Welcome to Tempest’s series on Austin’s craft beer scene. In this first installment, I profile brewpubs that I visited during a recent stay in Austin. Part 2 (here) moves on to breweries, including Texas’ only saké brewery. Part 3 (here) features taprooms and bottle shops in the Austin area.
**Austin is a sprawling city. If you’re going to explore its beverage culture, please be sure to drink responsibly and bring along a designated driver.
Spend more than a half a day in Austin and chances are good that you’ll hear all about the “hundred people per day” moving to town. Several major companies have established national or regional headquarters in Austin, including Dell, Apple, eBay, Google, Texas Instruments, and Whole Foods Market. Between 1990 and 2012, Austin’s population nearly doubled. It won’t be long before Austin cracks the Top-Ten list of the United States’ largest cities, if it hasn’t already.
Not all residents are equally enamoured of this influx of people, though. Some Austinites have adopted the unofficial slogan, “Keep Austin Weird,” as a means of signaling their support of eclectic local businesses against the tide of commercialism and development that has accompanied Austin’s astounding growth.
One of the more obvious side-effect of Austin’s rapid development is the traffic. According to some residents with whom I spoke, the traffic gets worse, seemingly by the day. Public transportation appears to have been an urban planning afterthought as Austin has stretched out to incorporate surrounding exurbs, to the point that the city is now firmly among the top five most-congested urban centers in the United States.
(Why am I dwelling on traffic? Well, I spent quite a bit of time in it during my five days exploring Austin’s vibrant – and sprawling – craft beverage scene. And unless you confine yourself to sampling Austin’s craft beers at one of many well-provisioned taprooms, chances are you will, too.)
Rapid population growth on the one hand, and staunch support of unique local businesses on the other, have combined to unleash the perfect storm for craft brewers and craft beer enthusiasts alike. (A world-class university and several other institutions of higher education don’t hurt the demand for craft beer, either.) As Austin booms, so does its craft beverage scene. From well-curated bottle shops ensconced in Citgo gas stations (of all places!) to brewpubs that serve up the perfect marriage of barbeque and craft brew, Austin has something for most every craft beer devotee.
And did I mention the excellent lagers and spicy German-style wheat beers? (In case readers of A Tempest in a Tankard haven’t noticed, I’m a fan of these kinds of beers.) Austin is the de facto lager capital of Texas, with pilseners and Munich-style lagers that could rival those of any northern Midwestern state. Austin is also the home of Texas’ only saké kura.
Notes on Method
Before diving into this Austin User’s Guide for the Craft Beverage Enthusiast, a few caveats and notes on method are in order. When I put out the call to friends for suggestions regarding taprooms to visit and brews to sample, I received a deluge of tips. Now, drinking your way through Austin in five days is a tall order for anyone. So if a brewery, beer, taproom, brewpub, or bottle shop is not listed in this spotlight, it does not signify a vote of non-confidence. It might be because my schedule of appointments did not match with that of a particular brewery, or a brewery/cidery might have closed for the season. (I was in Austin during the third week of December.) So much to try!
Aside from brief mentions of the culinary options available at brewpubs, I don’t go into too much depth on food – much as I love making and eating the stuff. (Check out a few of my recipes I’ve posted under Tempest’s Food/Drink heading, if you haven’t already.) As for prices, they change regularly and are readily available from a given establishment’s website, so I won’t dwell on them unless they warrant attention.
If you’ve just landed in Austin, the best way to get a handle on the local beverage scene is to go in search of the Austin Beer Guide. Two things make this quarterly publication worth seeking out: it’s available in hard-copy print format, something that’s all too rare these days; and it’s free. Coverage is excellent, with maps and brief write-ups for craft beverage establishments in Central, North, South, and Greater Austin. Each issue offers roughly eighty to ninety pages of entertaining scene-related articles that’ll keep you turning the pages while you wait for friends at the bar. If you needed further evidence that Austin is a mecca for lovers of Central European-style beers, check out Austin Beer Guide’s five-page feature, “Lagers are for Lovers, (Fall 2013 edition), and the “Best of 2013” segment in their Winter 2013 guide. Editors’ Choice for Best Overall Beer? Real Ale’s Hans’ Pils. Best Brewery honours? Live Oak Brewing Co., known beyond the borders of Texas for its stellar Hefeweizen.
