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Hell-bent on excellence: A look inside Austin Beerworks and its return to basics mentality

Hell-bent on excellence: A look inside Austin Beerworks and its return to basics mentality

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Austin Beerworks warehouse Photo by Jessica Pages
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The grist case and bags of grain. Photo by Jessica Pages
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This is the  lauter tun, where the sugars are extracted from the grain and it also separates the liquid from the solid. Photo by Jessica Pages
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The CCVs hold the beer while its fermenting Photo by Jessica Pages
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The canning production line (top) Cans being filled with beer (bottom). Photo by Jessica Pages
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Can tops being placed on the assembly line. Photo by Jessica Pages
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Securing the can tops on. Photo by Jessica Pages
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The team behind Austin Beerworks making and packing up beer. Photo by Jessica Pages
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Austin Beerworks cans Photo by Jessica Pages
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Cold Liquor. Hot Liquor. Photo by Jessica Pages
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Austin Photo Set: News_Joelle_Austin Beerworks_feb 2012_grain
Austin Photo Set: News_Joelle_Austin Beerworks_feb 2012_steam
Austin Photo Set: News_Joelle_Austin Beerworks_feb 2012_vaults
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Austin Photo Set: News_Joelle_Austin Beerworks_feb 2012_canning_cold hot liquor

Going stag to an engagement party meant one thing: I needed a beer before it was appropriate.

That’s when I met Pearl Snap. Floating in an icy bucket, that oddly iconic little can wasn’t one I recognized. Austin Beerworks? I’ll gamble.

I’ll always remember my first — taste, that is: Clean and crisp, my brain flooded with memories of one-dollar pints on the dark streets of Munich, tubing on the Frio, six-pack tours on my bike and every great thing that has every happened with a beer in my hand.

I feverishly gulped it like fat kid after a softball practice. Later on, well into a secret drunk, I start bumbling to a stranger about the beer. “You like the beer?” he asks eventually. “That’s my beer.”

It was Michael Graham, one of the four co-founders at Austin newest brewery. I was impressed; usually when I sample someone's homebrew, it tastes like a cross between Kombucha and a microwaved sock. But for Graham, brewing was no hobby. In less than a year of production, their not-so-little brewery is struggling to keep up with demand. It's surfaced at almost every pub and restaurant worth its salt in the city limits, and took home a silver medal this fall at the Great American Beer Festival.

Austin Beerworks is a classic tale. They’re four dudes, “hell-bent on excellence,” bound by good and simple beer.

* * *

Once, the men of Austin Beerworks were scattered across the West — but longtime brewer Adam DeBower wrangled them together: Graham was a college buddy, former disc-golf course designer and fervid home brewer. Will Golden met him while they were working brewers for Flying Dog in Maryland.

Mike McGovern, who once worked in commercial real estate in NYC, met him over a glass of homebrew fermented in his narrow, New York apartment nook. After years of drinking and dreaming, they gathered their own resources (with a little help from friends) and opened the brewery in north Austin, brewing their first official batch on May 1, 2011.

Austin Beerworks’ brews are a return to basics. Like a curious coed, Graham experimented with beers in his 20s — trying the hoppiest, the strongest, and the oddest of brews (Banana Split Stout, anyone?). But eventually, he wanted something “clean and bold.” This idea is the mantra behind the company — from the logo to the recipe. “They’re beers you want more than one of,” Graham says.

Part of that clean taste is because Austin Beerworks is only available in cans — something that no other brewery in Austin can claim.  Graham flicks the can, explaining that “it’s like a mini-keg.” (Who could argue that nothing bests a beer on tap?) Bottles, he explains, can be permeated by UV light, which creates a “skunky” beer taste.

For a long time, only giants like Coca-Cola or Budweiser could afford canning machines, which canned hundreds of products at a time. Recently, smaller canning machines have come available; there’s only about 150 in all of the US. Beerworks’ machine cans low and slow, about two beers at a time. They ship close to 20,000 cans a week.

Graham works 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. Golden, DeBower and McGovern clock similar hours. Their 8,500 square-foot warehouse is larger than most start-up breweries, but each inch is stacked, floor to ceiling, with cans awaiting shipment. 

About 100 establishments around Austin carry their beer, including the Draught House, The Alamo, The Whip-In, and Hopdoddy’s. In one batch, they can produce 30 barrels, or about 930 gallons. That’s nearly 70 kegs, or 10,000 cans.  They ship out close to 70 barrels a week, which goes out as a split of kegs and cans. No wonder they’re investing in a second delivery van.

Currently, Graham is trying to figure out how to brew a month’s worth of beer for the upcoming week of SXSW. They’ve partnered with Warby Parker, who will be taking over the French Legation for their Citizen Circus party March 12-14. Aside from brewing great beer, they aim to build a community built around it. As Ben Franklin said, “Beer is proof that God loves us, and wants us to be happy.”