Welcome to Tempest’s final post in the Austin craft beer series. In this segment, I unveil my “Tankard” ratings so you can easily find both the finest beers and purveyors of those brews when you visit Austin. If you’re looking for more specific aspects of Austin’s vibrant scene, click here for brewpubs, here for breweries, and here for taprooms and bottle shops.
Austin is awash with fermented beverages, which can make drink decisions both intriguing and intimidating. For the purposes of this segment, I’ve decided to suspend my usual injunction against ranking beers so that you can get a sense of which beers stand out from what’s already a very solid field.
One of the reasons I’m wary about introducing rankings and ratings to my beer features and brewery profiles is because even though I recognize the value of ratings in certain cases, I’m cognizant of the extent to which environment and other factors exert a sometimes imperceptible influence on my perception of a beverage. None of the ratings I offer here is cast in stone. If I were to try all of these beverages blind or under otherwise different circumstances, I might reach conclusions that are at odds with my initial impressions. (It’s happened before – label and brand expectations can play an unconscious and often underappreciated role in our judgment and evaluation.) Sampling a horizontal flight of, say, Pilseners from a variety of producers will affect my perception – and hence my evaluation – in a different manner than if I were drinking them in isolation, or alongside a number of styles. If I were to taste a beer, wine, saké, or spirit today as a component of a structured tasting and then drink the same beverages tomorrow as an accompaniment to a memorable dinner shared with close friends or family, my impressions may well diverge in subtle but potentially significant ways: Same beverage, different locale and different time of the day.
Tankards, Tankards, and More Tankards
With those caveats aside, I offer my tankard system in place of more common rating systems. Rather than trying to include every beverage I sampled during my stay in Austin, I’ve devised a rating system that highlights what I think are among the best beers, breweries, brewpubs, taprooms, and bottle shops a city or region has to offer. Since I’m not particularly enamoured of reducing aesthetic pleasures to numbers, I’ve ruled out numerical rankings. Instead, I’ll award “tankards” to some of the beverages I evaluate. Not unlike the Michelin star system used for dining establishments, only the most impressive beverages receive tankards.
A few points:
1. I’ve heard great things about several brews from Austin in particular and Texas in general. If one of the generally-accepted standouts is not listed here, it’s either because I haven’t gotten around to trying the beer yet (the most likely scenario – the Jester King Atrial Rubicite resting in my cellar is a case in point), or because the beer wasn’t in season (I was in Austin in early winter, and missed some of the weightier beer releases), or because the beer didn’t deliver on its reputation (which is not beyond the realm of possibility).
2. If a beverage does not receive a tankard, this does not necessarily indicate that the beverage is subpar. Now, if I were to include a catch-all category comprising all of the beverages that receive no tankards, this category would include drinks ranging from run-of-the-mill to quite good. In other words, if someone at a barbeque or dinner party offered me a beer at the higher end of the range, I’d have no problem tipping back my glass.
3. Occasionally, breweries, brewpubs, and taverns find their way into these listings if they merit a special trip.
4. With the exception of breweries, brewpubs, taprooms, and bottle shops, listings are in alphabetical order.
5. Entries with an asterisk (*) represent beverages I’ve tasted in a place other than at the brewpub or brewery – usually at a taproom, sometimes in the comfort of my home.
How Does It All Shake Out?
- One tankard: A very fine beverage. A cut above and a few ounces taller than other beverages.
- Two tankards: An excellent beverage. Worth searching out, preferably at its place of production or, if that’s not possible, then at a taproom or liquor store.
- Three tankards: Exceptional. An absolute aesthetic pleasure, one that blends the Kantian sublime with Proust’s literary account of aromas and the gustatory delights of Babette’s Feast. A beer that could find a place on any hypothetical Top-25 list I’d concoct.
Flix Brewhouse. Brambler Sour. Barrel-aged for fifteen months; blackberry purée added prior to kegging. Broadly in the Flemish red style, with bright sour cherry, horse blanket funk, wood notes, and a vinous character reminiscent of Cabernet Franc. A mild nutty caramel note counters the sour pepper-lemon flavours, while a buoyant cherry/blackberry acidity predominates throughout.
