September 5, 2012

Austin Beer Adventures -- August/September 2012 Part 2

Friday ended on a less positive note than we had hoped but we made up for it in a hurry on Saturday. Saturday started bright and early at 11am with our first of two tours.

Thirsty Planet Brewing Co.

Thirsty Planet is a small brewery located just west of Austin in the growing alcohol hub of Dripping Springs. Dripping Springs is home to Thirsty Planet, Jester King and Twisted X breweries along with Dripping Springs Vodka. I believe there is also a tequila or whisky distiller out there, too. Thirsty Planet is a neat little operation just a street east of the exit for Jester King. They are a fairly new operation but they have been steadily growing in the Austin area by offering a limited but high quality line up of beers. Their flagship beers are Thirsty Goat Amber, Buckethead IPA and Yellow Armadillo American Wheat. They also make an incredible coffee dubbel, a couple pale ales, a smoked porter, an oktoberfest and something else I am forgetting. They are also working on a couple more coffee-infused Belgian beers.

The tour is the standard quick tour of the brewery and how brewing works. It is a free tour and happens twice on Saturdays, once at 11am and once at 1pm. Going on the tour is not required to sample beer. You can get three free four ounce pours with the tour or pay $7 for a pint glass and get three full pints. So it's a good deal either way. Since we were still recovering from excessive drinking on Friday night we stuck to the samples (although the brewer running the taps was nice enough to give us a fourth taste).

I hit Thirsty Goat, which is a really nice amber. The brewer on the tour disclosed that it's brewed with an ale yeast but it's really clean and could just as well pass as an amber. I suspect, but failed to ask, that all of their beers are strictly ales since they do not have cold storage and running glycol jackets at 32F for months in an un-air conditioned facility would be cost prohibitive. Plus they don't have enough tanks to give up room for storage.

I also tried the Yellow Armadillo which was a really pleasant American wheat. I'm usually not a fan of American wheats because they either tend to be unnecessarily hoppy or disappointingly bland. This beer was neither. It was light and crisp with a nice lemon-citrus note. The lemon-citrus note is not overpowering or make you feel like the beer is served with fruit (if that kind of thing offends you). Instead, it makes the beer thirst quenching and easy to drink, which is what you want on a hot Texas day.

I had a couple tastes of the pale ale available, TraditionALE. This beer would probably ruffle the feathers of most pale ale fans because it lacked a noticeable bitterness. Instead, the hops were present as more of a flavor and aroma element. The malt came through a lot, similar to an english-style pale ale rather than an APA. It would probably ruffle fewer feathers by being called a bitter or even an ESB but I'm not a stickler for style so I just enjoyed the beer for what it was: tasty. TraditionALE is not among the standard line up for the brewery but I hope it becomes one because I'd like to enjoy it again.

In addition to the bit about the amber being an ale, the other interesting point on the tour was that they use their yeast for a surprising fifteen generations. For homebrewers who are scared to reuse yeast more than a few times, it goes to show that careful sanitation practices can really extend the life of your yeast purchases. The tour wasn't really much more exciting than that but if you're heading out to Jester King or find yourself in Austin and looking for something to do on a Saturday afternoon it's worth the trip.

Jester King Brewery

Jester King has a solid following for their beers, partially due to their very effective marketing strategy of hyping up their beers and staying engaged with their customers. I'm not a particularly huge fan of the hype or all of their beers but I do appreciate their efforts to bring farmhouse-style brewing to Texas. They do a great job of taking legendary saison strain 3711 and coaxing out some great lemony esters out of it that I have seen few American brewers do so well. However, I think they bowl over a lot of the hard work of the yeast with an unnecessary amount of hops. They have started displaying several of their beers on cask and/or gravity kegs, which is a strange thing for farmhouse ales which have a long history of being highly carbonated. Jester King has started putting some of these options on their tour tastings which is a nice way to try them out without having to drop $6 on a whole pint to see if you like it. (I tried Le Petit Prince on cask some months ago and found it lost all the yeast character and what little malt profile the table saison had. It was just very watery.)

On this trip we decided to skip the tour because it's not particularly interesting and with how hot it was on Saturday (almost 100F), standing in a small space with no breeze and a bunch of people sounded terrible. Instead, we enjoyed lazily sipping on the beers available that day and tried to wait through the long lines that developed as the day progressed. So here's what we had at ol' Jester King:

The guest tap was filled with Middleton Brewing's (Wimberley, Texas) Belgian Golden Strong Ale. I gave it a whirl because we don't get their beers in Dallas. I'm ok with that. It was not nearly dry enough and the yeast character was suppressed and uninteresting. It needs some work. Although I don't believe all BGSA need hop character, this one would benefit from it.

