Friday, June 14, 2013

Queen takes Bishop: How Saint Arnold's Barrel Aged Imperial Stout #3 Can Help You On Karaoke Night

Barrel-aging is a beer genre having a bit of a crisis at the moment.  This is only according to me, of course, but at a certain measure of volume hitting the market (that being the very scientific metric of one shitload), at what point is it where no one gives a damn about drinking a barrel aged beer anymore?

Whereas having a carefully and masterfully structured bourbon barrel aged beer used to be the libatious equivalent of hearing 'Hey Ya' on the car stereo in the very early solstices of 2003, by August of the same year, everyone was generally just tired of its infinity times infinity omnipresence. 

While barrel aging hasn't quite attained the banality of Top 40 radio, it seems like more than a few breweries are scrawling sappy best-sellers for the sake of improving their chart position with the beer dorks, while becoming less engaged with the actual stuff that helped purchase the kettles in the first place.

Let me be clear.  I don't think that Saint Arnold is guilty of this, necessarily.  I think they brew a very respectable recurrent lineup, and I happily order their stuff from time to time.  The sense I do get with breweries similar in size to Saint Arnold's as they accrue the momentum for 100% sustainability and expansion, is that their side projects tend to be wildly inconsistent from one to the next, clichéd even. In the case of Saint Arnold, sometimes both will occur within the same series.

Before I get into Bishop's Barrel #3, here are my thoughts on Bishop's Barrel #1 and Bishop's Barrel #2, which are mostly favorable.  In fact, I maintain that BB1 was probably the best bourbon barrel stout ever brewed and aged in the Southwest.

For that, Saint Arnold gets a guy's-weekend-in-Cabo-style hall pass to live out their Bishop's Barrel dreams for as long as necessary; a series that will consist entirely of barrel-aged beers for its duration.  I'm certainly okay with that given that Saint Arnold is reliably good-to-great in most things, except that the point of reference for this series begins with perhaps an insurmountable baseline for quality.  And lately the tenor of the Bishop's Barrel series is beginning to mimic André 3000's signature opening lyric "1,2,3,4 ...".  How long is it before we switch the station?

Saint Arnold noted a few differences between BB1 and BB3, which basically utilizes the same base beer but with different finishing techniques, for example, Saint Arnold fermented this version of the imperial stout with their house yeast, which is supposed to add a touch of creaminess, 2) BB3 was aged slightly longer -- 12 months versus 10 months, and finally, 3) there is a '3' on the neck label instead of a '1', which is to say that there is so little variance between one of the best stouts ever brewed in Texas and this version, that any nuances should theoretically improve the beer with one already under their belt.  Third verse, same as the first, right?

Truthfully, it tasted like a Crown & Coke.

Yep, as special as karaoke night 10 minutes before your stage debut of 'Killer Queen' and the barbaric attempt to catch a fast buzz for $3.  It has the demeanor of Brett Favre trying to make himself into a luxury brand.  It drifts so far from Houston-y beer into a lattice of country cousins at a BYOB wedding who've delved into the Canadian elitism of all-denim outfits and velvet bag booze.

I'll state that I do respect a brewery for evolving in a Radiohead kind of way, and Kid A is right about where I see Saint Arnold idling.  But with this series at least, there is a precarious pathway between recording Amnesiac and recording a carnival of laughs like El Camino from a formerly-evolving, presently digressing band like The Black Keys.

Admittedly, there are notes at the bookends of BB3 that are really fantastic -- like the creaminess they were going for, it certainly features that.  Also, the open-mouthed, wet kiss of booze at the end is very clever for an 11-and-a-half percent beer that leaves no heat.  But that is as much talent as this beer shows with its strumming.  And I really hate when people mistake effort for talent.  I call it the Tim Tebow effect.  This beer exemplifies the Tim Tebow effect.

It seems 12 months in the wood was asking BB3 to do more than it really could, or should, or really needed to -- like using a kiln to make cinnamon toast -- a bit of an overkill.  No worries these things happen from time to time.  I'll still be scrambling around for #4.

ABV 11.5%
Acquired Craft Pride [Austin]
Can I Find This in Austin? You'll need a Twitter account.
Album Pairing Oasis | Heathen Chemistry (2002)

Friday, June 7, 2013

The State of the Texas Craft Beer Scene Part 3: Capitol Gains in Austin

Well, its been a pretty interesting week hasn't it?

While this post didn't intend to start out with emotional catatonia, I think it is appropriate to take a moment to pause on the passing of Walt Powell, a guy whose influence was felt beyond the silliness of beer drinking, but into something more profound; the personal friendships he developed as a result of beer drinking.  I didn't know Walt well in person, having only shared a few mutual drinks at whatever event had collected the beer community that day, but I felt like I knew him well digitally.  We interacted online quite a bit because I think we shared a mutual sense of what humor should rightly be, and that is snark with a good amount of browbeating, all tied together with a loose beer-related theme. He was cool.

I only recently learned that before his gig at Flix, Walt was a beer writer.  And having accumulated cachet doing that, landed him in a place where he thought he could probably be even more influential to the local and statewide craft community.  He was.

I think it would please him to learn that his demise brought forth shock and bewilderment in the beer community the same way as Joe Johnson going out in the 2006 NBA playoffs against the Spurs or Michael Owen withdrawing from the English squad in the '06 Cup.  Total bewilderment, everyone scrambling to make sense of it.  Over beers of course.  That went without saying.

