IM IN UR AUSTIN...DRINKING UR BEERZ Part 5 - Brain Sparging on Brewing


Sour beer, saisons, farmhouse beer, homebrewing, ramblings

March 10, 2013


The original plan was to stop at a couple places for a couple beers on the way out of town but we figured out we could knock out some extra brewpubs on the way out of town so we took a lot longer to get home but it was well worth it. We stayed on the north side of town and realized the beer scene in the northwest part of town is a lot bigger than we thought. The northwest side is home to Austin Homebrew Shop (which I am no fan of), production brewers Adelberts and Austin Beerworks, brewpubs North by Northwest, Pinthouse Pizza, Black Star Co-op and a handful of beer bars like Flying Saucer and Austin Draught House. I'm not really sure how this part of town scored all these beer spots but it's convenient because you can hit several places within a few miles. We decided to take on Pinthouse Pizza, Austin Draught House and Black Star Co-op before we checked out.

We started our day out by Town Lake at Hula Hut, which is delicious Mexican-Polynesian fusion food. It's good pre-drinking and hangover food. Plus, once you are ready to drink you can go next door and drink at Abel's on the Lake, which has a respectable line up of beers. We had a couple before moving on to our next stop.

Pinthouse Pizza

We liked Pinthouse so much we started drinking here and after hitting Austin Draught House and Black Star we came back for more beer and some pizza. (The pizza is excellent BTW.) Pinthouse is a small brewpub that sells their English-inspired beers along side tasty pizza and a small but diverse selection of guest taps.

The brew house is fairly small but has a very modern set up, which shouldn't be a surprise since Pinthouse has been open for less than a year. The head brewer is a former brewer from Odell Brewing in Fort Collins, which shows through the English focus of the beers. When we came back the second time I tracked down the manager and asked if I could snap a few pictures in the brew house and she very politely agreed to take us back there. Unfortunately I was a little buzzed by that point and not all of my pictures came out well so I'm supplementing my bad close ups with slightly less bad pictures through the window. You can see in the first bad picture on the right, the brew system is small but really not that much smaller than the hot side systems of several other breweries and brewpubs in the area. In this second bad picture you can see some of the system a little clearer.

I think one thing I've really banged out of my head by the end of this trip is that there is no magic equipment necessary to make superior beer. The equipment in commercial brewing is not so far removed from ours except by virtue of the volume produced it is easier to obtain consistent results from a large volume of wort. Maybe the big distinction is that they use dedicated equipment while many of us (myself included) are repurposing parts of the kitchen for brewing. Commercial equipment usually is automated and involves pumps to move grain and wort but there are those homebrewers with fancy RIMS and HERMS systems that are every bit as production capable as actual commercial systems. These smaller brewing systems like the one to the right is putting out fantastic beers at the same or better quality of breweries exponentially larger. The point is, I think as homebrewers it's not high tech equipment that stands between good homebrew and excellent homebrew but instead our processes, ability to brew consistently and temperature control.

Speaking of temperature control, this is Pinthouse's fermentation tanks. These are really small tanks. You can see the kegs stacked around them. I don't know for sure but I seem to think the manager said these are three barrel fermentors. Comparing them to the kegs on the side that looks about right. Like I said, this is a really small set up but they are pushing out great beer and offer a decent-sized line up.

I would guess based on the size of fermentors that the brew system is no more than a three barrel system but might even be as small as a one and a half barrel system. That must be a substantial change for an Odell brewer who is used to brewing on their much larger system. Even the pilot system at Odell is a five barrel system.

Ok well let's move along and talk about their beers.

We took on a couple samplers to get some experience with the beers on tap. They had most of the beers available on the board, just a couple were missing. We had the Man O' War IPA, Iron Genny pale ale, Bearded Seal stout, Old Beluga amber ale, Ramming Speed American barleywine, Te Moana Tote session ale, Wicked Wheat American wheat and Beaded Seal on nitro. All the beers were tasty but we were probably the least fan of the barleywine just because my wife and I don't like American-style barleywines anywhere near as much as we do English-style barleywines. None of the beers had room for criticism, it was just our preference. The Te Moana Tote was a great beer. It was a light blonde ale with New Zealand hops, giving it some nice berry and melon character. The best beer was Bearded Seal. It was a dry Irish stout but full of roast and chocolate. Easily among the best stouts I've ever had. Unlike many dry Irish stouts that aim to be Guinness clones, this one really stood out as a beer in the same style as Guinness but completely different. If it had less roast and some sweetness it could easily be confused as a chocolate porter. It was a perfectly constructed stout. The nitro version wasn't nearly as good. The nitro effect muted the flavor in favor of the creamy mouthfeel so much so it went from being a fantastic beer to almost an average beer. It was a real disservice to a great beer. When we came back to eat I had to get at more of the stout.

On the way out the first time I asked the bartender if I could ask for something off menu. I asked for a half and half blend of Hops & Grain Belgian Porter and the Te Moana Tote session ale. He gave me sort of a weird look but obliged. Over the weekend I had thought about how Hops & Grain's taproom line up was perfectly suited for making interesting half and half pours and regretted not thinking about it when we were there. So here was a chance to see if I was right or not.

