March 3, 2014

Drinking in Austin: The 2014 Edition

My wife and I were able to carve out some time in our busy schedule to take a weekend visit to Austin for some drinking. If you've read about any of our other beer vacations then you know we come in to an area like locusts. We arrive and systematically consume as much beer as possible before moving on. This trip was just as meticulously planned as the rest but for whatever reason we ended up drinking a lot less than we usually do. Nevertheless, we scored some fantastic beers and visited some great breweries so it was great downtime and great drinking. Let's get to it.

Hops & Grain Brewing

Hops and Grain is a small(ish) outfit in east Austin that features a core line up of five beers with a wide array of brewery-only releases. On occasion one of these brewery-only releases makes it out of the brewery but the easiest way to track down their crazy options is to visit the taproom. Among these releases include their barrel aged and sour (and barrel aged) beers. What's most interesting about their special releases is that they use their Alt--the flagship beer--for so many of their barrel and sour beers. A soured alt isn't just another take on a Flemish red.

The recently expanded taproom is a nice and spacious. It's the exact opposite of the old taproom, which was small and ridiculously hot no matter how hot or cold it was outside. The new taproom has plenty of seating and lots of air conditioning. The expanded taproom was supposed to coincide with a changeover to a brewpub license so H&G could sell beer by the pour. What H&G apparently did not realize is that their current zoning prohibits them from selling beverages. So they can sell a glass with multiple free pours but they can't sell by the pour. So $10 gets you either three full pours (sort of) or six half pours. The barrel and sour beers only sell by the half pour regardless of which option you buy so it doesn't make much sense to get the full pours. You can also only get one of each of the barrel and sour beers although there didn't seem to be much control on that policy unless the bartender just happened to know that he had served you that particular beer.

We were fortunate to get our hands on SupPorter, a Baltic porter with coffee that is helping raise money for Whole Planet, a microlending organization that works to alleviate poverty. It has big coffee and chocolate character. It definitely isn't messing around with the coffee addition. It's a big 8% beer but goes down really easily, especially if you're a big coffee fan.

The two barrel/sour beers available were Funkin' Alt and ALTerFUNKtion. Funkin' Alt is a barrel-aged version of the Alt with some bacteria and brett. It has low acidity and moderate funk. The biggest change in the beer is the mellowing effect of time (and micro-oxygenation) which smooths out some of the chocolate character in the base beer. I believe these beers either go into new or extremely gently used barrels because the oak character is prominent without any spirit or wine coming in. There's lots of vanilla and some woody character. The taste of oak is unmistakable.

ALTerFUNKtion also begins life as the Alt but goes in as a second fill in the barrels that once held Funkin' Alt. It is more funky and definitely more sour with a less prominent oak character. There is obviously more brett involvement in this beer because the transformation of the malt character is more obvious on the funky barnyard edge. As much as it may look like a Flemish red and taste like a close cousin of that style, it is definitely a different beer. No obvious acetic character shows up. The funk and sour is far more restrained compared to most Flemish reds. The restrained sweetness from the Alt results in a beer that carries a different set of flavors from the crystal-forward recipes of many Flemish reds. It's a drier taste that might be mistaken for less complexity but is just more subtle.

512 Brewing Co.

I've been trying to get inside 512 Brewing for a long time. Almost as long as I waited to score access to Live Oak last year. This trip I finally scored tickets to the tour. What a surprise. The actual brewery is surprisingly small for how prominent they are here in Texas. I didn't get a picture of the whole brewery but it's very tightly fit together. They self-distribute all the beer they make, which relies on six core beers (Wit, IPA, Pale Ale, Black IPA, Pecan Porter and Cascabel Cream Stout) plus an anniversary beer and a few one-offs like Double Pecan Porter. The picture to your right is part of the small set of barrels 512 uses to release a barrel aged version of the Double Pecan Porter, plus some casks. 512's beers are solid on all fronts and they are doing great business producing beers that are high quality but approachable. Lots of the C hops up in their beers. No scrambling to find the newest hop to shove in their IPA, which is half of all sales (Pecan Porter is another 25%).

If you've been on one tour you've heard the standard, "beer is made of four ingredients..." speech. It's rare when you start hearing something new along the way. We were fortunate enough to get a tour from the head brewmaster, who did a really good job of balancing technical discussion with the basics. What I found surprising is how low Austin water is in minerals, although it is ground water. 512 only filters out the chloramine from the municipal water and adds a little calcium. Sure would be nice if I could get by on the same thing here.

Perhaps the best part of the tour is that it's $10 for a glass plus unlimited amounts of beer. Well, I imagine there is a limit but whatever it is I didn't get to it. I really enjoyed the Black IPA but my favorite drink at the brewery is a half and half of the Pecan Porter and IPA that they call "The Hamilton" after their distribution manager (I think that's who he is). It's a really interesting blend of citrus and pecan. However, aside from the beer I enjoyed talking to one of the brewers, who was extremely friendly. We talked about Portland, which will be a nice long visit in April.