Mad Meg Provision Ale is a boozy biere de provision (or biere de garde) ale clocking in at 9.6% ABV. This beer was a great example of how Jester King overwhelms some beers with too much hops. The hops overrode the yeast character and the malt, which really isn't appropriate for the style. I could see the beer being better after laying down for a while to allow the hop character to break down and slide into the background. Otherwise the beer wasn't too bad. As it warmed the alcohol became more noticeable. It wasn't particularly bad but not one I feel I need to have again.

Das Wunderkind! is another sour offering from Jester King (following the very delicious Boxer's Revenge). It is a sour saison missing the strong brett character of Boxer's Revenge. A hint of saison yeast character was present but subdued, along with some malt character. However, the souring bacteria left the beer with some slight funk and tart aromas that develop into tart lactic acid in the flavor. I enjoyed this beer a lot although I think it's missing some of the complexity that goes along with sour saisons when the brett is more present. The lactic character was very noticeable and stood out from the beer, which is a quality I notice in my sour mashed brett saison. At any rate, the beer is very good and worth trying if you can get your hands on it.

Weasel Rodeo is a collaboration between gypsy brewer Mikkeller and Jester King. It is a substantial beer at 10.1% ABV and lists as an imperial oatmeal stout. It contains smoked malt, chipotle and Vietnamese coffee. These flavors dominate the beer although they are well balanced. There is a hint of heat, a hint of smoke and a nice slug of coffee. It reminded me of the chile stouts and porters from Colorado but lacking the depth of either Copper Kettle's Mexican Chocolate Stout or New Belgium's Cocoa Mole Porter. Maybe this kind of beer just needs the chocolate to bring everything together. Weasel Rodeo was a good beer but not one I would seek out myself because it seems to lack that depth and element of completeness.

Bonnie the Rare is an exceptionally hyped berliner weisse. I had recently read some less than promising reviews but since this was only my second berliner weisse I wanted to try it out. As the other reviews suggested, the beer lacks any real tartness but there is a lot of funky flavor. There isn't a lot of malt character to the beer but there is some funk to it that comes across like greek yogurt but without any tartness. The aroma had a cheesiness to it that wasn't exactly pleasant. I suspect that this berliner weisse was either not boiled or boiled for a very short period of time to produce the more funky flavors that do not show up after my sour mashed beers get a 60 or 90 minute boil. I've seen other homebrewers talk about the cheesy aroma from beers either not boiled or boiled for short periods of time. I thought this beer was interesting to try but I think I am just not the biggest fan of the style.

Noble King is Jester King's hoppy saison and what I consider to be it's flagship farmhouse ale (although they might disagree that any one beer acts as their flagship). It's a beer I like in spite of the hoppy overload but this weekend it was served on gravity keg so I wanted to see how that changed the beer. Was I ever glad I did. The beer underwent a complete transformation, much in the same way a cask can really change a beer. Gone was most of the carbonation but it took a lot of the bitterness from the hops and some of the hop flavor, leaving behind a beer that was slightly thicker in mouthfeel, but without feeling heavy, and allowed the yeast character to shine through and play well with the Saaz and EKG hops. It developed a great complexity. It was everything I had hoped Le Petit Prince could have been on cask. Easily ranked right up there as my favorite beer at Jester King with Das Wunderkind! and possibly surpassing it. If I could find this beer on gravity keg locally I would drink a lot of it.

So that was my experience. I think these reviews read negatively but there were some standouts and some misses but when you're trying new beers you can't expect every beer to be a knockout for your particular tastes. The tour is $10 for six 330ml pours and you keep the glass. We took our time drinking on this tour so I left only slightly buzzed instead of our rapid paced drinking last time where we left a lot more than slightly buzzed. It's good value, especially on slow weekends when the lines to the taps are short. It's also better when the temperature is less oppressive. Jester King is very good about updating the list of available beers for the tours each weekend and it changes from weekend to weekend. The problem is the list can update several times during the week so check it Saturday morning before you ride out. You may not find six beers you really want on the list.

