Portland is reported to have the highest number of breweries of any city in the world and this is what encourages some craft beer-lovers to remain, putting up with a pervasive chilly dampness that facilitates fungal growth in unexpected places. While the city remains a craft beer capital (one of many self-proclaimed...), other cities and regions are rapidly catching up. San Diego. Philadelphia. Atlanta. Asheville, Colorado, of course. Michigan. Vermont. New Zealand. Even Germany is following suit, experimenting with different hop varietals, and all within the parameters of the guiding Reinheitsgebot dogma. France and the UK have also caught on – threatening to outdo us with a rich history of pub and cafe culture.
Despite the surge in craft breweries and taprooms around the world, and despite the cultural similarity to Portland, I hadn't heard anything about the Austin craft beer scene. Was it because I wasn't listening?
Recent Changes in Texas Law Make Way for Craft
On March 12th, 2013, Texas law changed in a way that made it significantly easier for most breweries to sell their product to the public directly. As a result, a flood of new craft breweries have opened only recently in Austin and I suspect there will be rapid growth of the industry, and in demand, as a result.
There are distinct differences between Austin's budding craft beer scene and that of the seasoned craft beer scene of Portland – where even the sketchiest dives are obligated to serve craft beer and the best beer bars ensure their glassware is spotless and fit for the style. Most of the breweries and taprooms in Austin seem apprehensive about testing the consumer palate just yet. While I did try a couple of really nice wine and bourbon barrel-aged beers, there was a distinct absence of sours – and the very few I could find were only of Belgian origin – with one exception: the highly-regarded and exceptionally bold Jester King Brewery.
Below is a list of some of my Austin craft beer finds, ranking them in order of preference:
#1: Jester King (Brewery)
Located eighteen miles outside of downtown Austin, Jester King strives to produce true farmhouse ales with as many local and organic ingredients as possible, pioneering the use of wild yeast and barrel-aging in Austin. I have a huge admiration for their innovation and creativity, all within the parameters of a farmhouse tradition. Jester King is proving to Austin that the consumer palate is ready for wild and sour ales, and I expect others will quickly follow suit – but only because Jester King did it first and did it well.
There is no public transportation to their brewery, and I don't drive so I can't tell you what their taproom is like. However, my limited experience trying their beer has led me to believe – as I have been told by several locals – that no Austin craft beercation would be complete without going to their brewery. You can find some of their bottles around town (I found one of their farmhouse ales in a grocery store), but it's incredibly rare as they usually run out quickly.
#2: Austin Beer Works (Brewery)
Every one of their beers I tried was excellent, not to mention it's a pretty cool warehouse space and they're willing to do spontaneous brewery tours. They make a popular seasonal called Sputnik, a Russian imperial stout with a whole lot of coffee. They also won a GABF gold medal for Black Thunder, their German-style Schwarzbier, which I tried along with the whiskey barrel-aged version. My favorite of the evening, however, was Genuine Pyrite, a Belgian-style golden strong ale aged in white wine barrels. I also tried an amazing imperial red with a beautiful aromatic, floral aroma – worthy of a full pint - or three.
Texas law requires that brewery taprooms not – technically - sell beer for on premises consumption, but $10 buys you a glass – which you can take home with you – and three fills of their beer.
#3: Craft Pride (Taproom)
My Austin beer geek friends are going to kick my ass for picking Craft Pride over many peoples' favorite Draught House, but from an outsider's perspective, this is a great place to learn about Texas beer because it's all they serve – 52 taps of the stuff, plus 2 casks, representing over twenty local Texas breweries, many from Austin. The best craft beer that Texas has to offer, all in one place, served by local bearded beer lovers born and bred in Austin. The only drawback of this is that they have a lot of taps to fill so not ALL the beer is going to be great. But you can give these guys your style preference and they'll give you a great suggestion and a taster of anything you want.
Even if they can't tell you which specific hops are used in a particular IPA, the guys working know what's good, and their enthusiasm for beer shines through. Several times during my – admittedly – extended tenure at their bar, they grabbed a flashlight to show someone the sparkles in Austin Beer Works' Mr. Sparkle, a beer made with food-grade glitter - and they never grew tired of it.
