Hi Hat Public House cares about beer and beer fans

At one time in Austin’s drinking history, the majority of places that promised craft beer were old, unkempt joints with a seasoned clientele and surly bartenders. Maybe food was served, and if you didn’t know what a certain beer tasted like, you’d get a scowl and an eye roll. Now, as the scene grows, the spectrum of craft beer watering holes continues to diversify, and well, clean itself up a bit.

Hi Hat Public House is one place working to create a welcoming, friendly neighborhood atmosphere that’s neat and tidy, but still appealing to the new generation of craft beer enthusiasts. Nestled at the bottom of a mixed-use complex at East Sixth Street and Robert Martinez Jr. Drive, in the space that formerly housed Braise, the bistro-like bar promotes a laid-back but convivial ambiance.

Although they offer a modest wine list, featuring wine by the glass from Texas and around the globe (sold for between $7 and $16.50), the beverage program largely centers on craft beer.

A thoughtful and varied selection of 24 rotating taps focuses on hard-to-find, limited edition and specialty kegs from Texas and beyond. Hops & Grain’s Greenhouse frequents the lineup, as does Independence Brewing’s Brewluminati, and on the rare special occasions, Stone’s Enjoy By IPA series. Beers are conveniently poured in two sizes, 10 oz. and 16 oz., making it easier to try several different beers on the menu without filling up too quickly.

Tangible attention is paid to assembling a range of beer styles regardless of the season, ensuring that there’s something for everyone on the menu at any given time (plus the kegs rotate so quickly, the whole notion of a set menu doesn’t really apply here). Even in the heat of June they had a handful of Stouts, heavy IPAs and strong Belgians to balance out the session ales of summer, and when a new beer hits town, they’re usually one of the first to scoop up a keg.

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Unfortunately, communicating the selections to the customers is where the system sometimes falls flat. Two chalkboards with handwritten lists of draught beer perch on opposing walls of the room, ensuring maximum visibility, but neither one seems to have a clear organizational system and both could benefit from the use of a ruler to keep prices and beer names aligned.

On multiple occasions, kegs emptied without the menus reflecting the change. Keeping two lists current might be a lofty expectation for the small staff during a busy shift (typically only one or two bartenders can squeeze behind the 12-seat bar), but these instances have not been limited to peak hours or busy crowds. Few things can be more frustrating for beer fans than settling on a brew to find out it’s not available anymore, or worse, choosing one from the menu and finding out they have something you would have enjoyed more that wasn’t listed yet.

It’s clear the management wants to emphasize bartender-customer interaction. Luckily, the staff are amiable enough and don’t condescend toward beer ignorance (a crime so many other places commit). They’re also quick to offer samples, a practice I’d like to see followed as welcomingly elsewhere. Relying on their informed opinion has yet to lead me astray during the easygoing lull of pre-happy hour. Getting a chance to inquire about styles and brands can become an issue when the petite room is packed for a CD release party, live music show, or local craft beer community soiree, events that frequently land on Hi Hat’s monthly calendar.

One of the biggest perks of drinking at Hi Hat is that the beer prices are disproportionately low compared to other spots that tout themselves as “craft beer oriented.” Short pours range from $2.50 to $5 dollars, and full pints rarely go above $6. On one visit, I ordered a 10 oz. pour of Independence Lupulust for $2.50 ($4.50 for the 16 oz.). For comparison, the same week a beer bar elsewhere in town sold a 13 oz. pour for $6. That’s 28 cents per ounce at Hi Hat, and 46 cents per ounce at the competing establishment. When I inquired about this difference, Rena Schrader, who owns Hi Hat with her husband, Steve, explained that other places take the opportunity to go beyond the standard industry mark-up on specialty beers, something they don’t really do at Hi Hat, because they want to promote an affordable neighborhood pub identity.

With a clean, friendly atmosphere, knowledgeable staff and beer menu that promises something new every visit, Hi Hat is a welcome addition to the beverage scene on the East Side, and the craft beer scene as a whole.

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