There's little chance you could confuse Austin's newest breweries with one another, despite the sheer number of breweries our city and the surrounding Hill Country have gained over the past few years. But there is one major thing the three best ones that opened this year have in common.
Oddwood Ales found a rustic home in East Austin for its zippy pale ales and mixed-culture blends in February. Two months later, the sprawling Driftwood brewery Vista Brewing and the sophisticated East Austin restaurant the Brewer's Table opened their doors within days of each other. A significant component of each beer program is their prolific use of wood — for aging, yes, but also for fermentation, a far less common practice among U.S. brewers.
That's when wort is transformed into beer via yeast and bacteria through primary fermentation in wooden vessels such as barrels, foeders or puncheons. Most beers are fermented in stainless steel tanks; having it done in wood can often (but not always) lead to wild, funky-tasting results.
When Texas meets Belgium
Vista’s airy taproom you might say is designed with a Hill Country chic aesthetic — lots of rustic wood with fresh flowers and little else on the long tables — and you can try a number of beers on draft or in 22 oz. bottles. At any given time, one or more of them has been aged in freshly dumped wine barrels that Vista head brewer Josh Watterson has sourced from area wineries, most notably Bending Branch Winery in Comfort.
The four variations of Rosanna, a barrel-aged brett ale released in late summer, exemplify how different grape varietals soaked into the wood can influence the final flavors of the same base beer. But Watterson’s magnum opus might well be the lambic-style brew that debuted in mid-December. The Velo de Flor, as it's called, is a magnificently complex beer that relies on Texas ingredients and Belgian tradition.
A bulk of the fermentation process occurred when the beer, made from local grains, Vista's own well water, whole-cone hops and a mixture of seven different cultures, was added to recently emptied tempranillo, aglianico and tannat barrels. Watterson then blended the beer from each of these barrels, a final step that he finds particularly fulfilling.
"It's one of those things where every barrel is slightly different," Watterson said. "When you're blending, you're pulling samples out and trying each of them, and even if they had the exact same wine in them, were left in for the exact same time and were made from the exact same base beer, they'll turn out completely different. You have to figure out how to put these back together to get a product you're proud of that mimics the beers that inspired you from Belgium."
But Vista, the farm-to-table vision of Kent and Karen Killough, is proud to be a Texas operation and wants even the lambic-style beer to reflect that. As such, wine produced by neighboring vineyards is as much an ingredient in the beer as the yeast and bacteria, which contribute tart fruity notes and a dry, farmhouse earthiness.
"All of the beers (in our barrel program) accentuate the beauty of fresh fine wine as part of the beer-aging process," Watterson said. "So it's not just a barrel that this lambic has run its course in with our magic water. It's a beautiful tempranillo environment. The day that Bending Branch bottled that tempranillo, we took the barrel and filled it with the lambic base. Because we have access to 60 plus wineries within in an hour's drive, we can do that. That is an incredibly unique thing."
Foeder for thought
Both Oddwood and the Brewer’s Table rely more heavily on wood fermentation than Vista. In fact, the Brewer’s Table — which transformed a 1950s-era Quonset hut into an elegant, artistic restaurant in a still industrial section of East Fifth Street — brews lagers exclusively in a half-dozen wooden foeders with coolships, or open containers, beneath three of them.
About 10 minutes north, Oddwood Ales is more wide-ranging. In addition to the mixed-culture ales made in foeders, or large barrels, the Manor Road brewery with cozy Southwestern vibes specializes in hoppy styles like pale ales and IPAs. Co-founder Taylor Ziebarth, once head brewer at the Belgian-focused Adelbert's Brewery, likes the mix of what he calls "clean" beers (those hoppy pale ales) and wild beers that are the result of microorganisms thriving in their wooden setting.
He has even combined them a time or two, such as with Inanimate Household Objects, "a blend of a tart, foeder-fermented wild ale and a hoppy IPA," according to the brewery. It's "mildly tart, with an interesting array of tropical fruit, citrus, and floral notes."
Styles like the IPA are made in stainless steel; wild ales find a home in the towering foeders. The process of producing each one fulfills Ziebarth's need for technical precision and also for artistic license. (He'll blend the wild ales once they're out of the foeders, giving him a chance to influence what the mixed cultures of yeast and bacteria have created.)
"One is very much about control, about having a hand in every step of the process, and one is very much about standing back and letting it do its thing, which I like, having both of those to do," he said.
For the Brewer's Table founder Jake Maddux, wood serves as a tribute to history rather than as a way to impart wild and sour flavors into the lagers that head brewer Drew Durish has produced — though many of them, with odd ingredients like beets and sweet potatoes, are not like typical lagers. That's on purpose, as the kitchen team pulls in items from Durish's brewing process and vice versa to emphasize that food and beer are equal, and not just complementary, counterparts.
Maddux, a self-proclaimed history nerd, will tell you he decided to go through the trouble of having the clean wood-fermented lagers (which take their time to be made) because he was influenced profoundly by previous employer Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, where steam beer — a historical West Coast style — is produced to this day in shallow open-air fermenters.
Recreating the way beer would have been made in the 19th century, as Anchor does with its steam beer, a key feature at the Brewer's Table is a room where several handsome foeders, visible from the main dining area, and three coolships produce all of the house beer. Decked out in white tile, the foeder room looks as clean as the brewing process is there, exactly as Maddux wants it.
"This room has temperature control, humidity and air filtration, so we’re able to mimic the perfect weather of a San Francisco winter’s day year-round. It is also important that we maintain the wood in a way that controls bacteria, that we’re not brewing sours but wood-fermented lagers," Maddux said.