Hell yeah, I am a genius. The smooth chocolate and Belgian yeast esters paired well with the session ale's bitterness, spritzy mouthfeel and fruity hop character. The blend had a great fruity flavor that was complex and deep without being overwhelming. Unlike some Belgian beers that can be overwhelming with fruity esters when fermented too warm, the flavors were light and pleasant. The fruity character sat well with the malty background. It was sort of like a Belgian brown ale with a little more heft in the mouthfeel but mixed with Belgian yeast and a little tropical and berry fruit added. Good stuff. I'm glad the bartender was cool enough to accommodate my request.

Austin Draught House

Austin Draught House is a craft beer staple in Austin. It's been around for a long, long time and took the whole English pub thing really serious. They don't have an immense selection of beer but it is a very well selected, diverse mix of local beers and some from beyond the city walls. There wasn't a bad beer on the list.

I scored a Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti on cask that was just fantastic. I think that's the second time I've ever found any imperial stout on cask so I couldn't pass it up. They had Houston area Southern Star's new Rauchbier which is made SMaSH style with 100% rauchmalt. It's really good and showing again you really don't need exotic ingredients, overly complex recipes, or secret techniques to make good beer.

Hops & Grain popped up again with a chardonnay barrel-aged version of their alt, which I decided to try. We don't get a lot of beers in DFW with strong wine character but I have been contemplating brewing such a beer (maybe aged on actual wine grapes) for a couple years now. My wife thought the idea was disgusting. She changed her mind after tasting this beer and she hates chardonnay. I was surprised how the wine and oak flavor came through without tasting like beer and wine poured into the same glass. The wine added some sweetness and fruit character that worked well with the slight roast and chocolate character of the alt. So that's something I might have to play with in the future. I have five gallons of Petrus sour pale ale that I might divert a gallon or two into a fermentor with some chardonnay to play with a wine grape-sour mix like the Cantillon wine grape-aged lambic (St. Lamvicus).

The winner of the day was probably San Antonio newcomer Branchline's Egg Nog Stout. Yes, you read that correctly: an egg nog stout. It was exactly like you would expect. Stout flavors mixed with the creamy mouthfeel of egg nog, the traditional egg nog spicing and the actual taste of egg nog. I'm pretty sure they didn't use actual egg nog. It was probably just lactose plus egg nog spices but it did have that eggy taste. It sounds kind of gross but it really worked. If you're gagging reading this, think of it as a milk stout with nutmeg, vanilla and a slight hint of bourbon. Sound better? Yeah, that's probably all it was. I wonder if I didn't know it was supposed to be egg nog if my mind would go to egg nog stout instead of a spiced milk stout but knowing it was supposed to be egg nog my mind went right to that flavor and it's exactly what it tasted like. My wife said it best about this beer, "you have to really like stout and really like egg nog to like that beer," especially when drinking a full pint.

Austin Draught House used to have (maybe still does) some "house" beers that were contract brewed for them. However, they are moving forward on plans to convert into a brewpub and start making their own beer. I'm not sure whether the brew house existed in this location from a prior owner who tried to make the place an English pub/brewpub combination but the equipment sure fits the same old English decor.

You can see in this crappy picture I took through a window that kettle looks like it came from the Victorian era (minus the use of steel instead of copper) but I don't know whether it is new and designed to fit the decor or put in there at the same time as the old timey decor. Either way it looks cool and hopefully they will be brewing on site next time we pass through.

The great thing about Draught House is that it is literally blocks away from Pinthouse and Black Star is just blocks away from Pinthouse driving the other direction on the same street. Makes hitting good beer very easy.

Black Star Co-Op

Black Star bills itself as the world's first co-operatively owned and employee managed brewpub. I don't have any reason to doubt that. I seem to think they were used as the model for a few other co-op breweries/brewpubs that have since opened. The basic premise is that people buy memberships and then the brewery conducts tasting panels with members to get feedback and offers member-only homebrew competitions to add to the beer line up. I had actually contemplated obtaining a membership when they were running their first membership drive but decided against it because I couldn't see the value in it. Most of the value for the members is getting to be involved in deciding the beers put on tap and discounts at the brewpub. (With now 3000 members how much input can you really have?) Since I don't live in Austin I wouldn't get any of those benefits, which means I wouldn't get anything out of it at all. There's no financial return on investment, which I think is strange. It seems like there must be profit generated and it's going somewhere. I dunno, I don't know a lot about co-ops since we don't have them in Dallas like they do in Austin and many other cities. (However, if you would like to know about how an LLLP works, that is something I can discuss.) There was also a way to come in as an investor at like $500 but I seem to think it was just like a super-member without any clearly stated financial ROI, just more discounts. I don't remember exactly, I just remember it didn't seem to make sense for somebody living away from Austin.

I will give them credit for paying their service staff a living wage rather than making them rely on tips, however there was a tip line on the receipt so I wonder where exactly those tips go. Do the servers get the tips as well as their full wage or does that money float back to the owners? Hmm.

