If North by Northwest conjures up images of swooping crop dusters and dazzling chases across Mt. Rushmore, you might be confused by the name of this elegant brewpub in a city famous for South by Southwest. But fear not. After a few beers, you’ll forget all about Hitchcock and the festival. Nestled amid chic-industrial corrugated iron grain silos, North by Northwest (NXNW) is housed in a sleek brick-and-iron structure meant to evoke far-away mountain lodges. Acclaimed by Austinites and visitors alike not only for the beer but for its food menu, North by Northwest recently took home Austin Beer Guide’s 2013 “Editor’s Choice Best Brewpub” award.
NXNW has been a fixture of Austin’s food and beverage scene for over a decade, but energetic founder Davis Tucker’s craft beer history stretches back even further. His first sip of German pilsener in 1984 marked a point of no return, and shortly thereafter he teamed up with another pioneer on the Texas brewing scene, Donald Thompson. Together with Thompson, whose erstwhile Reinheitsgebot Brewing Company in Plano bore the distinction of being the first microbrewery in the Southwest, Tucker established the Copper Tank Brewery before heading northwest of the city center. NXNW’s current offerings bear the traces of this history, with brew master Thompson’s Central European-style lagers and wheat beers occupying a prominent place on the menu.
Today, Kevin Roark tends to the daily brewing operations and crafts recipes that have been taking NXNW in new directions. Roark was bitten by the brewing bug during his college days at UT Austin, but it wasn’t until much later that he satisfied his desire to brew professionally. While out for a walk with his wife one afternoon in 2007, Roark looked into the abyss of an unfulfilling career in computing and had an epiphany. With his wife’s encouragement, Roark decided to jettison the comfort and security of his job and put his previous bar-managing experience to work at NXNW. Roark was again ensconced behind the bar, picking up volunteer shifts at the brewery when he could. Head brewer since 2010, Roark has overseen the development of NXNW’s sour beer and barrel-aged beer program.
As I imbibed the cozy wood-fired ambience of the brewpub, I couldn’t help but appreciate the productive tension between NXNW’s “old” and “new” beer styles. Contrasting and yet eminently complementary, Thompson’s Reinheitsgebot-inflected approach and Roark’s brews inspired by the wilder mysteries of fermentation provide the perfect backdrop to a good-natured debate over a few pints. Aficionados of lagers and hefeweizens can draw on NXNW’s well-crafted Central European styles to attune their hop-enamoured friends to the merits of nuance, while the lovers of lupulus can counter with boldly flavoured offerings before everyone moves on to the sours and barrel-aged beers.
NXNW’s founders have a long-held affinity for the northwestern regions of the U.S. and Canada, an affinity apparent in the names of some of NXNW’s flagship beers. Northern Light is a rich and bready lager spiced with Saaz hops, and Okanogan Black started life as a Schwarzbier (German-style black lager) before its reincarnation as a maple and brown sugar-scented ale. Spelled Okanagan in Canada, the First Nations name refers to the semi-arid lake region straddling British Columbia and Washington State.
Barton Kriek, NXNW’s ode to cherry lambic, hews closer to home with its play on the seasonally flowing creek that wends its way through the Austin hill country. Released twice per year in conjunction with American Craft Beer Week in the spring and Austin Beer Week in the fall, Roark’s Kriek has already garnered a bronze medal at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival, and a gold at the 2012 World Beer Championship.
The Duckabush Amber, Py Jingo Pale (the name of which recalls Jack London’s The Call of the Wild), Bavarian Hefeweizen, Okanogan Black, and Northern Light are the stalwarts, but Roark gets to indulge his creative streak with the seasonal offerings. Autumn hails the Cactus Jack prickly pear saison, and the soon-to-be-tapped Hey Joe strong coffee stout provides a suitable antidote to a steel-skied January day. Next up on the sour calendar of offerings is Nighthawk, a bourbon barrel-aged black ale aged with raspberries.
The Barton Kriek may have been tapped dry by the time of my December visit, but seasonal cheer flowed freely enough after Roark poured a flight of four Holiday Ales. If you’re able to find a recent vintage and can hold onto it for awhile, your patience will be rewarded. Black cherry and dried fruit overlay the malt aromas of the newest of these barley wines (2013). The 2012 edition reprises the fruitiness, but also exhibits a richer and more delectably creamy malt and toasted toffee profile. With a subsequent year of age (2011), the beverage takes on the earth and mushroom tones of aged saké and develops rich caramel notes. Four years out, the 2010 edition echoes some of the flavours and aromas of the previous three years, but with a pleasant Oloroso sherry character.
NXNW plays host to a full slate of monthly and seasonal events. Cask Night kicks off at 7 P.M. on the last Monday of every month, and usually features seasonal brews with a whimsical twist. St. Paddy’s Day always provides an excuse for a pint or two, and NXNW’s family-friendly celebration won’t disappoint fans of cask-conditioned Irish Stout. Not surprisingly, Oktoberfest is an annual tradition at NXNW. Big tents adorn the parking lot, housing beer booths, food booths, activities for kids, and a stage for live Bavarian-style music. Part of the proceeds go to local charities, typically a dog rescue or cancer research group.
And what’s great beer without a little food to wash it down?
Roark and chef George Powell collaborate regularly to devise food and beer pairings for their quarterly brewer’s dinners, a fixed price menu featuring four or five courses matched with an equal number of beers. I’ll let Roark take over with his enticing suggestions while I go fix myself some lunch and pour myself a drink.
One of my favorite pairings is the Kodiak IPA paired with our bacon wrapped quail appetizer. It’s a jalapeno and goat cheese stuffed quail wrapped with bacon and grilled, then served over golden raisin rosemary polenta and balsamic reduction. With our IPA or Pale Ale it is absolute perfection! Our current seasonal Cactus Jack (prickly pear saison) pairs well with the seared Salmon salad with mangoes and whole-grain mustard vinaigrette. For entrees, you can’t go wrong with the grilled rib-eye topped with garlic butter and served with bleu cheese scalloped potatoes paired with the dark yet hoppy Darkside Cascadian dark ale. I also really like our bourbon barrel-aged Blackjack paired with our Chocolate Torte. Barton Kriek also goes really well with the bittersweet chocolate pecan terrine with sun-dried cherry and chocolate sauce.
Sound tempting? I’ll say.
North by Northwest is located at 10010 Capital of Texas Hwy North, Austin, TX, 78759. You can view their beer and food menus here.
In light of recent legislative changes in Texas, NXNW will be able to offer its beers beyond its walls. They have installed two 15-barrel bright tanks dedicated to servicing distribution needs. The plan for now is to distribute kegs to local bars and restaurants, then to expand to bottling or canning for retail. NXNW’s sights are set on Austin and the surrounding community, but wider distribution isn’t out of the question.
Images courtesy of North by Northwest and Kevin Roark.