I’m at a brewery, which I admit is a fairly common occurrence. But what’s new this time is that I’m standing a couple yards from a just-sprouted garden, eating a leaf of arugula that was freshly plucked from the hand-tilled earth.
It’s the start of the second year for Vista Brewing and its on-site garden, which supplies many of the vegetables for the seasonal-focused kitchen on-site and the flower arrangements for the taproom's tables. Eventually, the organic farm will also provide ingredients like figs and pomegranates for the 21-acre Hill Country brewery’s European-leaning beers. For now, Vista’s co-owners, Kent and Karen Killough, are just thrilled their all-encompassing project is about to turn one.
At an all-day anniversary party on April 6, Vista will unveil the kind of beers for which they've become known: funky, yeast-driven ales aged in wine barrels and often containing fruit. The popular Commencement Brett Ale will make its return. The celebration also marks the first time people can try the Peach Lambic made with Fredericksburg peaches. (Expect other surprises, too.)
During the all-day party, you’ll be encouraged to attend what the brewery calls a “destination tour”: an exploration of the entire property, including the single-acre garden and an on-site apiary, where bees turn nectar from the nearby wildflowers into honey. The Killoughs planted a variety of Texas wildflower seeds last year, so that 6 acres of land surrounding the brewing facility and the taproom came alive with colorful blooms this spring.
But, of course, the main enterprise is the beer itself. And that’s where head brewer Josh Watterson comes in. He was born and grew up for the first few years of his life in Yakima, Wash., which is known as one of the main hop-growing regions in the U.S. But Watterson isn’t interested in hop-forward beers like IPAs; he prefers yeast-expressive beers like Vista's new Seeking Sakura Cherry Brett Ale. (Vista announced Monday that Watterson is leaving the brewery; Pat Korn, formerly of Green Flash, will take his place.)
He chose cherry because of his early childhood eating freshly picked cherries. In Yakima, Watterson says, “I was surrounded by cherry and apple orchards, so it’s always been a fruit near and dear to my heart.”
For the name of the beer — aged in Texas wine barrels from Lewis Wines with roughly 40 pounds of cherries — the brewing team decided to nod to the cherry blossom trees of a country half a world away. "Sakura" means cherry blossom in Japanese, Watterson says, and "seeking sakura" is a centuries-old tradition.
"It’s kind of a movement in Japan to find the perfect cherry blossom," he says. "For centuries, they’ve had picnics under the cherry trees while they’re blossoming. They always say that a life looking for the perfect cherry blossom is not a wasted life. So it’s our way of saying we’re constantly seeking beauty, especially in our barrel program."
Vista's barrel program is perhaps more specific than most. All the beers have been aged so far in freshly dumped Hill Country wine barrels — not just because of the wineries' proximity to Vista, along RM 150 in Driftwood, but mainly because Watterson likes the winelike characteristics imparted straight from the wood to the beer. The wine neutralizes the oak, "so instead of having that big vanilla effect, the barrels push delicate fruit notes, which is what I'm interested in," he says.
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Also essential to the barrel program is the yeast used. For Seeking Sakura and other wine barrel-matured Brett ales like last fall's Laissez Faire, Brettanomyces is the sole microorganism, lending a funky quality to each beer it ferments. The lambic released at the end of last year, a sort of Texas take on a Belgian classic, featured no fewer than seven different bacteria and yeast strains (including Brett) to mimic the tart wild ales made exclusively south of Brussels in the Senne River Valley.
And then there's the fruit. With each new release in the barrel program, Watterson has played around with different ingredients to showcase how they affect the final product. Seeking Sakura, for example, was released in March alongside a more limited apricot Brett ale that was the same in nearly every way except for the fruit, having fermented as the same base beer with the same Brett strain and aged in the same red wine barrels. Apricot transforms the flavor profile in a subtle way.
“When I think about it, when I swish it around, I get the same Brett finish, but there’s a tangy effervescence, more of a tartness, in (the apricot beer) that adds dimension similar to what we did in Velo," Kent Killough says, referring to lambic-style ale Velo de Flor.
Seeking Sakura is among the bottles you can enjoy in the rustic taproom (or take home, if you'd prefer a boozy souvenir). But these complex barrel offerings aren't all that's available in the large, airy space broken up by long picnic tables and framed by enormous windows overlooking the scenic grounds. Vista also sells what it calls "beer garden brews," or lower-ABV classic styles like the Adair Kölsch, Dark Skies Black Pilsner and Hyde Park ESB (Watterson's personal favorite).
When you step outside into the beer garden with your pint, you grasp why Vista has already become a popular destination. It's not just about the beer. The Killoughs have created the ultimate Hill Country paradise, combining farm-fresh food, live music and the beautiful countryside with the beer. Families can congregate on the circular front porch with four white Adirondack chairs. Or maybe they'd prefer the picnic tables closest to the swing, where their child can keep asking for more pushes.
Or they don't have to sit at all. The expansive grounds are inviting. On the breezy spring day when I eat that arugula leaf straight from the earth, the Killoughs take me on a path beyond the beer garden to see Vista's budding garden, and then the innocuous-looking arrangement of boxlike hives where honeybees are beginning to stir for a new season of pollination.
They point out the trees on our walk — mostly live oaks and elms, but there's a single red oak that provides fall color, Kent says — and early sprouting wildflowers, too, such as the milkweed on which monarch butterflies rely. The Vista garden has been newly planted with broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other vegetables. Last summer, sunflowers and zinnias were plentiful.
The arugula is rich. Almost wasabilike, Kent says. He picks additional greens and sets them in our hands, a micro salad. And suddenly, I appreciate in a whole new way why this friendly, passionate couple has decided to open a brewery outside of Austin that offers so much more than beer.
Sure, Vista Brewing aims to do what all breweries do: help people to "enjoy life," as Kent puts it. But the brewery — which recently invited the McDonald Observatory folks to an event celebrating the dark-sky status of nearby cities like Dripping Springs and Wimberley — wants to make sure there's a little learning happening amid the fun.
"This experience is about people enjoying life while they’re here," Kent Killough says. "But it’s a much more fulfilling, broader realization of that goal if you’re able to teach someone something. If they learn about this whole process of making fine beer. ... If they learn about what’s happening with all the trees right now and how we’ve protected them. If they learn about the importance of organic farming and how that makes us a sustainable society. Learning something, that creates deeper enjoyment outside of this place.
"Sorry, I got really deep there. But that goes to the heart of it, what we’re doing here.”