“Yeast are humongous contributors to flavor.”
Listening to Matt Smith talk about the science behind the beer we drink, I am instantly reminded of my freshman biology class in college. The packet of notes he has provided to me and the rest of the informal class only reinforces that impression, with scientific jargon like “eukaryotic,” “anaerobic” and “flocculation” jumping from the page and jumbling in my head.
But it’s not your typical science class. Smith is talking behind the bar at Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden, and other Banger’s employees sit attentively in tall chairs in front of him, tasters of beer scattered along the bar top.
Behind him, an intimidating wall of wooden beer taps — the largest draft selection in Austin with just over 100 options — offers practically every style of beer you could want. Another employee bustles around it as he talks, pouring, over the course of the nearly two-hour period, a veritable earthy-toned rainbow of brews so that we can taste what Smith is talking about.
Live Oak Hefeweizen. Upslope Craft Lager. Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale. By the end, I have a renewed appreciation for beers I’ve had before, some of them multiple times.
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This Beer College class, as Banger’s calls it, is just one of the many ways the Rainey Street bar develops and deepens the staff’s knowledge of the beer they tap. Many employees, like Smith, have also become immensely passionate about it all.
In a way, they have to be. With so many beers pouring, about 15 to 20 of which rotate out each week, the Banger’s staff has a lot to keep track of — but that’s all so Austin’s ravenous beer drinkers can enjoy some of the best beers out there, from a dependable Real Ale pilsner to a harder-to-find barrel-aged oatmeal stout from Firestone Walker. Helping a customer find exactly the right beer, Smith says, makes all the tough training worth it.
The voluntary Beer College classes, as well as mandatory basic beer training and long hours studying for cicerone certification, all seem to lead up to the biggest test of them all: Banger’s blow-out anniversary parties at the beginning of every August. These require preparation months in advance.
Banger’s third anniversary bash, starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday, will be no exception, especially because the bar’s beer broker Courtney Strange has cultivated more than 100 special beers over the course of the past year or so, offering “a bigger but more refined beer list than last year’s party,” he says. “Our regular menu will all be gone from the draft wall.”
In other words, look at that beer list ahead of time for some advanced preparation (it’s posted on Banger’s Facebook page).
On it, you’ll notice a mix of rare beers that Banger’s has been cellaring for just this occasion, from Mikkeller Black Hole to Oskar Blues Sherry Barrel-Aged Old Chub; beers from Beer Advocate’s top-rated beers list, including Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout and Prairie Artisan Ales Pirate Bomb; and a hodge-podge of other tasty treats, including a Berliner Weisse bar highlighting Texas’ growing love for the old German style.
To acquire all these good beers, Strange and the rest of the Banger’s staff work hard at developing strong relationships with breweries and distributors. They tour Austin-area breweries monthly. They keep abreast of new releases. And about once a week, a committee of them sit down and decide what’s next for the tap wall.
“Working at Banger’s, even if you’re a server, is about more than just waiting tables,” he says. “You’re getting to try beers, learn more about them, have some fun. When a customer comes in, they’ll see your level of expertise.”
In fact, a required part of becoming a server or bartender at Banger’s is passing the first level of cicerone certification. Many of them then go on to the next level, when they can actually call themselves certified cicerones, or beer experts. Banger’s has also curated a small library of books and magazines the staff can check out for further education and purchased some homebrewing equipment they can use to do some experimenting of their own.
As Strange has learned, such an emphasis on education — a very fun, booze-centric one — has meant that he knows far more about beer than he did two years ago.
“I thought I had a good grasp on beer, and when I started as a bartender here, I learned that I didn’t,” he says.
Soon enough, he and other Banger’s employees won’t be the only ones delving deep into the science and art of brewing beer: Smith’s monthly Beer College classes, once he finds his groove, will be offered to anyone who wants to know more about their beloved beverage.