Meet the Tastemakers: 5 of Austin's top breweries and their award-worthy beers
Craft beer is on fire in the U.S. and passion for local brews is stoked by a growing number of breweries in town. Austin now boasts 14 craft breweries —10 of which are new since 2010 — and with more in the planning stages. Not only do we have more choice, but local beers are winning awards on a national stage.
On Thursday, April 11, the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards will honor five of the top local breweries which were selected by a panel of culinary and beverage experts. Here is a look at the award-worthy nominees and the beers that inspired them to create their current brews.
Austin Beerworks poured onto the Austin scene in April 2011 with its first batch of golden magic sealed in distinctive cans emblazoned with an iconic “A." Comrades, founders and brewers Michael Graham, Will Golden, Adam DeBower and Mike McGovern are cranking out more than 100 cases an hour trying to meet demand for its highly drinkable brews. (Speaking of demand, sales rose 400 percent in 2012 over the previous year.)
“My dad used to give me sips of Heineken when I was a kid. I hated it. I remember it tasting like I imagined pee would taste. The first beer I really enjoyed was an Oatmeal Stout by Alaskan Brewing Co. The Oatmeal Stout was so different from any beer I'd ever tried — dark, roasty, full-bodied and silky smooth. It really opened my eyes to what a diverse beverage beer can be,” says Graham.
Austin Beerworks makes four year–round brews including the Black Thunder German-style Schwarzbier, Fire Eagle American IPA, Peacemaker Extra Pale Ale and Pearl-Snap German-style Pils. The Peacemaker has not only built a following among Austin beer lovers, but it also wowed the expert palates at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival, winning a silver medal just four months after its introduction.
“Our beer is currently only available in Austin. People are drinking it faster than we can make it,” Graham states. Austin Beerworks is available in about 175 locations in Austin only: on tap at local bars and restaurants and in cans in local stores.
Hops and Grain Brewing Co. opened its doors at the terminus of East Sixth Street in October 2011, and demand for its beer has already necessitated an expansion of the facilities. The brewery tripled the capacity to about 4,000 barrels and added an automated canning line making it possible to move from all kegs to packaging 95 percent in cans.
Running enthusiast turned brewer Josh Hare currently makes three year-round beers, ALT-eration, a Dusseldorf style Altbier; Pale Dog, an American pale ale; and The One They Call Zoe, a pale Vienna lager with a pilsner finish named for Hare’s Papillion dog.
“Our ALT-eration won a gold medal at the World Beer Cup in 2012 and we are incredibly proud of that," Hare says. "We are also very proud of our third year-round beer that will be released the first week of April, The One They Call Zoe. I don’t take myself very seriously but I take very seriously the art-form that I’ve chosen as a career and we look for consumers that share the same inspiration.”
“The first craft beer that I fell in love with was Dale's Pale Ale," Hare continues. "When I lived in Boulder, I had a group of friends that I would rock climb with and, at the time, that was the only quality canned beer we could find. Since the parks and open spaces prohibited glass we had to go for cans, or not take beer with us, which wasn't really an option! Our Pale Dog resembles Dale’s in that it’s a pale ale and it's packaged in a can, but the flavors are very different."
On any given Friday or Saturday, the tap room is packed and the brewery’s events are always crammed with enthusiastic craft beer aficionados and casual drinkers alike. The brews’ success has led to the addition of several new beers. Last year Hops & Grain opened a barrel room to make six beers in French wine and bourbon barrels called the Volumes of Oak series and a sour beer line called Volumes of Funk.
Hops & Grain brews about three different beers every week on its Greenhouse system, which is a three barrel pilot brewery that allows the brewery to continually experiment with new and innovative recipes. Hops & Grain available at 175 Austin bars, restaurants and retail stores like Whole Foods and HEB.
Jester King Craft Brewery started turning heads when it released highly acclaimed barrel-aged brews near Dripping Springs in late 2010. It has continued to capture attention as it tinkers with its year-round brews — Le Petite Prince, Nobel King, Wytchmaker Rye IPA, Black Metal Imperial Stout, Mad Meg and Commercial Suicide — as well as for its ever-changing lineup of limited production beers.
“The first beer I fell in love with was Dogfish Head Raison d’etre. It was the first beer I had with great depth of flavor," says co-founder Jeff Stuffings. "The beers we brew at Jester King don’t actually resemble a beer like Raison d’etre, however. Our flavors and aromas tend to be less driven by malt and adjunct ingredients and more so by fermentation with a diverse array of organisms that include brewer’s yeast, native wild yeast, brettanomyces and souring bacteria."
Jester King brews with farmhouse yeast, wild and native yeasts to achieve unique flavors and aromas, and naturally cask-conditions its beers for two to three months for complexity and the authentic farmhouse style. The brewers are currently making 22 small batch beers (and counting), including sour barrel aged beers like Funk Metal, which is a sour Black Metal blended with pure brettanomyces yeast.
