Monday, May 13, 2013

The State of the Texas Craft Beer Scene Part 2 - The Bayou Complex: Houston vs. The Fringe Movement

In what is hoped to become a semi-regular feature of [AA], the writers (that's "writers" without the 's') of this spotty publication will attempt to occasionally examine the current state of affairs regarding the craft beer scene in this Great State; it being a reeaaally long limb to step out onto, given that nothing else appears to be as healthy economically, socially, and culturally within the last 28 months than small beer -- and thusly, becomes a pretty goddam easy thing to babble on and on about.  

You can read The State of the Texas Craft Beer Scene Part 1: Fort Worth here.

Part 2: Houston, Texas

It used to be Houston was just a good place to do some crimes and easy heckle-bait when scraping the bottom of the barrel for roomie trolling.

Myself, I had been pretty casual about engaging with Houston at all, apart from a Cure gig in late-college, where during the 9 PM encore, Robert Smith more closely resembled a black-cloaked receptacle of gelato left out to render in the courtyard of the Uffizi than a British icon.  The other time was to catch a Gold Cup match between two largely uninspired national football teams with my then-pregnant wife.  Fun times.

Because of those adrenalizing adventures, I was able to see upfront 'why' Houston was considered the most cultured city in Texas by not-at-all link baiting publications like the venerable Complex Magazine (Who? Mike Jones.).

So, when Buick sends something to one's inbox about an opportunity to experience H-TIZZOWN in a supplied loaner Encore, the only real decision is, how the fuck would I choose a lucky companion?

Who I did pick was, in fact, a native of Houston.  A dude who served as the beneficiary of decades-long hometown ribbing at the benefaction of me and fellow mates.  A guy who would prove to be a worthy apostle for the new Houston -- because he has forever deemed it as a city that has become progressively cooler and more invigorated than it was at any point before this very moment.  An agent provocateur of great taste in booze and beer and overall atmosphere (and friends?); and finally, one who would lead us both in a venturesome direction.  Yep, a perfect ambassador for interpreting the mass of concrete and humanity that is Texas' largest and most derided city, but leading us into the underbelly of all that is cool and current.  Along with, of course, that Buick.

For the entertainment of you bastards, I'll spare the details of the 100%-dry Buick Discovery Tour in which we partook, but then ventured off to find a safe parking for the Encore for the rest of the evening so that we could cab the shit out of the rest of our time there.

First stop on the Houston Re-Discovery Tour: The Hay Merchant.

What I discovered almost immediately about a city still bewildered by the news of the Oilers bouncing to a shithole like Nashville, and the total failure of the 1996 NBA season led by the newly acquired Sir Charles, was that the population feels like it has a reason to get fucked up.  Its this general mood that permeates every drinking establishment we would later visit.  Good for them.  I like to drink the pain away as well, so I fit right in.

The second thing I learned is that it took but a single man with an glamorous vision to provide all of the necessary counsel for Houston to gain back its civic pride -- and to work towards a more positive approach to drinking.   But it was gonna take a fuckload of taps.

Mononyminity is the honor bestowed upon the ubiquitous, and like "Magic" at the The Forum or "Pele" at The MaracanĂ£, "Bobby" is the dude that maneuvered the correct angles and set up an offensive strategy.  Out of the six establishments we visited while drinking across Houston that night, Bobby had influence over five of them (-- and if you're counting the next morning's breakfast, then it was six).  By no means was a pub crawl of this sort our intention, but in Houston's current iteration, almost impossible to avoid.

The Hay Merchant was a solid place to have a pint.  Its exactly the experience one expects to have out of a beer bar: choices and a nice chair, with 'fair prices' being a nice bonus characteristic.  Its got the trinity.  And so, the opportunity to lay waste to a Karbach Bourbon Barrel Aged Hellfighter felt like a great way to begin a night of drinking.

Its also, however, a very quick way to end one as well, with one's head stuck down a bowl.

But what kind of adventure would this be if I didn't allow this beer to lay it on me thick with a blanket of digression and fuzz.  Besides, we don't get anything from Karbach Brewing in Austin, and I wasn't gonna let irreverent math like 10.8% and 12 ounces get in my way of a long evening.

After the Hellfighter, was the customary visit to Bobby's first born, Anvil, which if this was a craft cocktail blog and I had a cleft asshole like so many cocktailians assume from having a pestle so far up their asses, I'd go on endlessly about how fucking brilliant it is.  It is. It is a brilliant place. Though I'm a beer guy, I understand the value of a great drink and the importance of a good time.  A real good time* (*Pit Bull).  And so, with three cocktails massaging my insides -- including a very clever Nitro'd Cuba Libre that approximated a creamy imperial porter -- we headed off to the next gig in town: Mongoose vs. Cobra.