Twisted X Brewing

Twisted X has been on my radar since I first tried their beers a few years ago. They finally moved out of their initial space northwest of Austin (Cedar Park) into a permanent home southwest of Austin (Dripping Springs). Twisted X refers to its beers as "Tex Mex" which they sort of explain on the website is due to their "Mexican-style lager" centered lineup.


The line up includes (moving left to right in the tasters) a Mexican-style lager, a jalapeno lager, an amarillo-forward IPA, a Vienna-style lager, an imperial schwarzbier aged in tequila barrels and a prickly pear lager (not shown). My wife and I were huge fans of the schwarzbier and that's what we were hunting down when we made the trip out to Twisted X. We were a little less impressed with the beer this time. It seemed like the tequila flavor was more dominant and distinctly fruitier than our initial interaction with the beer, so much so that it really took away from the beer. The rest of the beers are fine but honestly not something worth driving out of the way to find. The "premium" Mexican-style lager and Vienna-style lager are both explained on the brewery's website to replicate commercial examples from Mexico. That's accurate but I guess I don't see why I would drive out to the middle of nowhere to drink the same thing that I can find in every gas station and grocery store. The other beers might be slightly more exotic but they aren't done so exotically that I feel a future visit is necessary. It's too bad about the schwarzbier. We were so looking forward to it. I'd drink it again but it doesn't call out to me anymore.

Jester King Brewing

If you've read any of my past Austin drinking reviews then you know I have had an ax to grind about Jester King the past few times because I find many of their business practices more focused on creating a cult following and then draining those folks of money rather than making beers that stand up to the image Jester King has put out for itself. Since we were already near Jester King we decided to give them another shot and see if things had changed with their conversion over to a brewpub.

If you know anything about the recent hype around Jester King then you know they have moved into spontaneous fermentation and using local wild yeast over their prior use of commercial yeast strains. Surely, then, you know the massive hype among beer douches beer traders hunting down these spontaneous beers. There is definitely massive hype around these beers.

I was interested in trying some of the new beers because I actually do like several of Jester King's beers even if I rarely buy them due to price and various other complaints I've aired out enough not to need to repeat them here. We were able to score atrial rubicite and la vie en rose. Atrial is a highly sought after beer on the beer trading market. It's a spontaneously fermented beer with raspberries. After the barrels are drained they dump the base beer for la vie en rose on the raspberries and let it ferment out. I have to say, I just don't get the hype. These are some mediocre at best beers.

Atrial has a huge raspberry character to it. It's surprisingly sweet for being a spontaneously fermented beer (but I don't know how long it aged or aged on the fruit). The sourness is "tart" and it seems like it's all coming out of the raspberry. There's some funk in there but it's not necessarily a pleasant funk. It's not typical brett character (and not the brett character in Boxer's Revenge, the sour beer Jester King makes with brett isolated locally) it's more like a wild sacc strain. It's not very strong in the beer but it's just sort of in the background. It reminds me most of saisons brewed with the Dupont strain on the cool side. There's just sort of a weird muddled funk.

La vie en rose is lighter with far less raspberry character. There's actually not a lot going on with the beer in general except for the yeast character is very pronounced. A little acidity but lots of that muddled funk character. My wife said it smelled and tasted like piss. She wasn't wrong, really. It was one of the less pleasant beers I've ever drank.

Bleh.

Whip-In/Kamala Brewing (Formerly Namaste Brewing)

Ok, back to happier times. Whip In was a pretty badass place before they started brewing but they have really taken that dingy place to a new level with their beers. Initially releasing their beers under the name Namaste Brewing they ran afoul of Dogfish Head. Dogfish Head owns the trademark to the term Namaste for brewing purposes. When Whip In's brewers scored medals at the GABF they ended up on DFH's radar and the race was on. DFH said either stop using the name or limit yourself to only selling onsite. The Whip In owner pointed out how ridiculous it is that a white guy can legally own the name of a word that has religious meaning in another culture--the culture of the owner of Whip In--for its own profitability. Then the Whip In feller gave in. They rebranded themselves Kamala Brewing. Kamala is the Hindu goddess of greed.Our bartender the night we visited is also a brewer and said at the end of the GABF he was rolling around the conference with the medal for their ESB and came across somebody from DFH. The DFH guy saw the label on this bartender's shirt that he was from Namaste Brewing and that led to the whole mess.

Kamala Brewing is dumping out some great beers on a half barrel system. Yes, a half barrel. They are looking to upgrade to a three barrel system. That's a tiny system but they are working it really well. There were two beers on tap from Kamala that night so I had to give them a whirl.

Smoked Austiner is a smoked berliner weisse. I'm not a huge berliner weisse fan but I really liked this beer. The smoke came and cleaned up all the things about berliner weisse I dislike and left behind a pleasantly tart and smoky beer that was dangerously easy to drink.

The other beer was Shiva Love, an imperial oatmeal stout with strawberries. I've had strawberry stouts before and liked them well enough. This one was incredible. The stout came out boldly with the roast, coffee and chocolate you expect but with the creamy oatmeal edge. Surprisingly, the strawberry flavor and aroma was really powerful. Strawberry is tricky to work with because it's not a fruit with a lot of acidity so once you ferment out the sugar there's not a lot to drive the fruit flavor. Like New Glarus's fruit beers, Kamala killed off the yeast before adding fruit so the beer would stay sweet enough to keep that fruit flavor up in your face. The pours were expensive but really worth it.