Brewpubs abound in Austin, with a range of food offerings to fit many tastes and budgets. North by Northwest (NXNW) is among the more upscale of the brewpubs I visited, and is housed in an angular brick-and-iron building meant to evoke Pacific Northwest mountain lodges. Fireplace warmth provides a cozy respite from cooler winter days, while patio seating lends itself to sunshine and refreshing beers. NXNW receives acclaim not only for its beer but for its food menu. In addition to the ubiquitous brewpub pizzas and sandwiches, NXNW serves up dishes such as basil arugula salad, grilled bacon-wrapped quail, and cedar-planked salmon. The tap selection is a compelling study in contrasts, with head brewer Kevin Roark’s sour, barrel-aged, and hoppier brews providing a counterpoint to master brewer Donald Thompson’s Central European-inflected beers. (For a more in-depth look at NXNW, see my “North by Northwest: Fine Food to Accompany Beers Novel and Classic.”)
Also in northern Austin – and in a pocket of town replete with restaurants and taverns – Pinthouse Pizza serves up award-winning beer and satiating pizza in a convivial atmosphere. The bench seating is communal, so order a pint and a pie and strike up a conversation with the party next to you. If you’re a hophead, you’re in for a treat: beers tend to favour the fruit of the bine. Try the Bearded Seal Dry Irish Stout if a richer, malt-accented brew featuring roasted barley, café au lait, and dark chocolate aromatics is more to your taste. You can’t go wrong with any of the pizzas. All feature ingredients like ricotta, artichokes, artisanal sausage, fresh oregano, Kalamata olives, poblano peppers, cherry tomatoes, and the like.
South of the river and just off S. Lamar Blvd. sprawls a beer garden barely six months old but packed with patrons inside and out. The location may be new, but the folks behind Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. (The ABGB) are legendary veterans of the Austin and Texas beer scene. Brian “Swifty” Peters and Amos Lowe left their marks on Live Oak and Uncle Billy’s before eventually teaming up on The ABGB. Of the beers I sampled during my five days in Austin, Peters’ and Lowe’s ales and lagers were among the most harmonious and nuanced. Always ready with a pithy quip, Lowe explained their philosophy to me thus: “We’re not trying to rip your face off with hop bitterness.” Peters’ affinity for lagers speaks for itself. The Industrial Pils is his brew house daily drinker. Munich-style lager? Hell Yes! Just like sipping from a Maß in the shadow of Munich’s Frauenkirche. Tasty food, too – although I did find myself longing for a Bratwurst or Weisswurst to go with my lager.
Not far away on Barton Springs Road, Uncle Billy’s Brew and Que pairs an old Texas standard with the recent Texan turn to craft beer. Who can say no to beer and barbeque? I ordered up a creamy Swiss cheese-accented Mac and Cheese to accompany my quarter pound of brisket served with a Texas peppercorn sauce and a brown sugar-balanced habanero sauce that, mercifully, did not wreck my palate. Before tucking into the food, though, I made sure to sample their delicate Humbucker Helles and Rock of Ages Pils. The standard-issue pale ale and IPA stood up well to the food, but the smoky roasted malt notes and sarsaparilla-like aromas of the Lovecraft Belgian-style stout really shone alongside the meat and sauces. Situated just across the river from the downtown core, Uncle Billy’s makes for a convenient lunch stop.
*Don’t see your favourite brewpub among the ones I profiled? Click on the “Leave a Reply” button located at the top of this post and tell us about it.
*Next up: breweries and taprooms in Austin.
Austin City Limits: vegnews.com
Austin Beer Guide: austinbeerguide.com
NXNW: Photo courtesy of Kevin Roark
Pinthouse Pizza: Franz D. Hofer
The ABGB Beer Board: The ABGB Facebook page
Uncle Billy’s: Franz D. Hofer