Look, with a name like Mongoose vs. Cobra there is almost no fucking way it could live up to anyone's expectations, like Wolf Blitzer or my deadbeat cousin Tyrannosaurus Rex Munoz.

In places like that, most of the creativity stops at the entry, hoping to capitalize on themes and the general fuckery of its clientele.

But as we enter through its gorgeous cedar paneling ...

Amazing Larry gonna amaze. (which, BTW, should be the name of MvC's expansion bar)
...We're like, 'is there something you'd like to share with the rest of us, Houston'?

Jesus fuck.  This place is a beer drinker's dream: long, handsome community tables, 1800's UK sweatshop architecture, an expertly curated beer selection -- tight and tidy, fucking Jester King's RU-55 ON CASK!  The shit?  Where is the satellite branch in Austin?  This place immediately becomes my newest favorite bar on earth.

As Austinites I know that we find it difficult not to exhale the bored and jaded sigh of those who have seen it all before, but srsly-to-death, Houston, I'm impressed.  I want to drink beer with you.

And it continued like this onward, to several other Bobby-influenced establishments; Goro & Gun (for tonkotsu pork belly ramen and Lone Stars), OKRA Charity Saloon with its majestic wooden bar, and finally at Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar, which i proceed to immediately declare as my new-newest favorite bar on earth.

Past the fellow on the street wearing the 'Fuck You, Houston is Awesome' tee, behind a darkened door with Lawyer-ly fonts, up a long and narrow stairwell, and between the narrowest of railcar confines hides the gem of the night; a bar as sharp as it is smudged.

Barmen, here, are differing to the palates of the customers selections -- and so, it was my obligation to order something from my limited cocktail memory.  On one of the meteorologically wettest nights I'd experienced in a long time, I ordered a Dark & Stormy, which I guzzle with approval.  I keep eying their small, but inspired beer offerings.

The barmen are also differing to the auditory preferences of their customers, and so someone has donated something more obscure than Youth Lagoon b-sides to the interior, and they are fine songs, wafting through the bar at just the right decibels for a place that doesn't take too many to make it feel full.  It's a poignant moment.

If only the day was 30 hours long.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The State of the Texas Craft Beer Scene Part 1: 'A Fort Night' ft. Martin House Brewing

In what is hoped to become a semi-regular feature of [AA], the writers (that's "writers" without the 's') of this spotty publication will attempt to occasionally examine the current state of affairs regarding the craft beer scene in this Great State; it being a reeaaally long limb to step out onto, given that nothing else appears to be as healthy economically, socially, and culturally within the last 28 months than small beer -- and thusly, becomes a pretty goddam easy thing to babble on and on about.

Whenever there is a flourishing industry in which success is measured by a precarious equation of two-parts popularity and one-part quality, competitors often view the achievements of others as a personal affront, as if being robbed of something that is rightfully theirs. You see it all the time in various enterprises of retail or consumables -- two areas in which craft beer uniquely operates under a single umbrella -- yet remains the example of the one, single, resolute outlier without industry cannibalism.

As it stands at this moment, brewers, investors, capitalists, politicians, and the general collective of craft fans appear to be at the height of satisfaction with small beer's state of affairs, given its cultural and economic impact on communities all over Texas -- and in large part, the entire country.

Recently, I had the opportunity to broaden my exposure to the hyper-local craft beer scenes in other Texas cities beyond my beer-sopped interests of Travis County -- and so, with Mrs. [AA] as my forever companion in kickassery, we went looking for raucous piss-ups in Fort Worth for a night of exploring and matrimonial bonding through the medium of hopped-and-malted fermentables. 

BEER, is there anything it can't do?


In civic terms, there appears to be a bit of a wince from the Fort Worth populace when packaging the 'FW' into the equation of 'D' as part of the running Metroplexial summation.  This is to say that a bit of escapism is practiced by the local Fort Worth demographic from the banalities of being Dallas' little sister -- and with no disrespect to Dallas -- I don't blame them for it. 

Fort Worth, on its own, is such a magnificent city that it appears a total injustice for it to be packaged as the salsa to Dallas' tortilla chip -- as if Big D is the only vehicle in which Fort Worth can be properly enjoyed, an axiom found by the [AA]'s to be wholly untrue.

Instead, Fort Worth is bacon.  And Dallas is eggs.  And though they are dependable companions, each can be thoroughly enjoyed without the help of its geographical ally. 