And some other great beers worth mentioning...

Among our drinking around town there were some beers we came across separate from an associated brewery visit worth mentioning:

  • Live Oak Schwarz Rauch (at Austin Draughthouse): Live Oak is well-regarded for their German-style brewing for good reason. Their regular schwarzbier is their spring seasonal and a tasty beverage with a subtle smoky tone but the addition of rauchmalz really picks up the smoke flavor and brings it to the forefront. It's a good smoked beer that balanced a solid smoke character while allowing the rest of the beer to shine. I believe this beer was either a substitute spring seasonal or a one-off variant released for the season.
  • Real Ale California Common (at Craft Pride): Real Ale was often disregarded by craft drinkers as one of those breweries with good but boring beer. Their core lineup harkens back to their 1990s founding although those beers are fantastic examples of the craft styles popular at the brewery's inception. They have been stepping up their game over the past several years by releasing beers out of their barrel program and their "Brewer's Cut" series which releases beers in styles more popular today. The newest Brewer's Cut is the Cali Common with a nice hop punch and unmistakable lager character. I really liked this beer although Cali Common is a style I rarely reach for.
  • Infamous Sweep the Leg (at Craft Pride): Infamous is a new brewery in Austin and I've heard comments ranging from average to great about their products. Sweep the Leg is a peanut butter stout. I haven't been a huge fan of many of these kind of stouts (e.g. graham cracker stout, smores stout) and I think that has a lot to do with the execution rather than the idea. This beer was surprisingly good. The peanut butter taste was distinct and just what it should be. Not sure on the process but I was fairly certain peanuts were used. Not sure whether actual peanut butter went into the beer or peanuts plus diacetyl created that flavor. The stout character itself isn't very interesting but it works well with the peanut butter because the beer acts like a platform for the peanut butter character rather than trying to compete for attention. Not the kind of beer I would want to drink in large quantity but one I am glad I got to try. I'd like to see what else infamous is doing.
  • Austin Beerworks Lotion in the Basket (at Craft Pride): I haven't been overwhelmed by ABW beers I have tried but I actually really enjoyed this one. It's hard not to like a beer with a Silence of the Lambs reference. This beer is a zwickelbier/kellerbier, whatever you want to call an unfiltered pilsner. While pilsners are normally crystal clear with smooth, clean flavors, an unfiltered pilsner has a little more edge and some subtle complexity normally missing from lagers. This was no exception. A well-made pilsner with bright noble hop character and grainy malt takes on a slightly rough hop character and showcases more rawness in the grain that could put this beer closer to a saison (but minus the yeast character) than the sharp and clean character of a modern pilsner.
  • Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout (at Whip In): BCBS is a well-sought after beer and while I love it in the bottle, this was the first time I found it on tap. Delicious. The draft version seemed smoother and less boozy than the bottled version. That may have just been my perception in the moment. 
  • Real Ale 2006 Sisyphus (at Whip In): Real Ale Sisyphus is Real Ale's American barleywine released once annually at extremely reasonable prices ($16 per four pack) especially when compared to many barleywines currently sold for $10+ per bomber. Plus, it's one of the few quality barleywines sold in a 12oz format. Sisyphus is honestly one of the best kept secrets in craft beer. Whip In apparently is keeping a horde of kegs of the stuff in its cold storage because this keg was from 2006 and I had the same thing last summer when we visited. American barleywines are not known for aging well but this one sure is. I don't know whether it is the beer, the storage method, or both, but this one really holds up. Hop flavor and aroma are surprisingly punchy and fresh although the bitterness is subdued. Nice aged malt character behind it. 
  • Real Ale Codex Tripel (at Whip In): See, I told you Real Ale is stepping up their game as a major player in the Texas craft scene. Real Ale produces a tripel (Devil's Backbone) as part of their regular line up. It's a pretty good version of the style. Absent the obvious munich character of Chimay White, it is more akin to Duvel. Real Ale took this beer and dumped it into barrels with some brett and slept on it for two years. What came out was an amazing beer with big oaky tannins are huge brett funk. It's the kind of brett beer you aspire to brew. The funk is strong and complex but removed of the funky flavors that can be off-putting to people (often described as fecal-y, mousy, etc.) in brett beers. The oak comes through very cleanly. I suspect this beer was aged in new barrels rather than spent spirit or wine barrels. Hard to find but worth finding in Texas if you can.
So that was Austin. I'd like to get back down one or two more times this year but we'll see. We are traveling from Portland (and Bend) to Seattle next month and LA to San Francisco in May. That's a lot of time out of the office and a lot of money spent on vacations, so we'll see what our budget looks like for the rest of the year. Plus, I have to have some time to brew and drink my own beer.

1 comment:

  1. Dig the post, really good information. Only piece I would say has wrong information is Jester King still has not released any spontaneous fermented sours. Those are not slated for release until 2016. Atrial Rubicite or any sours released right now has not gone through spontaneous fermentation.

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