I deferred checking out Black Star on prior trips because I heard a lot of bad things about the operations and the beer. I don't remember details, so don't take this as fact, but I seem to recall reading that they had some problems with the assistant brewers having friction with the whole co-op idea and I think I read that one or two stole equipment or cash or something. Whatever the facts were, I believe I read they had a hard time putting together a cohesive brewing team and a lot of bad reviews were coming out about the beers and they were just more hoppy, west coast IPAs that I don't enjoy drinking too much.

Our friends really wanted to check it out and I thought it would be a good idea to just try them out. The brewpub is situated in an upscale mixed shopping/living complex. It has a very modern feel inside. We took a sampler of the beers and found Live Oak's doppelbock on tap so we also ordered a pour of probably our favorite beer of the trip (it's hard to say, there were many exceptional beers).

Black Star splits it's beer menu into two factions: "Rational", the standards, and "Irrational", the experimental brews and more exotic beers. I found the beers to be what I had expected. The standard beers were more hoppy than I care for and really not very well constructed or intriguing beers. We had one Irrational beer that was a sour mashed English brown ale that I liked enough to reorder. It was an interesting beer with some sour twang and some malty complexity. Looking over their past beers, they do a lot of sour mashes which I think is really cool since I am a fan of the technique. So I was glad I tried that beer even though I found the rest mediocre at best.

I saw on the website that the recipe for the beer I liked was from the winner of a member-homebrew competition. That's kind of what rubs me the wrong way about the way they structured the business. Sure, the person who won the competition has tremendous bragging rights to tell people his or her beer was brewed commercially and it is a great beer but on the other hand that person paid for the privilege of being able to compete and then the owners (and potentially other investors) are taking the profits. That doesn't really sound co-operative. That sounds slightly abusive towards the members that they are paying for the privilege of doing the work of the brewers.

Overall, my wife and I had the same idea that we would be happy to stop in, see if there is a good beer on tap and walk right back out if not. We weren't huge fans of the beer, minus the one sour mashed beer, some of the service staff were real dicks, and we didn't really care for the slightly pretentious vibe of the place. I wish I understood a little more about their business model because it might change my opinion but given how little information they would release when I was thinking about giving them money I suspect pulling back the curtain on their operations might not be as satisfying as I would hope.

Gingerman Southlake

So after dropping our friends off at the airport back in DFW we decided to peek into the nearest beer bar to our house, which is a small Gingerman location. My wife works in the area so she had been a few times but with school and bar prep I hadn't had a chance to peek in. It's small but very upscale. The staff was very friendly and helpful. Mostly I just add this tiny addition to point out that they had the new St. Arnold's Bishop Barrel #2 which is an excellent modification of their Christmas ale -- an old ale -- aged in chardonnay barrels with cherries. If the Hops & Grain chardonnay alt didn't win us over on chardonnay barrel-aged beers this one definitely did. St. Arnold's has just recently started this periodic release of barrel-aged beers. They are really pricey beers ($12 for one 12 ounce bottle) and only released to bars who can then decide whether to only sell for consumption or let people take them to go (however in Texas if a bar serves liquor they cannot sell beer or wine to go). It's a stupendous beer with the chardonnay and cherry really working together to create a tart fruity flavor that melds with the sweet old ale. The aroma is full of cherries and sets the stage for the complex flavor profile.

Concluding Comments

Well that's what five days and four nights of constant drinking will buy you in Austin. Overall I really enjoyed the trip and these great beers gave me some good ideas of new ways to play around with my homebrewing and develop some complex beers. It was exactly the kind of relaxation I needed after three brutal days of bar examination. I loved a lot of the beers and had a great time, which is really all I can ask for. I was probably heavy handed with the criticism of a couple places but they are thoughts a long time in the making (especially with Jester King) and at least I didn't turn the discussion about Black Star into a long political screed about calling a place "worker-managed" when the workers are separated from the profits. I tried to stay focused. Anyway, people certainly disagree with me and for every place I loved I'm sure there's somebody with a blog or twitter account calling their beers shit. It's good that there's enough beer diversity that we don't all have to like the same beers or same breweries and everybody can still walk away having had a good time and enjoyed the beer.

I'm probably not going to run out and buy a chardonnay barrel but I might hit some oak with a cheap bottle of chardonnay and age some beer on it. Maybe try out some red wines like Shiraz. I know in areas like northern California where wine is much bigger than it is here in Texas (although we have a small wine scene ourselves and I live miles away from a few wineries) it's more common to see wine barrel-aged beers where some of that wine character really comes through but it's nice to see some barrel flavor showing up that isn't just bourbon.

I didn't really talk about it too much but another thing I took away from this trip is that I have a lot more exploration and experimentation to do with hops. I've really only come around on enjoying beers with more hop character in the past six months or so. I've brewed mostly on the malty side of beer so there's a lot with hops I don't understand as well as other aspects of the brewing process. I purchased For the Love of Hops and plan on reading it in the next few weeks and look forward to my hop garden producing some cones this year so I can play around with hoppier saisons and pale ales. Plus I have two pounds of Belma hops so I need to find some interesting ways of incorporating those. I'm going to brew my first IPA (a black IPA) soon so that will be an interesting direction with my homebrewing.

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