And so this is what we did.  A full porcine helping of Fort Worth's belly meat -- first stop, Panther Island Pavilion.

Excuse me while I plagiarize a bit of my own work, but in another publication about the Fort Worth's Untapped Music and Beer Festival, I wrote about how at some point in time, someone, somewhere opined, "whatever happens in indie music happens in craft beer".

Truthfully, nobody has actually ever said that -- but if someone had, the theory would hold up well: quality collaborations, mashups, harshly palatable grimecore, revivalism, and, ultimately, the showy-showy showcases of talent in the form of a festival circuit.

To me, its seems positively mad that these two mediums -- craft beer and indie music -- have never been aligned in a completely determined way, being that they are so analogous on so many levels.  Here, in Fort Worth (and in Dallas at the later half of 2012), the two were masterfully allowed to cross-pollinate on a rather gorgeous Saturday in the spring.

Apart from the gorgeous weather and clever musical narration, what made this festival a relevant example of Fort Worth's emergent beer scene was: 1) The impressively visible representation of North Texas' breweries who were proudly serving their new, yet fully gratifying line-up of beers, and 2) The very appreciative and prescient crowd who expertly gravitated to the beer tents like old ladies to multiple-play bingo.  There was a definitive air of knowledge on the festival grounds that day, and left me with the impression that the people of Fort Worth are serious-to-fuck about great beer.  For its size, I would be hard-pressed to think of a more well-organized and better-curated beer event than Fort Worth's Untapped.

Beside the obvious treasures of [AA] family-favorite Founder's Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Firestone Walker's hot-tag of Parabola and §ucaba, one could find limited treasures from Fort Worth's Rahr & Sons Brewing in the form of two casks named Cheech (Imperial Red dry hopped with Galaxy and aged on Spanish cedar) and Chong (IPA with hemp seed and jalapeno), a not-so-subtle head nod to the event's coincidental calendar date.

For a community of beerists who tend to become very pretentious over time in rather unfair fashion -- and who often say unspeakable shit like, "OK, now fucking impress me" the beer vendors at Untapped had the attention of every single person in attendance, including us reprobates from [AA], who continued throughout the day to shoot flirty eye-boners at the tent handling Fort Worth's newest brewery, Martin House.

The thing with beer festivals in general is that its a bit like being in the Beer ICU, where one is on a steady drip of booze and pharmaceuticals all day and its veeery fucking easy to get inadvertently ruined.  Sometimes, you need a break from the 2oz sampling -- and strangely enough, the best way to do this is to get a proper pour of single beer to recalibrate the system. 

Brilliantly, Untapped made it simple to achieve this typically-impossible beer festival task by offering pours for a measly five skins.

And as a result, we elected Martin House's River House Saison to transition us from an afternoon of boozing in Fort worth to an evening of boozing in Fort Worth.  Congratulations to us.

River House Saison was the jaunty banjo of foot tapping Americana -- an excellent interpretation of a Wallonian, but not distinctly Belgian at all.  Instead it reflected on the heritage of the old-world while maintaining the ambiance of mid-century, mid-American brewing, then juxtaposed with a modern lo-fidelity texture, like Justin Vernon recording in the summer kitchen of a small stone house by some fucking woods or whatever.

River House maintained steady cohesion and great control from its brewers, who despite brevity in business, appear to be expert in skill.  River House was citrusy with foraging wheat and underlying fruit spices.  It really impressed with its refreshing and bright complexity, but understated composites.

It set us in a good direction.

ABV ~5.o%
Acquired Untapped Festival [Ft. Worth]
Can I Find This in Austin? Not yet, but canning is forthcoming and I'm feeling lucky.
Album Pairing Volcano Choir | Unmap (2009)

And thus, after a light dinner we gathered ourselves again, because the enjoyment of beer is not something that we ever run out of.

We drifted on to two of many highly recommended beer bars in the approximate areas of downtown and the Mockingbird area -- The OG Saucer and The Live Oak Music Hall and Lounge.  I'm a bit envious that 1) Their Saucer actually does NOT suck like the Austin one does, which is shameful because the Austin Saucer has proximal advantages that many other Austin beer bars don't, and has the corporate backing to bring in heavy hitters, like the aforementioned Founder's KBS, and 2) Fort Worth has a very legitimate, very permanent, very seamless venue for craft beer and live music in the form of The Live Oak, which beyond the badassedness of that alone, is curated and portered by the venerable Tony Drewry of Tony Drewry fame.  The melting of minds caused us to bail on our final destination, Zio Carlo Brewpub.

But, we left ourselves a reason to return.