Austin beard culture grows thick

by Jane Claire Hervey, Olivia Starich, Alex Vickery & Elizabeth Williams

For many American men, the onset of “No Shave November” marks a time of facial hair freedom. The annual cultural trend, which began as a cancer awareness movement by the American Cancer Society, calls for a divorce from the razor in acknowledgement of one’s hairiest self. But for Austin’s habitually bearded citizenry, “No Shave November” is just another month. For these men, facial hair is perennial — and it means business.

In September of this year, a study conducted by men’s grooming company Wahl Home Products found that Austin is the seventh most facial hair-friendly city in America. Using online tools, the company’s market research determined that Austin generally has a positive sentiment toward and a general interest in facial hair. But this love for all things bearded and mustached extends far beyond Internet facial hair forums, to local beard-oriented businesses and organizations that have been active for over a decade.

 Dylan Powell of the Austin Facial Hair Club. Photo by Olivia Starich
Dylan Powell of the Austin Facial Hair Club has been growing a beard for a couple of years. He maintains his mane with beard oils and a customized comb. Photo by Olivia Starich

One such organization, the Austin Facial Hair Club, was founded in 2007 by bearded Austinite Bryan Nelson and three friends. The hairy organization first served as a means to gather a team for that year’s World Beard and Moustache Championships in Alaska. Later the club gained its own reality TV show, “Whisker Wars,” which ran for two seasons on one of AMC’s networks, IFC. Although the club’s stint on national television has since ended, Nelson still regularly hosts and participates in local and national beard and mustache competitions: in 2011, his full-bodied face-mane placed second at the U.S. Nationals for the “Full Beard Natural” category.

“I haven’t shaved in about nine years,” Nelson said.

And it’s obvious. Nelson’s beard extends down to his belt loops. Braided by his wife, the club leader’s facial hair is usually one of the longest at group gatherings. This past weekend at the Hi-Hat bar in East Austin, Nelson and other local beard enthusiasts met over smoked salmon bagels and beer for an Austin Facial Hair Club “Meat and Greet” over roasted salmon bagels and beer. Between bites, they brushed crumbs away from their whiskery mouths and exchanged stories and secrets of their trade — the conversation ranged from debating over the best mustache wax, their recent facial hair growth discoveries and their plans for the future.

“Austin’s going to host the World Beard and Mustache Championship in 2017 so, we’re getting geared up for that,” Nelson said. “Most of [the championships] have about 300 competitors and 1,000 spectators, and ours is going to be about 1,000 competitors and 3,000 spectators or more.”

Austin Facial Hair Club from Elizabeth Williams on Vimeo.

While this won’t be Austin’s first foray into facial hair competition, it will be the largest. The club has been hosting annual beard and mustache competitions for several years, and local businesses have started to take part in the fun. In August of this year, downtown bar Cheer Up Charlie’s hosted its first Wet Beard Contest, which offered a spotlight for Austin beardos to flaunt their damp whiskers. On Saturday, Oct. 22, mustache-themed establishment The Handlebar plans to host its 3rd Annual Mustache Competition. Despite the competitive element, Austin Facial Hair Club member Jeff Raye said that the community supports a friendly environment for its bearded and mustached members.

“When you walk down the street, and you see a guy with a bigger beard you just kind of give that nod and that wink to him,” Raye said. “The bigger beard gets the right of way.”

Austin’s thriving beard culture has also provided a way for beard-geared business. The Bearded Bastard, the grooming product brainchild of mustached Austinite Jeremiah Newton, began with homemade mustache waxes and beard oils in 2011. Brought on by demand from his bearded friends and local facial hair cultivators, Newton’s home project quickly grew into an online store, and he began marketing his products to a national audience. Now a facial hair authority for publications like The New York Times and Esquire, Newton travels the globe to spread his facial hair gospel.

IMG_8465
The shelves at Shed Barber Shop feature a variety of grooming products. The “Woodsman” collection of mustache waxes and oils comes from the Austin company The Bearded Bastard. Photo by Jane Claire Hervey. Edited by Alex Vickery.

“I created my company because friends wanted to buy it, [and it] just kind of bloomed from there,” Newton said. “I am just a geeky kid who likes to make beautiful things.”

When it comes to Newton and members of the Austin Facial Hair Club, beards are more than just a facial feature — they’re a full-time hobby (or in Newton’s case, a profession). But for other local beardos, growing a beard is simply a part of everyday life. Matty Reininger, bartender at The Mohawk Austin, Crow Bar and previously at mustache-themed Handlebar, said he sports a beard because his job does not require him to shave and he likes the look.

“I think most guys, especially when it comes to the Austin Facial Hair Club guys, are just so dedicated. I don’t have that kind of dedication,” Reininger said.

Matty Reininger, cartoonist and bartender with a beard. Photo by Alex Vickery
Matty Reininger, cartoonist and bartender with a beard. Photo by Alex Vickery

And Reininger is right: Growing a competition-ready beard, or even a “nice beard” by beard experts’ standards, takes some effort. To prepare for his beard battles, Austin Facial Hair Club member Dylan Powell said he has purchased special oils and customized beard combs to maintain his beard hair. As a seasoned competition judge beard expert himself, Newton said that he judges others’ facial hair by its cleanliness and shape. Websites like BeardBoard.com, a forum for facial hair diehards, provide how-to guides for beard-growing best practices. In Austin, barber shops like Shed on South First Street offer trims and cuts specifically for bearded men. One of Shed’s managers, Joseph Bellows, said that many bearded and mustached men come into the shop regularly for trims.

“Sometimes, it’s a lot easier for them to come here than to trim it themselves at home,” Bellows said. “If you cut the beard the wrong way, you could ruin the entire style.”

Although Austin has developed a niche culture around facial hair over the last decade, Austin Facial Hair Club member and former East Coast native Jared Stotz said that the city is unique for other reasons. He has found that the non-bearded community’s acceptance of facial hair makes Austin’s culture all the more special.

“Whereas in some cities where someone might kind of look down their noses at a guy who is not clean-shaven, that’s far less considered here. I go back East, I look like a freak,” Stotz said. “Going to central Maryland, either they think you’re on ‘Duck Dynasty’ or they think you’re some kind of degenerate.”

With beard competitions, clubs and businesses, Austin’s facial hair community has surely carved out its own cultural space — but it is by no means restricted to those who take it seriously.

“I support all facial hair,” Nelson said. “All facial hair is valid.”

Originally published on Multimedia Newsroom

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