You're never far from a beer at South by Southwest, and many brewers in the U.S. and beyond are eager to contribute sponsorship to parties and showcases, meaning a discounted - if not free - malted beverage is close at hand. Nothing wrong with that. We all like to feel privileged now and then. But sometimes you need a really good beer, a craft or micro, and those aren't nearly as easy to find. We've got you covered. Here are our picks for the five best beer bars in Austin, with a bunch of other worthy contenders listed on page 5. We'll start downtown and then venture away from Red River and Sixth streets, where the whole world is congregating right in front of the club you're trying to get into. Give up and go get a beer.
The Ginger Man
301 Lavaca St. 473-8801, www.gingermanpub.com.
Right about when you were waiting for your flight home last year, the Ginger Man - my favorite bar in the known universe - moved out of its home of 15 years on Fourth Street to a new location less than a block away. Yet another victim of downtown development. Then that development project got put on hold on account of the economy and what-all. Until the project is front-burnered again, a music venue called the Ghost Room is in its place.
The new place has a lower ceiling, and we'll never stop missing those big old trees in the old biergarten, but the two most important things have survived the move: lots and lots of beer - 81 taps, three more on cask, loads of bottles - and an expert staff that can quickly assess your taste profile and point you to something interesting, whether it's a Texas beer or something else. Do NOT walk into this Mecca of great beer and order a Bud Light or you'll be the punch line to a joke you don't know you're making. Special note: They've got music day and night from March 17-20, with a Dogfish Head showcase March 19. All St. Arnold, Brooklyn, Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada beers will be $4 outside, with a portion of the proceeds going to Blue Dog Rescue.
604 Neches St. 477-1268, www.myspace.com/lovejoys.
Inked, pierced and fond of that noisy 'rock and roll' all the kids adore, Lovejoy's is the punk rock sibling in Austin's family of beer bars. I haven't seen the coffin that served as a table in there for quite a while, which is unfortunate - resting your beer on that thing made it feel like you were living a scene out of 'Angela's Ashes.' But Todd Henry is brewing good beer; go for a 604 Stout if you're feeling adventurous. And they've got dozens of taps. Located just a few steps off Sixth Street, it's a bleeding godsend if you can't stand the thought of another mass-market beer before the next showcase or day party.
Uncle Billy's Brew & Que
1530 Barton Springs Road. 476-0100, www.unclebillysaustin.com.
Craft beer and barbecue - there's a good chance you won't want to leave once you're there. Brian Peters is one of Austin's most experienced and highly decorated brewers (go ahead and ask him about his gold medal at last year's Great American Beer Festival; he won't mind) and they have a few guest taps to spotlight other local breweries. On a recent visit, Peters' Wood-Eye Rye IPA and Baltic smoked porter were nothing short of outstanding. Smoke in your beer, smoke in your food. Yeah, let's never, ever leave this place.
Draught House Pub & Brewery
4112 Medical Parkway. 452-6258, www.draughthouse.com.
If you can find the Central Market on North Lamar Boulevard, you can find this place, and you'll be glad you did. It feels like an English pub with better beer, thanks to brewer Josh Wilson's homemade offerings and enlightened tap choices. Regulars love to tailgate in the parking lot and make an evening of it. And Wilson will be tapping his Shamrock Stout, with a Guinness pint glass giveaway, for St. Patrick's Day. He's also got a knack in getting hold of very rare beers, so prepare to be delighted and surprised. Oh, the name of the place? It's pronounced "Draft House." We think.
Flying Saucer Draught Emporium
815 W. 47th St. 454-8200, www.beerknurd.com.
Yeah, so it's a chain. Just a little north and east of the Draught House, the Saucer offers just over 70 taps, 140 bottles and fetching young lasses fetching your beer. Plus they've got, as far as I know, the only Randall Tap used regularly in any Austin bar. It's basically a sleeve filled with hops, blood oranges, whatever, through which your beer runs to give it an extra blast of flavor. Hauling out the Randall is not, alas, an everyday occurrence, so if that's what you're interested in seeing, call ahead. On Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. you can get a 23-ounce beer for the price of a pint.
Other great places for beer: A non-definitive sampler
• Whip In
1950 S. Interstate 35. 442-5337, www.whipin.com. What started as a convenience store now has beer on tap, growlers to go, food from India and greater South Asia and plans for its own brewing operation later this year.
• Zax Pints & Plates
312 Barton Springs Road. 481-0100, www.zaxaustin.com. About 20 beers on tap, lots of locals, and a menu that includes hand-cut steaks, stellar burgers and more.
• North By Northwest
10010 N. Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360). 467-6969, www.nxnwbrew.com. Ty Phelps makes really fine beer at this Northwest Austin restaurant and brew pub. Like Wilson, he's got a stout going for St. Pat's and you can buy a growler to go. The décor is Pacific Northwest, and the food is good enough to ruin you for standard pub grub forever.
• Billy's on Burnet
2105 Hancock Drive. 407-9305, www.billysonburnet.com. Billy Forrester was a trailblazer in bringing good beer to Austin. If Burnet Road is too far for you, try Crown & Anchor or the Dog & Duck Pub. At Billy's, go for the buffalo blue burger and a good beer.
• Alamo Drafthouses
Various locations. www.drafthouse.com. You might be there anyway for SXSW events; why not check out the draft and bottle beer menu? The Lake Creek location has the most extensive selection, but you'll find something good at every one.
• B.B. Rover's Café & Pub
12636 Research Blvd. 335-9504, www.essentialaustin.com/bbrovers. Inconveniently located nowhere near where you probably are, B.B. Rover's nonetheless has arguably the most exhaustive beer list in town, with close to 300 offerings, the majority of them in bottles.