Brew Diligence: The Austin-San Antonio Craft Beer Scene

by Jeff Harding with Antoinette Bruno
Shannon Sturgis
February 2012

Austin is one of the biggest drinking towns in the nation (it was number one in 2008). Couple that with the fact that this city is enamored with farm-to-table cuisine and local producers, and you’d expect its craft brewing movement to be at the nation’s forefront. But the State of Texas isn’t kind to microbrewers–its antiquated laws make it nearly impossible to succeed and grow–but somehow the Austin and San Antonio brewers we tasted with have found a way to fill tankards and innovate.

The Central Texas craft brewing scene, as we now know it, got its start in 1992 with the arrival of Pierre Celis. Famous for reviving the Witbier style in Hoegaarden, Belgium, Celis relocated to Austin after a fire forced him to sell his brand. He chose ATX for the high calcium content in its water, which is similar to Hoegaarden. (Although legend has it the Texans' slow drawl made it easier for the non-native speaker to understand English.) The yeast strains he brought from Belgium are still floating in Austin kegs today.

The next leap forward in craft beer evolution came courtesy of Chip McElroy and Brian Peters, who founded Live Oak Brewing Co. and hand-built the next iteration of craft brewing in the area. They grew a business and beer community despite Texas’ Byzantine laws forbidding microbrewers that want to distribute beer from selling brews on premises. Those laws also prohibit brewpubs that sell food and beer onsite from distributing. To further skunk the keg, brewpubs that want to expand have to build a new brewing facility at each location, making expansion financially prohibitive.

To be a brewer in Texas, you have to be tough, and you have to band together. A sense of community, in place of competition, is what struck us the most among these young gun brewers. They’re working together to change the laws (and are hopeful restrictions will soon ease). Plus, rookie brewers get advice from industry veterans, and then perpetuate that sense of community with their clientele.

The drinking public, in true Austin fashion, demands diverse styles of beer to keep things slightly off-kilter. Each brewer we met had a different liquid perspective to share. We only wish they could share it with more people. As much as we love the idea of beer tourism, we join these artisans in hoping the laws change soon so they can grow their businesses, but also in hopes that we might drink their creations when we’re outside the Lone Star State. Until then, here’s an introduction to our favorite Austin craft beer breweries for your vicarious pleasure.

Co-Brewer/Owner Kevin Brand of (512) Brewing Company

(512) Brewing Company

(512) Brewing Company

Brewer Kevin Brand named (512) after Austin’s area code. He originally got into home brewing as a student at the University of Texas, but his medical engineering degree took him to California and eventually back to Austin. This career path made the machinery side of brewing a breeze, and his engineering background is evident in the organization and design of the brewery. His passion for cooking and home brewing made the transition to brewer a no-brainer, actually using food in his beers, like pecans, grapefruit, and chilies. And he’s obviously got his finger on the pulse of Austin taste-makers, having to more than double his brewing capacity to keep up with demand.

Brand found his niche when he noticed a gap in beer styles being produced in Austin: the few local beers were good, but big bold IPA’s found around the country weren’t being made in the 512. Other (512) distinctions include using organic ingredients and bringing the Witbier style back to Austin, as an homage to Pierre Celis, whom Brand met before Celis passed away.

Brand is quick to point out his mentors in the beer community. The aforementioned brewers Chip McElroy and Brian Peters at Live Oak and the brewers at Real Ale, among others, were always available to answer questions and lend a helping hand. He finds the Austin beer community unique that way: there’s no competition for market share—there are enough customers to go around—and everybody works together to help the movement grow and make better beer. And Brand obviously succeeds, making beer that he (and Austin) loves.

(512) Wit: A fairly traditional Witbier, but orange peel is substituted with grapefruit for a little added sweetness. A refreshing (5 percent ABV) and slightly cloudy style of beer, the Wit is made with a blend of barley and wheat and a little oat in the mix for a creamy texture. But Brand sticks to tradition by including coriander in the boil.

(512) Pecan Porter: Made with organic Crystal, Chocolate, and Black malts, this has become (512)’s signature beer due to its originality and ability to convert haters of dark beer into lovers of this light and roasty, yet complex porter. The locally sourced pecans balance the malty sweetness, resulting in a rich mocha and pecan aroma, without pecan-pie sweetness.

(512) Cascabel Cream Stout: Guiness is the famous nitrogenated beer (utilizing a process that forces smaller bubbles into the stout, resulting in a smooth texture and mouthfeel). But this nitrogenated winter seasonal stout has a luscious creamy character, worthy of its own notoriety. Brewers lactose and Guajillo chilies are added for a sweet and spicy finish to warm you up in the winter months.

Brewer Brian Peters of Uncle Billy's

Uncle Billy's Brew & Que

Uncle Billy’s Brew & Que

After establishing himself as a brewer of some renown, Brian “Swifty” Peters took off in a new direction, working in a brewpub, which allowed him more contact with the final consumers of his beers. A lover of yeast, Peters feels that a brewer’s understanding of, and relationship with, his yeast is what creates a great beer. He loves hops, which normally get all the glory, but the excellence of the beer is a function of how well that yeast is treated. A beer history buff, Peters would love to travel back in time to visit the Bohemian and Czech Republic villages where pilsners and lagers were created, to taste the beers as they were originally made. That said, he feels that everybody has their own style and that a great brewer is one who’s confident enough to make what they like.