“Our motto is to brew what we like, drink what we want, offer the rest to those who want it. Why would we want to make beers that everyone else is making,” says brewer Ron Extract.
“I think what sets us apart is our use of wild yeasts from the Texas Hill Country that give our beer a unique sense of place. The two beers I’m most proud of are our Funk Metal Barrel-Aged Sour Imperial Stout and RU-55 Barrel-Aged Sour Red Ale. These beers have interesting flavors and aromas and are well balanced and very drinkable in my opinion,” Stuffings remarks.
The Jester King tasting room is open Saturdays from 1-4 p.m., with tours at 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Its beers are mostly packaged in 750ml bottles and sold at local retailers, but it is also available on tap at some Austin restaurants and bars.
Real Ale is well known beyond the Austin city limits because of the phenomenal success of its flagship ale, Firemans #4. One of the oldest breweries in the area, founded in Blanco by Philip and Diane Conner in 1996, it is one of the largest with a capacity of 72,000 barrels (almost a million cases) a year.
“There wasn’t one moment or beer that led to an epiphany. It was kind of a cumulative effect of inspiration," says Erik Ogershok, brewmaster and woodmaster general. "Back in the mid-'80s, the beers would have been Spaten Oktoberfest, Paulaner Salvator, Duvel, Chimay, Hoegarden, Young's, Fuller's, Sam Smith's, Anchor Liberty and Steam, and Sierra Nevada if you were lucky enough to find any of them. The memories of these early experiences live on in the beers we brew."
The homework of tasting many excellent beers for inspiration has paid off with a lineup of inventive and award-winning beers. Real Ale brews at least 10 beers at any time; eight of them are year-round brews including the Full Moon Pale Rye Ale, Lost Gold IPA, Brewhouse Brown Ale and ESB. Firemans #4 and Hans' Pils both brought home Silver medals from the 2012 Great American Beer Festival.
It also brews two seasonals each quarter such as Phoenixx Double ESB and Devil’s Backbone Tripel. The experimental barrel-aged Mysterium Verum series is where the brewers show their creative flair. Recent brews include WT3F?!, a tripelwort fermented exclusively with brettanomyces bruxellensis yeast; and The Kraken, a Sisyphus barleywine aged for 11 months in American and French oak.
“If forced to pick a favorite beer, from our regular line up I'll pick 15th Anniversary Russian Imperial Stout and Hans’ Pils. They were game changers for us. From Mysterium Verum, I’ll pick Imperium and Scots Gone Wild. They were beers that took years to come to fruition and the final product didn't disappoint. I also like the fact that we were able to incorporate native yeasts in the beer to bring focus to the Hill Country terroir,” says Ogershok.
Real Ale is widely available around Austin: on tap at locations such as Easy Tiger, Draughthouse, Hopfields, Barley Swine and by the bottle in stores such as Whole Foods, HEB, Central Market, Spec’s and Twin Liquors.
Thirsty Planet introduced its first keg in June 2010. Its beers quickly gained popularity, and it has been brewing at full-tilt with the expectations of doubling the production this year. That increase in capacity isn’t keeping up with demand in thirsty Austin, so the Planet is having four fermentation tanks made.
Owner and head brewer Brian Smittle had been brewing beer for almost 20 years in Colorado and Oklahoma before he chose to move to Austin. He fell in love with beer while studying politics in the U.K. “There was a pub in the basement and naturally I did a lot of ‘studying’ down there. To this day British style beers are my favorites,” says Smittle.
Thirsty Planet makes three year-round brews — Buckethead IPA, Yellow Armadillo Wheat and Thirsty Goat Amber — that are highly drinkable in the Texas heat.
“Our best selling beer, Thirsty Goat Amber, is a medium body beer with a beautiful reddish hue, a malty profile and a light spicy hop finish. This is my favorite beer because it goes great with lots of different food, and it’s a great session beer," says Smittle.
"Buckethead IPA is a big, aggressive IPA. The beer is 8.75 percent and 82 IBU. We use Magnum, Columbus, Summit and Cascade hops to brew it. Our Yellow Armadillo has a yellow straw color, a crisp tangy wheat taste, and a citrus finish."
Thirsty Planet also offers special and seasonal beers like the Silverback Pale Ale, Jittery Monk and Franklin Smoked Porter. Its beers are available on draft in 250 bars and restaurants in the Austin area. In addition, Thirsty Planet recently purchased a pre-owned Italian bottling machine with plans to sell 12-ounce six packs of all three year-round beers and 22-ounce bottles of specialty beers in local stores.
If you want to check out the facilities, tours are offered each Saturday starting in the spacious tasting room.
The 2013 Tastemaker Awards takes place Thursday, April 11 at The Driskill. Tickets are available now.