March 8, 2013

IM IN UR AUSTIN...DRINKING UR BEERZ Part 3

Saturday started bright and early with an 11am tour. We did a lot of day drinking this trip, which is actually kind of nice. On one hand, it's kind of lame to go to bed at 9-10pm when you're supposed to be celebrating but on the other hand it's great to wake up without a hangover and be ready for more drinking. No silly hangover remedies or struggle to drink more beer.

Thirsty Planet

Thirsty Planet is a small brewery on the western edge of Austin leading into the Hill Country suburbs where Jester King is and other breweries are moving out to. Thirsty Planet also has a small core line up and then embellishes it with seasonal offerings and one offs. The core line up is an American wheat (Yellow Armadillo), an amber (Thirsty Goat) and the obligatory IPA (Buckethead). The current seasonal is a smoked porter with grain smoked in house over local oak (Franklin Smoked Porter). They also had their fall seasonal on tap (Pumpkin Masala) which is a pumpkin ale with Indian spices. It's very interesting and well balanced. They also had a black IPA which was pretty good. $7 gets you a pint glass plus three full pint pours.

I'm not exactly sure how this happened but Thirsty Planet is running an advertising campaign with Guinness where they are advertising Thirsty Planet's Buckethead IPA with Guinness as a "Black & Buckethead" like a Half and Half. I thought it was just something they were doing in house until I saw a billboard for it downtown. I have to say, IPA plus Guinness is a really nice combination.

My wife and I are big fans of their beers. I'm not such a big fan of the IPA (just generally not an IPA fan, it's a well made IPA) but we like the amber and wheat a lot. There's only one Thirsty Planet tap in Dallas so we never see the seasonals up here.

The tour this trip was conducted by the head brewer/owner/president which was bad ass. Obviously he knew what he was talking about and was happy to share a ton of information. He had previously brewed for twenty-one years in Colorado so he really knew his brewing and knew all the big players in Colorado.

His brewhouse is really impressive. It's a small system (I didn't take notes but I believe he said it was a 15 barrel system) but constructed to be very efficient. All the water runs out of Austin municipal water and gets boiled to drive out chloramines. It's very calcium-heavy water so it builds a lot of calcium deposit inside the cold and hot liquor tanks. Rather than running glycol through the heat exchange he runs cold water from the cold liquor tank through it and then dumps that water into the hot liquor tank so he doesn't have to pay for the energy to chill the glycol and then pay for the energy to heat water. It's very efficient.

All the beers are fermented with the Chico strain, which is not very surprising since it's the workhorse strain for a lot of domestic brewers. The fermentors are thirty barrels so he brews a batch of a beer on day one and then brews it again on the second day and adds the second round of wort at high krausen. The beers sit for around two weeks between primary fermentation, clearing and then they lager the beers for a few days before transfer to the bright tank for packaging.

He also talked about the process for smoking grains, which was basically the same thing we do as homebrewers. He said he liked the flavor of oak best in the porter, which I agree it was a very soft smoke flavor that complimented the beer well. It didn't have some of the harsher flavor oak smoke sometimes can have (as I have experienced). He said it takes about two hours of smoking to get the right level of flavor which is my experience as well. He played with other woods and contemplated alderwood like what Alaskan uses in their well-regarded Smoked Porter but went with the oak. It makes sense, since the whole area out there is covered in oak.

He told the story of how he got started: when he first put in the brewery he tried to go around getting accounts to sell kegs to. He didn't have a bottling system to give samples at the restaurants and bars so he filled kegs and put a kegerator in the back of a van and went driving around to bars offering samples to the owners and managers. Normally you bring in bottles so they can pour them in the bar so when he would come in they would ask for the bottle and he would have to explain he didn't have any but there was a van outside with beer. So he'd convince them to come out to his van and drink beer. At one point he had the owner, bar manager and several bartenders from on restaurant drinking in his van and a few patrons ended up in there with them, all drinking beer. It obviously worked because now Thirsty Planet has a solid base in Austin. They have been open three years and doubled sales every year. That's great business. Only wish they had the capacity to satisfy their local accounts and send more beer up to Dallas.

Jester King

Ok, I'm just going to set the tone for this review at the beginning. I have a real love-hate relationship with Jester King. I love a few of their beers and I love that they have embraced farmhouse-style beers (which I love) and sour/wild beers (which I also love). I respect that they have been able to sustain and grow production of farmhouse beers and wild beers so much so that they are moving further away from brewing with isolated brewing yeast and more toward spontaneous and wild/sour brewing. I also respect that they have marketed themselves well as a brewery and created a very loyal following. However, that's also a lot of what I hate about them. Most of their beers, honestly, are not that great. Some of them I don't care for because they are too hoppy but generally they are mediocre beers. They have developed their loyal base as a cult of personality by hyping their beers up and kissing ass to the Beer Advocate crowd (craft beer's douchey-est drinkers).

They talk a great game and are trying to do some really interesting stuff but there's some serious dishonesty in what they do. A lot of their beers go out as terrible gushers. One early batch went out in champagne bottles and had to be recalled because the bottles were exploding. Champagne bottles are rated for twelve volumes of CO2. I don't even know how under-attenuated you have to be to blow up champagne bottles but that is a clear sign of not understanding the beer. They do a lot of brett dosing at bottling which is a great way to make a beer that ends up more on your counter than in your glass if the beer is not attenuated enough before bottling. They seem not to understand or care about that process. I think that's dishonest to your customers. They are doing some cool stuff but either blindly cutting corners to do the next experiment or just don't care enough about their beer to stop and do the right thing for their customers before trying the next crazy beer. In spite of my bad thoughts, I do buy their beers from time to time and like several. So as I said at the onset, my relationship with Jester King is love-hate.