Jester King. Boxer’s Revenge. Farmhouse/Wild-Fermented Beer (aged in whiskey and wine barrels). Sour caramel, allspice, and pine needles. Rich and citrusy palate with pungent oak-Brett. At 10.2% ABV, watch out for this sour beer’s left hook.
*Live Oak. Hefeweizen. Sampled at The Brass Tap, Round Rock. Fine example that does a good job of walking the clove/banana tightrope, but a touch light in the mid-section. More malt richness would make this a stellar beer.
*Real Ale. Hans’ Pils. Pilsener. Canned. Clean, crisp, and dry; an austere northern German-style Pils with that characteristic bitter hop note the Germans call “herb,” which combines dry, bitter, astringent, herbal, and spicy into one difficult-to-translate flavour/sensation package.
Rogness. Tenebrous Stout. Raspberry Seasonal. Rich but restrained; harmonious integration of fruit, malt, and yeast character.
Uncle Billy’s. Humbucker Helles. A Munich Helles featuring bready malts with a mild toast accent. Rich and full-bodied, with soft notes of citrus and grassy hops rounding out toasty and fine-grained malt.
North by Northwest. Brewpub. Compelling diversity of traditional and experimental beers, with food and ambience to match.
Sunset Mini Mart. Bottle Shop. A local institution and an absolute gem, especially considering that it’s nominally a Citgo gas station convenience store.
The ABGB. Industry. Pilsener. Hops are a quiet force in this beer, floral-perfumed and spicy. Well-rounded on the palate, with a dry, crisp finish.
*Argus Cidery. 2011 Bandera Brût. Sparkling Hard Cider. Cinnamon-spiced apple with prominent, hay-like Brett character, and pleasantly acidic.
Jester King. Ol’ Oi. Sour Brown Ale/American Wild Ale. Rich, complex, and with great depth. Combines caramel with aged balsamic vinegar notes.
*Real Ale. Sisyphus. Barley Wine. Bottled. Extended Tempest review here.
North by Northwest. Holiday Ale. Grab one when it’s released, but hold onto it for a few years. The best ones I sampled had one to two years of bottle age. Three years out and the beer develops interesting Oloroso sherry notes.
Craft Pride. Taproom. Excellent selection of beers from Austin and from Texas more generally. And that’s it. But this is not a bad thing, especially with several dozen taps dedicated to the finest Texan beer. Knowledgeable serving staff. Great woodwork. Be sure to check out the well-curated bottle shop next store.
Jester King. Brewery and Taproom. The hype is much-deserved. A predominantly sour and wild-fermented lineup that is both well conceived and well crafted. But you probably already knew that. Side note: Great flat-crust pizza next door at Stanley’s Farmhouse Pizza. Maybe you didn’t know that.
*512. Pecan Porter. Sampled at The Brass Tap in Round Rock. What’s not to like about rich and buttery pecan-maple accents in a well-crafted smoky porter? Roast notes and creamy coffee on the palate, balanced by a vivacious mineral carbonation. Finish is as long as a total eclipse is black.
The ABGB. Hell Yes. Munich Helles. Rich but crisp and refreshing; clean bready malts with a touch of honey and a subtle grassy minerality. The embodiment of finesse.
*Austin Beer Works. Sputnik. Coffee Imperial Stout. A Texas stand-out. I had mine at Craft Pride. Freshly-ground coffee aromas, Tia Maria, dark caramel malt, and an infinitely chocolaty rich roast on the palate.
The ABGB. Beer Garden/Brewery. Exquisitely balanced beers, whether lagers or hop-forward and higher-ABV offerings. Urban beer garden with an amicable vibe; beer hall with a spare, industrial-warehouse aesthetic.
If you’ve been to Austin, what stands out for you? Feel free to share your favourite beers, breweries, brewpubs, taprooms, and bottle shops by clicking “Leave a Reply” above.
Austin map: www.tourtexas.com
Pewter tankard: www.germansteins.com
Tempest’s tankard: F.D. Hofer
Pinthouse Pizza: F.D. Hofer
NXNW: courtesy of NXNW
Jester King brewhouse: F.D. Hofer
The ABGB beer garden: theabgb.com