Back 40 Blonde Ale: This is an ale dressed up like a pilsner. It’s fermented with Belgian Westmalle yeast, which adds complexity and spice, but starts out with German pilsner malt and Hallertau hops. Much like a Belgian Trippel from Westmaal, but not as big and boozy (the ABV is only 4.5 percent) this ale has a big Belgian character, yet is subtle and balanced. The yeast pops out right away, but with a tangy note of herbs and tropical fruit.

Uncle Billy’s No Name Beer: This beer literally doesn’t have a name yet, as “it got lost on the way to the bus stop.” It was intended to be a Schwarzbier, a German black lager, but on brewing day the lager yeast hadn’t arrived, so, thinking on his feet, Peters used the house ale yeast, which resulted in a brand new creation, albeit one without  a name. Dark-brown in color, but lacking the usual roasty flavor and acrid bite of a black lager, this “almost-porter” has a modest 5 percent alcohol content, resulting in a clean, light, well-hopped beer.

Hop Zombie IPA:  This IPA is a “hop-delivery beer,” using Amarillo hops, which result in a bright grapefruit aroma. At 6.6 percent ABV, this ale is light and refreshing with some definite malt tones. But ultimately it’s Peters’ love letter to his “desert island hop,” the Amarillo. Texans sure are loyal.

Brewer Jeff Young of Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery

Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery

Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery

Jeff Young was working as a chemist when he first started home brewing, and wanted to start a business in Austin after falling in love with the town. He was approached to open a pub as a co-op venture. Young convinced the men, now his partners, that a brewpub was the way to go. He studied at the American Brewer’s Guild and spent five years getting the business plan and capital ready. Judging from his beers, we think he’s a natural. 

A co-op is like a corporation where everyone has equal rights and a say in how business is done, which is why Young listens carefully to what his member-owners want to drink. He always has a hoppy beer, a malty beer, and a pale, easy-to-drink beer on tap, but otherwise there is a rotating batch of experimental “special” beers that might return if they become a popular favorite.

High Esteem:  This is Black Star’s lightest, and most drinkable, which Young feels are the hardest styles to get right because their balance and delicacy can’t hide anything. A big monster 10 percent beer is always welcome, but aggressive flavors can hide a flaw. A nice, subtle, balanced beer like High Esteem is hard to do—a beer like this is usually a brewer’s favorite. Light amber in color and moderately hopped, with local wildflower honey added in the fermenter and also in the serving tank to add body, sweetness, and a luscious mouth feel.

Moontower: Named after the unique Austin lighting structures, Moontower is dark brown in color, with moderate alcohol content (8.5 percent ABV) for a winter seasonal. Dark, roasted malt character, big full body, with a nice aroma of strong Vietnamese coffee from the roasted malts.

Crotchety Dockhand: The “cranky” version of the Dockhand series based on a robust porter recipe. This variation has coffee from local roaster Casa Brazil and oats to give it a silky texture. This silkiness is enhanced by nitrogenation, so a creamy head accents the smooth richness.

Brewer Will Golden of Austin Beerworks

Austin Beerworks

Austin Beerworks

Co-owner and Brewer Will Golden, along with his partners Adam DeBower, Michael Graham, and Mike McGovern, are “local brewers, hell bent on excellence.” And it shows. “Love” is considered the most important ingredient here, but we’re not sure if it’s love of beer or love of their customers. Golden and crew regularly follow sales at the establishments that sell their beers and can tell you which are popular with the gals, and which are the guys’ favorites. Beer is sold on draft or in cans, because their clientele wants to take beer on boating trips, into the local parks, or to Austin’s many concert venues, where glass is forbidden. They also love the earth and continually strive toward sustainability, using recycled and recyclable packaging wherever possible.

When the four decided to open a brewery, they noticed a dearth of thirst-quenching beers in a town that has record-breaking hot weather. So in part, the Texas heat is behind their philosophy of bold flavors in light-bodied, dry styles, making their beers easy drinking, and, love aside, easily one of the reasons for their success.

Peacemaker: Their most approachable brew, easy to drink but still flavorful, Peacemaker won silver at the Great American Beer Fest 2011 in the English Summer Ale category. Light-bodied, the beer boasts lots of malt and graham cracker, as well as a combination of bready, slightly floral and earthy notes balanced by bright acidity and crisp carbonation.

Pearl Snap: A German-style pilsner made with mostly noble hops and German Magnum hops, this pale gold true lager is earthy and hop-forward, in the typical German style, but lighter and drier for balance. More floral than Peacemaker.

Fire Eagle: An American IPA and their best-selling beer, with mellow malt background and tons of citrus, floral aromas from the American hops. A strong flavor, and darker, almost amber color comes from specialty caramel malt, which is strong enough to taste but still allows the American hops to shine through.

