The hub of Austin's beer scene is the downtown and south Austin area. There's a lot of breweries putting out just a handful of beers but they are doing it with real style. And by real style, I mean not every beer is overloaded with hops (I'm talking to you, Deep Ellum Brewing). Actually, because central Texas has a significant eastern European and German influence, there's a strong showing for those styles. There's a great showing in the alt category. There's also a lot of Belgian beers floating around, especially saisons.
It's cool to go to a bar down there and see a significant number of taps controlled by local breweries. We don't have that here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, at least not yet. There's also lots of tours to knock out on a Saturday afternoon, although they all seem to do tours the same 1-4pm slot on Saturdays (except Real Ale which is 1-4pm on Fridays). Some breweries, like Live Oak and 512, only offer tours sporadically and require advance booking. The smaller breweries are open to all comers.
So like I said, I don't mean to try to dissect all of Austin, but I'll give a run down on my experience this last weekend and wrap it up with the one tour we (my wife and I) made it through.
Coming in on Friday night we stopped in at North by Northwest, a brewpub in the, as you can imagine, northwest part of Austin. Nice, trendy look with very reasonable beer prices and growlers. The growlers are awesome looking but we ended up not getting one. The beers here mostly suffered from the same sort of diluted, mass market appeal style that many larger craft breweries and many brewpubs chose to get people in the door. I'm not sure a watery hefeweizen sells better than a thick and flavorful hefeweizen but then again my livelihood doesn't rely on getting people to buy my beer. The brewers at NXNW definitely know what they are doing because they make specialty beers that were actually great. They had a saison that sat on the amber side (think Jenlain rather than Dupont) but had good flavor. There was also their porter aged in Jack Daniels barrels that was really great.
After a stop at the hotel we went to a small Austin haunt called whip in. Whip in is an interesting place. It's a bottle shop, a beer bar, a wine bar and a restaurant. You can buy beer from the bottle shop part and drink in the bar (at a $1 premium) or you can drink off the taps, which feature an array of local beers (and sake) and a short list of Belgian beers. The food has a decidedly Indian flare. Both the food and drink were great.
At whip in we tried several local delights. Hops & Grain made a good alt. I seem to think we tried Austin Beer Works' black lager but I can't recall for sure. We tried South Austin Brewing's saison d'austin which was great. Most notably, we tried Twisted X's senor viejo. What a spectacular beer. It's an imperial schwarzbier aged in tequila barrels. To be honest, I really thought the beer and tequila wouldn't blend well but it actually pairs perfectly. The oak and fruity agave melds well in the black lager. The only sad part was that we wanted to try so much and so many were high ABV that we were getting too drunk to keep drinking more. We also finished off a half pint of Real Ale's Kraken, which is their barleywine (Sisyphus) but barrel aged. Really good stuff. The barleywine itself is very hoppy so a little age and oak helps mellow it out. (Sisyphus is also delicious on cask.)
After that we took a break before heading to the Gingerman, a great beer chain, with my brother who lives in Austin. Reasonable prices and a healthy selection. Unlike the Gingerman locations locally (Fort Worth and Dallas, shortly one in Southlake about 10 minutes away) which only have a handful of local taps, the Austin location was probably half local taps. Here we also enjoyed some Live Oak Big Bark amber and Thirsty Planet Brewing's Thirsty Goat amber (I preferred the latter, my wife the earlier). We also had Thirsty Planet's Jittery Monk, which is a coffee infused quad. Delicious. We had South Austin's Golden Ale, which was also delicious but didn't have the dryness of Duvel, normally associated with the style.
The next day we planned to get wasted on 6th Street with some friends who came down (and we did) but before that we wanted to pick up some beer to bring home and take a tour to Jester King, a local farmhouse-style brewery, that I only recently learned is really distributing far and wide. Before getting to the tour, we stopped at Specs, which is a chain of large liquor stores in the southern half of Texas (but now finally in Dallas). We had also bought some beers at whip in on the way out so we came home with a nice selection of brews. Our cellar additions include: New Belgium's Tart Lychee oak aged beer with lychee and cinnamon, Left Hand's Smoked Jumper smoked imperial stout, Sierra Nevada's Ovila Saison, Ommegang Art of Darkness quad, South Austin's Golden Ale, Widmer Brother's Kill Devil brown ale aged in rum barrels, Ranger Creek Mesquite Smoked Porter, Adelbert's Scratchin' Hippo bierre de garde and Adelbert's Naked Nun wit. South Austin and Adelbert's are both Austin breweries. Ranger Creek is a San Antonio brewery.
