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Hop to it: Bucket Head IPA is here

Thirsty Planet's debut is big, bold and full of promise for upstart Austin brewery

Patrick Beach
Tammy and Brian Smittle, owners of Thirsty Planet, have wheat and amber brews on the way.

Tammy and Brian Smittle of Thirsty Planet Brewing Co. had a boy this spring, and now they've got a bouncing baby beer: Bucket Head India Pale Ale, the new brewery's first offering. Sometimes a married couple gets really busy.

If this is a statement of purpose, Austin-area beer lovers have reason to be encouraged. Brian promised his IPA would be a fairly big beer and it is: about 7.25 percent alcohol with 70 International Bittering Units. That's 10 more IBUs than a Dogfish Head 60. For comparison, most of your American mass-market lagers have about 5 to 10 IBUs. That's why they don't taste like, um, anything at all.

I had my first Bucket Head the other day at the Flying Saucer for, you know, work. There wasn't much of a head on the pour (Brian says he's still waiting on a carbonation tester, and subsequent batches will be more carbonated) but the color was an alluring amber, the nose citrus-y tart. Coniferous hops dominate within, but there's enough of a malt backbone that it doesn't feel out of whack and the Cascade and Amarillo hops at the end invite you back for another sip. Still, if you're like me and your palate has been effectively napalmed by Stone Ruination and the like, this one might strike you as a sessionable IPA.

That first 10-barrel batch, which as of this writing was available at the Saucer, Houndstooth Coffee, Black Sheep Lodge and the Draught House, is to be followed by a full 30-barrel batch Brian brewed a couple of weeks ago, which has "literally a ton plus 400 pounds of grain."

He also reports it's a messy recipe, with a 90-minute boil, more time grinding the grain, getting it in and out of the tank, cleaning and the like. At the end, the wort — the liquid that will become beer once the sugars ferment — is run through a hopback, a sealed thingy loaded with hops. The thinking behind using a hopback is that you don't lose any of the aromatic complexity as you would in a boil. There are five different hops in this IPA: Magnum, Columbus, Simcoe and the aforementioned Amarillo and Cascade.

"It's a tough batch to brew, but it's worth it," Brian says.

The hopheads at Beer Advocate would seem to agree. The two reviewers who'd posted their thoughts by the middle of last week gave it an A+ and a B+.

If the IPA is too stern a style for you, the brewery, just off U.S. 290 West, has a wheat and an amber on the way. But with Bucket Head, Thirsty Planet is letting all the other Austin upstarts know they're not fooling around.

Still more on new local breweries: Jester King — which, with its flair for big beers, cheeky humor and braggadocio, is shaping up to be the Stone of Central Texas — debuted awesome new company artwork at the first Great Austin Beer Festival last month. Also making an appearance were brewer Jeffrey Stuffing's baby girl Laura and wife Amber. Stuffings reports construction at the brewery — not at all far from Thirsty Planet but in a setting more Hill Country rural and less industrial — is moving along. "Our goal is to mash in by August 1," he says. "The building won't be completely finished, but since a lot of our beers will take several weeks or months to make, we'd like to get them aging/going through secondary fermentation in the barrel now."

At the other end of town, Ben Sabel and Judson Mulherin unpacked their brewhouse and moved it into their site at 2340 Braker Lane. Having taken possession of their Newlands brewhouse, South Austin Brewing's Jordan Weeks and Caleb Cranford are "in full inventory and construction mode" at their facility on St. Elmo Road. South Austin's flagship beers will be Belgian-style golden ale, a dubbel, a quad and one made with prickly pear and hibiscus tea. Josh Hare at Hops & Grain, which is still in fundraising mode, has been playing around with styles including American pale ale and a California common. The newest player is Scott Hovey of Adelbert's Brewery, which is alive and brewing on Facebook and nailing down a location in North Austin. Named for Hovey's late brother, Hovey's upstart is looking to specialize in prestigious but "not too snooty" Belgian ales. Hovey, who spent 20 years in semiconductor sales and started brewing when his wife got him a kit about three years ago, hopes to be moving beer out the door sometime next year.

And Black Star Co-Op, the world's first cooperatively owned brew pub, has posted its menu — including something ominously called "tofu popcorn" — at blackstar.coop/eat. They're on track to open in late summer, which, this being Austin, could be Thanksgiving.

As we first discussed on Liquid Austin, explosive beer news broke just days before July 4 when Zymurgy, a magazine largely for home brewers, released its readers' list of the 50 best beers available in America. Fort Worth's Rahr & Sons won by a bleedin' landslide. Fully 12 of the top 50 came from Rahr, including Ugly Pug, Winter Warmer and Iron Thistle. Before this, the brewery was best known for having its roof collapse in a winter storm — which pretty much halted operations for four months. Fritz Rahr, understandably just a bit excited to see the poll results, issued a statement relating to that mishap on the company's website:

"This is exactly the kind of support that keeps us going, despite this year's roof collapse. We're poised for another great year with big plans for Rahr's future, and I think we'll be successful as long as our fan base remains our litmus test."

Rahr is the only Texas brewery that made the list. And nothing against them, and acknowledging that they've won more than their share of awards and such in the past, and though they're nice guys and I'm happy for them, something about this is a tad reminiscent of that ballot box in 1948 down in Jim Wells County. Readers outvoted lavishly lauded and well-distributed heavy hitters such as Stone, Dogfish Head, Russian River and Sierra Nevada to favor Rahr? Really? And why are so many Rahr beers clustered together? Five of their beers, for instance, are tied for 31st place.

This is a brewery that just a few years ago was very close to going under. Rahr was forced to lay off most of his workers and brew himself, with the aid of local fans/volunteers/home brewers, before Tony Formby came in as an equity partner.

The story doesn't say much about methodology. The sole criterion was that the beer had to be available somewhere in the United States.

Jamie Brunner, Rahr's creative director, chalked the win up to the brewery's numerous and zealous supporters, some of whom helped keep the place alive working as volunteers a few years back. When you've staffed the bottling line for a brewery you love, pushing "send" on a computer keyboard probably doesn't seem like all that much work. Zymurgy editor Jill Keller, who also wrote the piece, said in an e-mail that "It is likely that Rahr promotes the poll to their customers ... In the future, we will be using an online survey form for submitting votes."

Incidentally, the beer that got the most votes was Russian River's Pliny the Elder, which, ha ha, you can't get in Texas.

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603