Brewer Scott Metzger of Freetail Brewing Company

Freetail Brewing Company

Freetail Brewing Co.

Founder and CEO of Freetail in San Antonio, Scott Metzger started home brewing after moving back to San Antonio after grad school studying economics at Fordham. Missing the sophisticated beer scene back in New York City, Metzger opened Freetail with savings, investment from his parents, and an SBA loan. He’s made more than 100 different beers since opening in 2008, covering everything from traditional to what some might call weird styles. Metzger finds his economic background useful and strangely similar to brewing: both are a science and an art. And he’s obviously comfortable in both fields.

His desire to be a community focal point is proven when people line up at 8am for new releases (brewpubs are allowed to sell take-home product to customers, just not to distributors or other pubs). In spite of Texas’ strange beers laws, which Metzger is trying to change (it’s actually part of his business plan!), Metzger is forging ahead by constantly experimenting with new styles, or twists on the classics, with wild ales and barrel aging among his favorite styles.

Ananke: An American ale, but with a relatively low ABV of just 5.8 percent. Ananke, named after the Greek goddess of necessity (because people need this beer), is aged in wine barrels, which impart tastes of tart green apple and a hint of buttery Chardonnay, as well as a bit of grape and lemon character.

La Muerta: At 10.2 percent ABV, this is one of their strongest, and the most popular at Freetail. Annually released on November 1, La Dia de los Muertos, it’s an American imperial stout because they use smoked malt, resulting in chocolate and coffee undertones. We tasted last year’s version, which is fairly low in carbonation, allowing the dark roast chocolate and espresso aromas to settle down over time, resulting in a balanced, rich beer. For this reason, they encourage customers to age their La Muerta and watch it evolve. This was one of our favorite beers, but there are serious doubts that we’d have the willpower to let it age in our cellar.

Prickly Pear, American Wild Ale: Using prickly pears (for their bright pink color) and wild yeasts, this has become one of Freetail’s most sought-after beers. A little vegetal on the nose, with big raspberry flavor on the palate, this is the beer Metzger takes to events because it’s clearly different, with a color that’s hard to forget.

Brewer Ron Extract of Jester King Brewery

Jester King Brewery

Jester King Craft Brewery

Located in an area of unincorporated Austin, the brewers at Jester King find the farmhouse setting the perfect place to make their farmhouse-style beers. With six year-round beers in his arsenal and a constant influx of experimental specialties, managing partner and “artisan of ales” Ron Extract is another classic example of an Austin brewer: a beermaker with an unexpected background influencing his style of brewing. Finding a love of beer while in a graduate program in philosophy at the University of Chicago, Extract became excited about the philosophy of terroir in beer after reading the work of Michael Jackson (the beer writer, not the king of pop), who focuses on the influence of place, culture, and people on beer styles.

Extract went to brewing school at the renowned Siebel Institute in Chicago, and then worked for Shelton Brothers, importers of artisanal beers from around the world. This experience enhanced his love of small production beers that expressed their sense of place. Continuing this need to express local flavor and embrace nature, Extract and partner/fellow brewer Jeff Stuffings recently switched from using traditional English yeast, and now make most of their beers with yeast cultivated on their very own roof. Talk about local!

Das Wunderkind! Sour Saison: One of Extract’s favorites. The slow fermentation coaxes out the subtle, naturally tart spice qualities of the yeast. We tasted from both a gravity keg and a bottled version, in which the carbonation seemed more complex and brighter in taste and color, and the sour flavor was more pronounced. But Extract reminded us that the gravity keg, less carbonated and a little cloudy from the yeast, allows you taste all the other softer and more subtle components better. Extract emphasized that tasting his beers is not a one-night stand, it’s more like a series of dates where you get to know the beer. And at only 4.2 percent alcohol, you can enjoy a few “dates” over many hours of conversation, just as they do in the Old World.

Wytchmaker, Farmhouse Rye India Pale Ale: Jester King originally made this beer from traditional English yeast, but switched to the farmhouse yeast once it was viable. The switch of yeasts and Extract’s desire to express terroir was at first controversial, but the beer's funky, yeasty character and bright, piney and citrus notes from the American hops has won people over. Tons of spicy and earthy notes from the rye make this their most “in your face” flavor profile (yet still remains balanced). The farmhouse yeast requires a lowered fermentation temperature, which in turn allows the hops to have leading role, so it’s still considered equal to a West Coast IPA, with a 7.2 percent alcohol content.

Boxer’s Revenge, Barrel-Aged Wild Ale: The second of Jester King’s sour wild beers is made in the same process as Das Wunderkind: barrel aged and blended, but with a stronger base beer and an ABV of 9.3 percent. The fairly high alcohol and hops content keep the flavors of wild yeast in check, so this beer is less sour and tart than Das Wunderkind, with more malt and fruit notes. The extra time spent barrel aging allows the yeast to work more, bringing out the citrus in the hops, and resulting in a bigger beer but one with a beautiful balance, a difficult feat in rustic beers.