’re in the club." I gush and feel special for a second. The guys have complimented my beard on several occasions since we met.

Then Taylor W. continues, "There are hundreds. We’ve got the Facebook group. It’s funny too, because I’ll meet people who will ask me, 'Are you in the Austin Facial hair club?'" And I’ll say yes, and they’ll go, 'Me too!'"

The AFHC definitely attracts certain types of beard and beard-loving characters. Girls that may be more hardass than hipster. Guys that are a little rough around the edges. They’re not looking for drama, and they just want to have a good time. "We wanna hang out and have fun," says Nelson, summing up the sentiment. "Not deal with bullshit."

The Austin Facial Hair Club hangs out at east side bars. They drink whiskey and chug tallboys. There’s dirt on their boots and they love metal and rock. And sometimes they like to get up on stage with crazy facial hair, dress in costumes, yell at an audience, maybe eat a sausage and then hopefully take home an award. Score some bragging rights at least. The AFHC helps keep Austin weird and special.

"We’re dudes with tattoos," LaRoche says. "People that drink beer, like motorcycles, have blue jean hobbies, that’s a style of person that’s open to other cultures and other lifestyles. I think we’re all like, 'Hey you wanna have a mustache? I have a large beard. You wanna wear pink all the time? I like to wear purple.' It doesn’t matter. We’re all ... chill."

During the months that have passed since I first met the AFHC boys, I've let my beard go. It's now multicolored, long and full. It's still in an unruly stage but I'm willing to give it time. I'm a hairy man beast. A manly beard guy. "Come and Shave It," as the Austin Facial Hair Club motto says.

Let's just keep the blade away from my chest.