Bounty of local brewers bursting with cheer
2010 saw a boom in Austin-area craft breweries. But can it last?
A year or two ago, I was grateful for the number of quality local breweries we enjoy in and around Austin but was wishing for a few more options. With all the growth we've had, especially in 2010, I wonder if in a year or two all the upstarts will still be alive and brewing. I'm like Fred Willard in "A Mighty Wind:" "Wha' happened?"
Back in the day we had Real Ale in Blanco — which has a huge hit with Fireman's No. 4 — Live Oak and Independence, North by Northwest, Draught House and Lovejoys. We lamented the loss of the old Waterloo brew pub and the Bitter End. But we got by.
Kevin Brand at (512) Brewing got going in the summer of 2007 and had a smash with his pecan porter. They've steadily grown, their whiskey barrel-aged double pecan porter just rolled out and the brandy barrel-aged (512) One, a Belgian strong ale, was the best thing I tasted at the Flying Saucer beer festival this year.
Brian and Tammy Smittle very quietly built Thirsty Planet. Ben Sabel and Judson Mulherin found a home for Circle. Ranger Creek in San Antonio became the state's first brewery and distillery, and their beer is already available in Austin. Jester King has also been available for a while. The sample of their Russian imperial stout is as good as any I've had, and you should be seeing 750-milliliter bottles of their winter seasonal soon. Hops and Grain is settling into its East Austin space, as is South Austin in, uh, South Austin. There's Austin Beerworks and Twisted X, the latter set to specialize in Tex-Mex-style beers. Pecan St. Brewing in downtown Johnson City is expecting to have beer out the door sometime early next year. The Root Cellar Cafe & Brewery in San Marcos is a small operation specializing in Belgians. Others that appear a little further off include Pedernales in Fredericksburg, Adelbert's, Moon Tower and some guy right now writing a business plan at his kitchen table. Or at least that's what their site says. Everybody's favorite South Austin beer store, the Whip In, plans to brew its own beers. In Wimberley, Bruce and Holly Collie downsized their brewery and restaurant into a brewery and pizzeria — and promptly moved that smaller operation into a bigger space with seven beers on tap. (Brewer Bruce, who played in two Super Bowls, has got a hickory-smoked porter just out, too.) And Brian Peters of Uncle Billy's has found time in between collecting medals at the Great American Beer Festival to help open a second Uncle Billy's location next to the Oasis on Lake Travis. That's great news for people who love the view at the Oasis but the food, not so much. (Although I haven't been there since the fire. Maybe the kitchen's improved.)
Finally, after a whole lot of beer socials, the Black Star Co-op, billed as the world's first cooperatively owned brew pub, finally opened. It hosted a Texas Craft Brewers Mini-Festival over the weekend. Their grand opening was Friday night, and if the two beers I had — porter and a sort of pale ale with mandarin orange — are any indication, the place is a welcome addition to the scene.
Footnote: If you're not into the whole "drink local" thing and aren't chain-averse, there's BJ's down south, with another set to open in the Shops at Arbor Walk.
My back-of-the-envelope scratching shows there's something like 16 breweries or brew pubs in various stages of development within an hour of Austin. And if I'm leaving anybody out, which I surely am, no offense.
All but a handful of these brewers had to go out and raise capital, which in this economy is a miracle to do successfully. Some, such as the Smittles at Thirsty Planet and South Austin's Jordan Weeks, have brewing experience. Others, such as Jester King's Jeff Stuffings, just got fed up with their day jobs — in his case lawyering — and decided to pursue their passions.
What's really cool aside from the plethora of new options is the variety and quality of the beer. Jester King has a deep portfolio, from Commercial Suicide, a low-alcohol session beer, to liver-busting, over-the-top styles. More impressive was their willingness to jump in almost immediately with playing with sometimes-unpredictable things like wild yeast and barrel aging. Thirsty Planet's Buckethead India Pale Ale is perfectly representative of the style, with 70 International Bittering Units, 10 more than a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. And Weeks at South Austin says he won't brew anything lower than 7 percent alcohol. They'll make what they called back in February "aggressive beers that appeal to the already sophisticated craft beer drinker."
Again, it's anybody's guess whether all these breweries will be around in a few years. But who knows? Maybe there will be even more. What's clear is we're still no threat to Portland, Ore., which has a population smaller than Austin's and more breweries — roughly a couple dozen — more than any other city in the country. We're already the live music capital of the world. Wouldn't it be awesome if we were also the craft beer capital?
Celebration update:Last time we talked about my most unhappy experience with the 2010 Celebration Ale from Sierra Nevada. At their request, I sent a couple of bottles back to the brewery in Chico, Calif., where their tasting panel found it "true to type" to this year's batches. Here's a little more from Sierra spokesman Bill Manley, who graciously took my criticism in the spirit intended:
"We have not changed malt suppliers, nor hop suppliers in recent years. Nor have we changed percentages, amounts or recipes. Our bottling process is no different from years past, nor are our release dates. The only thing different with 2010 Celebration Ale from previous years is a packaging and labeling revamp. The beer inside the bottle is the same as it has ever been.
"For Celebration Ale we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. We insist on using the first fresh hops of the year, so we wait until the harvest comes and then brew like mad to get Celebration in the cellars. Because we use the first hops of the season, some of the seasonal variances of the crops are more pronounced. I suspect any flavor variations you are finding this year are a result of these seasonal shifts. These little shifts in flavor are both a blessing and a curse for craft beer."
Texas sake. For real? Galveston native Yoed Anis is turning his love of sake and general Japanophilia into a business, Texas Sake Co., with offices and a lab of sorts in Central Austin and a brewery to be built a little north of there.
Anis will be using organic rice from the Texas coast — the first organic sake maker in North America, he says — and he's keeping things small to start, only about 100 gallons a month. Filtered and unfiltered varieties will be available for about $25, and if you want to get a little piece of Texas booze history, join the mailing list at www.txsake.com for info on a presale.
"I like how it makes you feel," Anis said. "Very warm, very pleasant. Sake is definitely distinct, definitely unique. People either love it or hate it."
Anis was kind enough to give me a primer on styles of sake and introduce me to a bit of the rituals. Something I learned that should have been obvious: The starch in rice, unlike other grains used in brewing and distilling, does not convert to sugar under heat. (Otherwise your cooked rice would always be hot, right?)
So how do sake brewers get sugar for the yeast to eat to make alcohol? They introduce a mold.