After securing our new beer in the hotel room we drove out to Jester King, which is situated about 30 minutes west of Austin. Once you get outside of Austin it's all small communities and farm/ranch land. Jester King sits on a large plot of land in the middle of nowhere. It's a farmhouse brewery is the literal sense. Although there's no actual farming (that I saw) the brewery is either a renovated steel barn or was built to look like one. The fermenting space is enclosed but there's no insulation on the walls and no air conditioning. I assume they use something to keep the fermenters warm during the winter but I can't imagine how they keep them cool during 100+ temperature days. That means the only real way to ferment is with a strain capable of producing tasty flavors at that temperature. I suspect they also brew mostly seasonally so their saisons are brewed in the warmer months and the stout and other beers in the cooler months. They also have a barrel room which occupies the back half of a storage area that conditions their more wild beers.
The yeast strain used in all of Jester King's farmhouse/saison beers comes from a French saison brewery but they didn't say which one. I don't feel like it tastes exactly like Dupont but I can't rule it out, either. I neglected to stick around the guide after the tour with the other homebrewers. The strain has great flavor, with lots of lemon and pepper. It's very versatile and works well in their stronger beers, lighter beers and hoppy beers.They also cultured, with the help of a lab, lacto and brett by leaving pans of wort on top of the brewery and then letting a lab pull out brett and lacto and grow them up for use. These critters do the heavy lifting in the barrels.
The tour is a good deal. It's $10 for a very nice goblet-style glass and six half pints. It's an exceptional deal since the average ABV of the beers was 6%. Jester King does lots of collaborating with Mikkeller, that strange Belgian brewer that has no home (Mikkeller does all their beers by contract through other breweries), so in addition to JK's beers there was also a Mikkeller guest tap available at the tour. One thing I can say about JK is they love to use their hops. Maybe a bit too much. I felt like it was all hops for a while, but as they say on the tasting card, "[w]e brew what we like, drink what we want, and offer the rest to those who share our tastes." Here's the rundown on the beers we tried:
Le Petit Prince - (a table beer at a lowly 2.9% ABV) was actually a really tasty beer and one of my favorites. The yeast carries the flavor and the hops are present but play a background role.
Noble King - (a hoppy farmhouse ale) although hoppy I liked this beer as well and felt the yeast flavors still came through nicely. Easily worth purchasing in the bottle.
Drink'in the Sunbelt - (hoppy wheat beer, collaboration with Mikkeller) this was not a great beer IMO. I had actually tried this in the bottle before and didn't care for it. It's overly hoppy with no real wheat flavor or yeast flavor. It's all hops and not in a good way. No thanks.
Wytchmaker - (Rye IPA) also tasty even though it was heavy handed with the hops. I believe this is also made with the house saison strain, which lead to some interesting flavor. I probably wouldn't run out to buy a bottle -- I haven't yet -- but I would be happy to drink it again.
Mikkeller Bravo - (single hop IPA) this guest tap from Mikkeller was pretty good; much better than the collaboration. The bravo hops lend a nice flavor and aroma all on their own and the beer didn't have overpowering bitterness.
Boxer's Revenge - (9.4% ABV wild ale) this is one of their brett/lacto beers coming out of the barrel room. Easily the star of the list. Although it has a little bit of a boozy note, it's a great beer and one I have tried to run out and buy but cannot find. The aroma is distinctly brett. The flavor and aroma is full of cherry pie with hints of tropical fruit, earthiness and leather. There's just a little sourness on the beer, which is probably due to the high ABV keeping the lacto restrained. The tartness gives the beer balance and drives the brett flavor towards fruity and funky over earthy and barnyardy. It reminded me of lambic but if you took the prominence of the funk and sourness and reversed it so the funk takes the more prominent position. I really hope to find this beer floating around local stores so I can pick up a bottle. If the dregs happen to find themselves in one of my beers, well, that wouldn't be the end of the world.
To conclude on the tour, the tour itself is the standard, "beer is made from four ingredients..." but it's worth trying the beers and seeing the non-refrigerated brewery at work. The brewer seemed willing to entertain the endless homebrewer questions, so that's a plus, too. If you only have one shot at a tour I would probably try for Live Oak or 512 because I like more of each brewery's beers but JK is still a great option. The only downside is if you go out to JK unless you pound down those beers it's pretty hard to try to make it back into downtown or south Austin to hit any other tours that day.