Various Other Beers Worth Mentioning

Although our touring was over mid-afternoon we wanted to drink some other beers around Austin. Most of the beers we had were outstanding so I'd like to give them a quick review as well because they deserve some love. We brought back a few beers from the very excellent bottle shop Specs, including: Ranger Creek Small Batch #1 and #2; A'Chouffe McChouffe; New Belgium Peach Porch Lounger; Great Divide Wolfgang; and DeProef Zoetzuur. So those are nice additions to our growing beer cellar. We also stopped for beer at Whip In, Gingerman and Abel's on the Lake, all providing us with good times and good beer.

Live Oak Roggenbier was phenomenal, as all Live Oak beers are. I've never had a Live Oak beer I didn't like and the roggenbier did not disappoint. The grain flavor is a combination of rye and wheat and that combination creates a beer with a nice, thick mouthfeel just shy of their hefeweizen. It isn't hoppy, instead it lets the rye and wheat come through unhindered. The rye gives the beer a spicy tartness that keeps the beer in line.

Rahr Hatch Chile Blonde on cask was a surprising find in Austin but since I also have a recipe for a hatch chile blonde I had to try it out. The underlying beer was a very basic blonde and the hatch chile came through clearly but sits more in the background than in my own recipe. The cask added a nice creaminess to the beer. I don't know if the chile would be more prominent under higher carbonation but I felt like it could use some more chile flavor. Otherwise it was a good beer.

Ranger Creek is a fairly new player from San Antonio that has seen the light about how saturated the craft beer industry is so they have diversified their business by brewing beer and distilling. The brewery is owned by homebrewers-turned-pros so they are kind enough to put up homebrew recipes for their major releases. We found Ranger Creek's Small Batch #2 on tap at Whip In and had to try. It is a smoked spelt saison in which the malt is smoked over four kinds of wood: peach, apricot, apple and plum. I'll be honest, I never thought I would enjoy a smoked saison but being a saison lover, I could not resist trying it out. I'm glad I did and ever more happy I brought home a bottle. The smoke is perfectly balanced in the beer; it sits in the background adding a noticeable smokiness but without being abrasive. The smoke from the fruit woods is more gentle than beechwood (used in rauchmalz) or oak (used in smoked wheat malt). Hints of the fruit comes through and marries with the fruity yeast esters and spicy phenols. The spelt offers some rustic character to the malt bill and keeps it from getting lost behind the yeast flavors and smoke. It is complex but dry which allows you to drink it faster than the beer deserves. It should be thought over and enjoyed slowly as it warms and allows the flavors to develop. Although a smoked saison might not be my preference every time I reach for a saison, I would put this one up there with my favorites from Funkwerks and Dupont. (Completely unrelated to the flavor of the beer, the bottles used for the small batch series are the same bottles Russian River had designed and cast for their own 330ml bottling.)

Last, I was able to track down Real Ale's current Mysterium Verum offering: Scots Gone Wild, a sour scotch ale. Since I enjoy both scotch ales and sours, I really wanted to find this beer. Real Ale took its scotch ale (Real Heavy) and aged it for six months in oak barrels with a mix of souring bacteria and brett. It was a really complex beer. It is similar to an oud bruin with the dark grain flavors and sweet-sour mix of flavors but far more complex than any oud bruin (or backsweetened Flanders red) I have tried. The prominent flavors were the heavy caramel flavors from the scotch ale, vanilla oakiness from relatively short time in the barrels, slight brett funk and cherry pie. Although it's an excellently complex beer, I probably wouldn't pay $10 for a half pour again just because I found it a little too sweet for my tastes. The sweet-sour blend reminded me of Duchess de Bourgogne but lacked that foul balsamic vinegar flavor of Duchess. I hear a local bar is pouring it at $4 so if I find myself there I'd probably pick up another half pint to ponder over but I don't think I could drink it all night. I just prefer a drier sour for myself. Regardless, it is an excellently constructed beer and worth trying if you can find it.


Well, that's it. This was a shorter adventure than my recent Colorado trip but a good trip nonetheless. Had some great beers and some beers I didn't necessarily like but I enjoyed the experience anyway. Trying new beers both good and bad is good for me to see what works and what doesn't for my own brewing. Since the school semester is starting up and it seems to be just as busy as the last several I don't see myself venturing out for a lot of beer adventures in the near future, so my posting going forward for the next several months will be more focused on homebrewing.

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