On Saturday, my main focus at the Austin Food and Wine Festival was the wine, but that wasn’t the only boozy beverage at Butler Park.
There were also cocktails, cider and beer, all three of which were the focus of separate panels on Sunday: "In True Texas Spirit," "Hard Cider Buzz" and "Inside Craft Brewing: Malts, Grains and Hoppy-ness" (the last two were part of the Austin Food and Wine Alliance’s excellent programming). Between the three of them, a clear theme emerged: local artisan products should continue to be celebrated.
Tipsy Texan David Alan led the cocktail talk at noon and served up two summer drinks with seasonal ingredients — a sangria with cubes of watermelon and canteloupe and a mojito with watermelon slices. These helped to support one of his arguments that cocktails, like food, are seasonal, so don’t order vodka cranberries in the middle of July. Beyond that, he explored how we define what a Texas cocktail is, something he covered in his 2013 book "Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails from the Lone Star State" and in events like this year’s Austin Food and Wine Alliance’s Official Drink of Austin. It’s going to have "heat, bold flavors, smoke"; it’s going to be influenced by the Mexican, Southern and Southwestern roots we have. It’ll have ingredients like melons and Rio Star grapefruit.
And a Texas cocktail, unsurprisingly, will often feature spirits made right in the state, a characteristic that wasn’t even really possible until a few years ago, when distilleries began following in the considerable footsteps of Tito Beveridge, the founder of Tito’s Vodka (which last year sold a million cases — a feat that no other Texas spirits company is on target to repeat). Today, Alan said, Texas has more than 50 licensed distilleries.
"Spirits that do well here have a sense of place," he said, citing Balcones Distilling, a whiskey maker, in Waco. Other state distilleries worthy of our support, he said, include the Hill Country’s Garrison Brothers and Ranger Creek in San Antonio.
Apples and pineapples
Wes Mickel of Argus Cidery revealed at his panel in the Austin Food and Wine Alliance tent that the cidery has gone beyond making the dry apple ciders it’s become known for. About a week or two ago, Argus released a limited amount of Tepache Especial, a sparkling pineapple wine comprised of only two ingredients — pineapples and yeast.
"There are not a lot of apples in Texas," Mickel said, adding that last season’s harvest had been rough. "Besides that, beyond grapes, apples and grains, there isn’t much else used to make alcoholic drinks so we wanted to experiment and see what we could produce."
The result is, as my friend Caroline aptly put it, "a wild margarita, fruity and salty. If yeast could make a margarita."
Tepache is a traditional Mexican beverage made out of the flesh and rind of pineapples. The fruit isn’t native to Texas, but even though Mickel is having to bring the pineapple in from Costa Rica, it’s helping the cidery expand its range and production capabilities. Argus is also looking into creating an agave wine, a ginger ale-like drink that Mickel is considering putting into a can.
Qui’s Justin Elliott helped to bring tepache into the local spotlight when his cocktail showcasing the pineapple beverage (along with Balcones whiskey, honey syrup, mint and other ingredients) won the Official Drink of Austin competition in February. But Argus Cidery, with its bottled tepache, is the first U.S. company to make and sell the drink commercially.
Where does the malt come from?
A final panel in the Austin Food and Wine Alliance’s tent featured Blacklands Malt, the first and only independent malthouse in Texas, and the breweries that have started making beer with Blacklands’ locally made malt, including Jester King, Black Star Co-op and Hops & Grain.
Blacklands’ founder Brandon Ade said the idea for a Texas malthouse first popped into his head when he asked himself the question, "Where does the malt come from?" Craft beer is made at its most basic level using only water, yeast, malt and hops, and it seemed to him that the malt, at least, could be grown not far from where the beer is created.
Starting up the Leander malthouse had its challenges — getting area farmers on board to grow the barley, an unproven crop, was tricky, especially when they lost half the crop this year — but Ade has already seen success at getting the barley malted, then sent off to local breweries that add it to their beer. He’s been teaming up with Texas A&M to test some of the world’s barley varieties and see if they’re palatable with Texas soil and climate, a project that has so far yielded more than 800 varieties.
But Blacklands will only continue to grow if people care about having locally sourced ingredients in their beer. Black Star’s Jeff Young, Hops & Grain’s Josh Hare and Jester King’s Garrett Crowell sure cared. All have been careful to use Texas-made ingredients when possible (Black Star, for example, adds Good Flow wildflower honey to High Esteem, the co-op’s American pale ale, and Jester King spontaneously ferments its beers to pick up whatever yeast is in the air, rather than what’s cultured in a lab) and were immediately interested in trying Blacklands malt.
Young said Black Star’s had beers with the local malt on tap for about three months and already sparked customers’ interest. "People absolutely care and understand what it means to have this malt in their beer," he said. "When we tell people we buy grain from a local maltster, brew it here and give a local rancher the spent grain for his cows, it’s something that goes full circle, and they really like that."
Hare added that even though something might be local, Hops & Grain won’t get behind it unless it’s good quality — and Ade’s malt is top-notch.
"You can taste the richness of local malts," Young said. "All of it’s very fresh and rich."
Both Blacklands and Argus Cidery accepted grants from the Austin Food and Wine Alliance to pursue these projects.