If the beer quality or the sparkles aren't enough to get you here, go to see the space – artistically designed and carefully executed with extraordinary attention to detail and a floor-to-ceiling reverence for wood. The lovingly-lacquered bar is constructed from one of the most impressive pieces of 130-year-old wood I've ever seen and the walls are constructed from the reclaimed lumber of the old house that once stood in that very spot.
No food, but a food cart out back serves hot, fresh and tasty pizza and delivers it to your table. Beers are served in pints or in smaller 6-oz glasses, your choice. I appreciate the smaller glasses because, personally, I'd rather try a little bit of a lot of different things and I get tired of those damn shaker pints at most places.
#4: The Draught House (Taproom)
I saw that they had BFM's Le Cuvee Alex le Rouge, a Russian imperial stout I'd never tried before. I asked the less-than-enthusiastic bartender if it was barrel aged, and he said he didn't think so and mumbled something about carbonation. After looking the beer up on beeradvocate.com, I found out that it's made with Serawak pepper, bourbon vanilla and Russian tea - which gives it an earthy, tannic and vinous character. You'll either have to know something about craft beer before you go to The Draft House or be willing to be independent and adventurous, but don't expect any help from the bartender.
There's plenty of parking, a big outdoor area, and dart boards - strategically placed right next to a door to the patio. Luckily, it's on a street called Medical Parkway, so I would assume there's a hospital nearby if you need to have a dart pulled out of your eye. No food, but they have a different food truck outside every day except Sundays and free brats at 3pm on Saturdays.
#5: Black Star Co-Op Pub and Brewery
Black Star is a co-op brewery which prides itself in paying its workers a true living wage and because of this, they don't accept tips...that's right, there's no extra 20% - you only pay for the cost of your beer and food (bonus!). Aside from the excellent beer they make, decent food, and an awesome business model, I was fortunate to hang out for a while in the back with one of the brewers and I'm fairly certain I've never met anyone quite as passionate about brewing. I have much respect for this place and the people who work here.
Tip: they may also have some bottles of Jester King, or other very special beers available for sale, but you have to ask.
#6: Hi Hat Public House
When I told the folks working at Hi Hat that I was writing an article about the craft beer scene in Austin, I was told I should come back when manager Habeab Kurdi was working. Habeab knows a shitload about craft beer and the Austin beer scene in particular. There was even an article by him in the Austin Beer Guide – a thick little 'zine which is a great source of information, including profiles and articles by some of the leaders and advocates of the craft beer scene here - and a good sign that the Austin craft beer scene is gaining momentum.
As it turns out, Habeab is also just about one of the nicest guys I've ever met. He was kind enough to introduce me to some of the writers, brewers, and beer geeks in the Austin craft beer scene and I had a great time with them over some very special bottles from the Black Star cellar. Habeab's knowledge and enthusiasm for craft beer is vast and though he hasn't worked at Hi Hat for long, I believe he has been – and will continue to be – instrumental in making Hi Hat a favorite among beer geeks.
#7: Pinthouse Pizza (Austin, TX)
#8: The Ginger Man
I started with the Altbier which tasted of freshly-harvested grain...not too bad. The bourbon-barrel alt was a little more interesting but seemed as though it needed more aging as the bourbon flavor lacked complexity. I tried their flagship Hop Dog after this but was thoroughly underwhelmed. A lot of fragrant citrus hops, and a lot of grapefruit bitterness dominating bready malts – what seemed like it could be a half-assed version of a Northwest IPA, minus any floral character or complexity. I really wanted to like their beer more than I did, but maybe I'm missing something because the locals seemed to dig it.
$5 gets you one of their glasses and $10 gets you the ticket equivalent of six ounces each of six of their beers. No food.
I ran out of time before visiting every brewery and beer bar on my list, so I apologize in advance because there's a good chance some of these (below) would have made it onto my list of favorites. There's only so much a person can drink in a week – even me. The fact that there are so many places in Austin that brew or specialize in craft beer is a great thing and I look forward to going back to update my list.
High on my list of places I didn't get to visit were the following: Kamala Brewing/Whip In, Bangers Sausage House and Beer Garden, Austin Beer Garden Brewing, The Chicago House, Easy Tiger, (512) Brewing, Thirsty Planet, and Live Oak.