Cheers to Beers

3 beloved Austin breweries celebrate big birthdays — and reveal what's brewing next

3 Austin breweries celebrate big birthdays — and reveal what's next

Craft breweries beer cans Zilker Brewing Company Austin Beerworks Uncle Billy's
Three local craft breweries are celebrating big birthdays this year. Photo by Nicole Raney

There's a lot to celebrate in Austin's craft beer scene right now, including milestone birthdays for three favorite breweries. This year, Zilker Brewing Company turns 1, Austin Beerworks is 5, and Uncle Billy’s celebrates a decade. While all three quench Austin's thirst for craft beer, each represents a different slice of the beer scene, from urban bar to traditional brewery to neighborhood brewpub.

CultureMap caught up with all of them to discuss their significant anniversaries — and what's brewing next.

Zilker Brewing Company, 1 year
Newbies to the scene, the three amigos from Zilker Brewing Company have actually been around a lot longer than you might think. After about five years of home-brewing out of a garage, Marco Rodriguez and brothers Forrest and Patrick Clark decided to elevate their home-brew project to brewery status in 2012, but they didn't open the doors to the actual brewery until 2015. Why? They were looking for the perfect spot: A sweet piece of real estate on East Sixth Street.

Being a brewery and taproom inside of an urban district, as opposed to something more industrial, does a lot to build the Zilker brand. Swing by any afternoon, and you'll see the place packed with a mixture of craft beer lovers and the usual east side crowd.

But getting people into the taproom is just one piece of the puzzle. Sourcing hops, nailing down contracts for brewing supplies, and getting new equipment are the biggest challenges for a young brewery. "There's no formula out there to match production to demand. It's never going to be perfect," says Forrest Clark. "We're just growing how people want us to grow."

And people want more Zilker beers. The brewery pumped out close to 500 barrels in 2015; right now it's at capacity and is on track to brew 1,500 to 2,000 barrels in 2016. In just one short year, Zilker's mainstay beers like the Marco IPA went from being available only on the east side to lining the shelves of local H-E-Bs.

As distribution grows, the Zilker crew takes measures to preserve their identity. "We self-distribute our beer, which goes along with the culture of being involved in our community," says Clark. "Building those personal relationships has been really cool for us."

In the next year they'll continue to grow the taproom, because onsite sales are a huge part of revenue and the brand. "Every beer we make is an expression of the past year and what we've been through," says Clark.

Austin Beerworks, 5 years
It's hard to believe that Austin Beerworks — with its large following — is only 5 years old. The fearsome foursome of founders Adam DeBower, Will Golden, Michael Graham, and Mike McGovern set out half a decade ago to create an Austin brewery that focuses on "quality of beer and quality of life," as DeBower puts it.

That mantra is embodied in all of its four core beers — Peacemaker Anytime Ale, Pearl-Snap German-style Pils, Black Thunder German-style Schwarz, and Fire Eagle American IPA — and the culture of the brewery.

"Our culture is a huge part of the company, making sure that people are treated right and have a fun time," says Golden. "I think we keep a pretty good hold on that."

Branding is another vital part of the business. Christian Helms of Helms Workshop, who helped designed the Austin Beerworks look, serves as the fifth team member and "bad idea filter" for crazy stunts such as the 99 packs of beer and the officially unofficial Festbier. According to Graham, they "don't take anything else seriously except the beer."

This business has met a few challenges along the way (you'd be surprised how hard it is to come up with an original name for a beer), but the brewery's growth and success far outweighs any setbacks. Graham says the past five years "definitely exceeded our best-case scenario." And that's putting it mildly: Austin Beerworks blew past its five-year growth prediction in its second year.

"I think we've been fortunate that we've always been behind demand," explains Graham. "It's let us choose our own adventure. We've been able to grow in our own direction at our own pace."

In April, the brewery revealed plans to expand into a recently vacated adjoining space, which means more seasonal beers, more distribution, a brand-new barrel-aging program, and a Michael Hsu-designed taproom (no word yet on the proposed waffle llama bar).

Where does that put Austin Beerworks in the next five years? "Still here kicking ass, hopefully," says Golden.

Right now, the brewery sells about 99.9 percent of its beers within 15 miles of the brewery, and the team doesn't see a need to expand beyond that market. After all, Austinites are a thirsty bunch.

"We never wanted to be the biggest brewery — we wanted to be the best brewery," says DeBower. "Although we are currently the biggest brewery in Austin, Texas," he adds with a laugh.

Uncle Billy's, 10 years
Do you know who Uncle Billy is? The brewpub and barbecue joint on Barton Springs Road was named after William Barton, a little-known fact but an important part of the story of how Uncle Billy's came to be.

"I decided to do a barbecue place, but it was really all about the beer. And that was how Uncle Billy's was born. Paying homage to an Austin icon that founded this great city," says founder Rick Engel, who is also behind Little Woodrow's and Ski Shores Cafe. "I knew I wanted it to become a local Austin place."

And it did. Ask any of the regulars and they'll tell you that Uncle Billy's has always been a neighborhood barbecue joint. However, its reputation as a craft brewery is finally getting the recognition it deserves. In 2013, Texas legislation changed to allow brewpubs to distribute its beer through third parties and sell to retailers. Two years later, Uncle Billy's underwent a rebranding process: New cans, new beers, and a new look were in order.

Since then, things have really taken off for the 10-year-old brewery. Cans of Green Room IPA, Lazy Day Lager, and Barton Springs Pale Ale can be found all around Austin. "Now that we are distributing out there a little more, the brand and the story is out there a little more," says Engel. "I was surprised that once we started distributing that it would do as well as it does."

With Uncle Billy's expansion, the team is feeling out potential brewing contracts with other facilities to meet demand. That way they can make more beers without compromising the character of the original location.

"We want to be the best brewpub we can be in Austin and distribute throughout Texas. And one day we'll be outside of Texas," says Engel. "Uncle Billy's can be enjoyed in New York, Wisconsin, California, Portland, wherever. All over the country, and maybe all over the world."

But they'll always strive to keep the same vibe, as head brewer Trevor Nearburg describes it. And as the brewery grows, Uncle Billy's will still be Uncle Billy's. "I have such fun drinking craft beer, eating barbecue, listening to live music," says Nearburg about the craft beer heaven. "This is everything that Austin needs to be."