What really disappointed me is how they have changed the tour. It used to be you got six eight ounce pours so you had time to sit down and really enjoy your beer before you got back in line. You chose your beers out of 8-10 beers. Now they have 10-11 beers and you get like two ounce pours of each so you spend your entire time in line. Not really a great experience. Even worse, they ran out of several beers during the tour and wouldn't offer to substitute anything else for it. Instead, the people pouring would just chastise people for not coming earlier (as though if everybody had been there at the start of the tour and immediately gotten all of their samples there would be enough beer for everybody). Jeffrey Stuffings (one of the owners) said online that the change to the tour was to accommodate the fact that they went from having 200-300 people at the tour to 400-500 so this way you could get to more beer. I guess he's right, the lines were all shorter than they used to be but now it's all standing in line the entire time. Again, it just sounds like they thought about themselves (what will accommodate more business) than what was best for the customer. I'd rather see them go to a ticket system to limit the number of people allowed in than make the experience worse. It's ok, we probably won't go back. Ok, let me move on to the beer we sampled and the tour.

Jester King always has some guest taps along the tour. I thought these beers were among the best on the line up. There was Kulmbacher Schwarzbier, always a good schwarzbier option. Mikkeller Yeast Series: Saison, a hoppy saison and probably the best Mikkeller beer I've had. Hirschaid Hirschentrunk rauchbier, which was an incredibly delicious rauchbier with plenty of smoke and munich malty flavor.

JK also put out their Noble King, which is a decent hoppy saison, Wytchmaker, a decent Rye IPA, and Bonnie the Rare, their berliner weisse that I really do not care for. I've tried and reviewed each of these on prior trips. JK also put out Weasel Rodeo, which is a imperial oatmeal stout with smoked malt, chipotle and coffee. JK fans think this beer is great but I think it's among the least impressive coffee/chile stouts I've had. The flavors are just sort of mixed together in a muddle. Nothing stands out nor are any of the ingredients distinguished enough. It's not a bad beer but also not worth $15 per bottle. The same is true of Black Metal, JK's imperial stout fermented with the house saison strain (3711). People talk of this as the best or second best imperial stout around. I disagree. Again, I think it's among one of the least impressive I've tried. I was excited to try this beer on the tour but it was a major let down. Like Weasel Rodeo, the flavors are just sort of muddled together like a bad soup. The saison strain doesn't fit well with the malt flavors. I'm not exactly sure how to put the saison strain with a stout in a way that makes sense but I'm also not trying to sell it away for $15/bottle.

There was a sour Black Metal with watermelon, which was a mix of 80% Black Metal and 20% sour beer blended with watermelon in the keg. I didn't think it worked well at all. Souring with dark malts is a tricky thing to do and I don't think whatever the sour beer was worked with the grain bill in Black Metal. The watermelon added a weird sort of muted melon flavor. I'm glad I got to try it even though I didn't care for it. I know lots of people liked it. It was strange and reminded me of that Buffalo Wild Wings homebrew commercial.

Last, we got to try El Cedro, which is a "hoppy cedar aged ale with brettanomyces" which sounded like Cigar City's cedar-aged IPA but with brett. I have to say, this was an excellent beer and among my favorite JK beers. Cedar gives beer a sort of dry character that in my opinion really only works well with hoppy beers. Brett also has that dry, funky character that works with both hops and the cedar, so the combination of all three produced a beer that was dry and refreshing but also full of funky, woody, grassy character. Definitely worth trying although I fear buying a bottle and opening it to watch it pour all over the counter since I believe this beer is dosed with brett at packaging.

So we hit the tour this time, which was pretty cool. The tour was led by Jeffery Stuffings, one of the two owners and the guy you might have heard on The Brewing Network talking about their beers. (Ron Extract was also there working one of the tap tents and looked like a real dick.) Stuffings is a nice guy and I get the impression that he is passionate about what they do and really buys into their farmhouse attitude which makes me believe that they don't understand what they are doing well enough to be advancing as far into old school techniques as they are. He's the guy talking in the front in this crappy phone pic to the right. As you can see, this is in the barrel room where they age bottles and kegs before distribution as well as the barrels. I didn't get a picture of it but to the right is a coolship. They are actually doing full spontaneous fermentations now. It's cool but we'll see how it plays out. He said they are working on moving away from using isolated yeast cultures and more towards using spontaneous fermentations and their own isolated cultures that they had a lab isolate from wort they left on top of the brewery one night. It's all cool work and the same sort of stuff I do at home and like to read about but I wish they would slow down a bit and drill down into the processes to prevent selling people gushing bottles.

To the left are some barrels marked as aging Boxers Revenge, which is a tasty sour brewed with lacto and brett they cultured out of the night sky locally. It's probably my favorite of their beers. It's 10% ABV, so among one of the biggest sour beers around.

















And to the right are some barrel of unknown beer. I snapped the picture because they are mezcal barrels. You don't see a lot of mezcal barrels used in brewing (mezcal is tequila but not from Jalisco and not 100% blue agave but with a nice smokey flavor) but I'm intrigued to see it and I wonder what will come out of it.

I'm probably being overly harsh towards Jester King. Looking over my past reviews I don't think I have the love for them that I do other Austin breweries but I seem to be getting more acidic (pun not intended) towards them. I think part of it is a strong dislike of the Jester King hype machine producing such a douchey following and part of it is seeing them engaging in making beer styles and brewing techniques I am really passionate about in a way that isn't doing it as well as it could be done and seems more directed towards satiating the hype they are creating more than creating the best beer possible. Reasonable people disagree. I really hope they reach a point where they understand their own processes better and improve the beer over time to what it could be and rely less on creating unnecessary hype to sell beer to people who are just looking to tick off a list of beers to say they tried it.

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