Walt left an irreplaceable gap in the landscape of possibility, not only for him as a very decent dude, but as a leader in the craft beer movement.  We've lost our target man.  Our sharp shooter.  And the immediacy of its circumstance makes it weird as we attempt to maintain the house.  As humans, we are conditioned to tell somebody goodbye while they are still within earshot.  But to people like my son, for example, who hasn't quite grasped that social premise yet, it feels weird to send someone off without letting them know we meant to say goodbye. Its good to know that some of his wit has preserved him in script somewhere on the internet.

As beer people, we like to travel in packs -- bar crawls, bottle shares, brewery releases, and so on.  I think we like the assurance that we're a community.  It preserves the delicate nature of altruistic relationships necessary in the craft world.  The consumer is as important as the brewer.  The retailer is as vital as the distributor.  I think it denotes that, for the most part, we've all got each others backs and it makes us less-panicky animals without being set free on our own too much.  If you want an example of how inane we get, see how we respond as individuals to rare beer releases left to our own devices.

This notable herd mentality, however, sets the true pioneers of beer in Austin apart from the mass; individuals like Pinthouse Joe, Josh Hare, Jake Maddox, and yes, Walt -- who engage their own loyalties and devotions and grassroots innovative resonance.  People who can make good ideas survive meetings and have minds like boxes of marbles spilled onto granite countertops.  We scramble around trying to aggregate their cognizance.

Beer culture in Austin is healthy as all fuck.  Beer is a huge, uncontrollable threat to our spare time and vital organs.  Beer culture in Austin is not histrionic in the same way something like craft cocktail culture has blossomed and died on its stem, accidentally poisoned by its own caretakers.

Beer culture in Austin, is something that wants to stick, particularly given two circumstances: One, is that this is the second -- possibly even third -- iteration of the craft beer boom in Austin after the rise and fall of both Copper Tank and Waterloo brewing, and the ancillary passing wave of The (original) Ginger Man and Celis Brewing.  With more than a few failures and consequential frustration under its belt, Austin most certainly feels like its got its master plan.  The second circumstance is the crucial system of check-and-balances between brewers, media, and consumers. 

And through chance, luck, skill and achievement, we are now witness to a developing Rat Pack of Austin breweries who are treating this deluged town like its own personal Oceans 11 casting call.  It's as good as we're gonna feel all day.

And above all that, the shit that is really about to make this situation get real-real is the impending act-of-congress (quite literally) that had to happen in order for craft beer in Austin to be completely sustainable.  With the passing of recent legislation, (given the refusal of veto powers by Texas' Aggie-in-Cheif) the Jester King Brewery and Hops & Grain Tasting Room will be full-fledged brewpubs (, but with a license to distribute!).  What this means is, while one can still visit whatever booze depot of his/her choosing to stock beer for personal use, breweries will be allowed direct sales to its customers at its source through a confounding system of product-for-currency exchange!  Right there in the brewhouse!  Yes, quite on the cuttingest of edges by the Texas lege.

When this moment comes upon its much anticipated threshold, Texas will have officially arrived into the premier leagues of beer along with California, Oregon, Michigan, etc with a door kicking entrance.  And the same way it would be baffling for state residents of these beer giants to not spend locally on craft, it would be equally as inappropriate for resident Austinites, or Houstonians, or Dallasites to venture too far out of the vicinity.  Otherwise, take your yankee asses back to Kentucky.  A simple fiver -- and often less than than that -- will get you something great and local in an Austin pub.

Photo courtesy of Josh Hare, Hops & Grain
But in Austin, popularity + growth means one impenetrable force: lines.

Shit, someone should do a study of how long the average Austinite waits in line.  We do it for everything.  Well, anything worth doing at least.

During this past SXSW -- while waiting in line, of course -- I mentioned to whoever happened to be in my immediate vicinity that we should start the next internet meme craze like Planking or Harlem Shake called Queuing.  Just line right the fuck up, doesn't matter to what.  Car wash? Queue. Furbies Live? Get in line, motherfucker. Random door entrance? Behind me, sister.  Been here all day.

It will be a hit.  Hurry up and wait, err' one.

The thing is, good beer and demand are very coincident pals. Who can blame the public for wanting to be participant in something that takes so much time and care?  Aaron Franklin has built an empire on it, and soon, so will the micros of Austin.  Hurry up and wait, indeed.

Good for them.  Like BBQ, breweries operate on razor thin margins and no industry on the planet deserves more income than does the craft industry.  I suspect you'll have to wake up pretty early to beat me to the front of the line of all these new tap rooms.

Finally, as summer begins to vex us with sun-frowns and devastating thirsts, Austin brewers find that this is typically their time to shine (pun, ugh.). This summer in particular will likely finalize Austin's spot on future top-beer-cities lists -- and then get REALLY ready to stand around.

In high anticipation to the folks here at [AA], we expect the following to rip our pants in the front:
  • Austin Beerworks' Heavy Machinery Pt. II The DIPA & Einhorn Berliner Weisse, which stays in our heads persistently. 
  • Hops & Grain's Greenhouse Series making quiet waves right now, but just you wait.  Fucking wait.
  • Pinthouse Pizza's continuing expansion into experimental batches, including the Fallen Cask series.
  • The impending debut of Austin Beer Garden Brewery.
  • Jester King's Atrial Rubicite Raspberry Wild Ale (pictured above)
What more is there to say to really register the point that the craft beer scene in Austin is as healthy and promising as was its musical culture in the 70s and its barbeque outlook in the 90s?  We're at the front steps of another revolution that makes Austin appear like the cultural center of the planet for people with these interests. The house is in order and now she's picking throw pillows.  These are the giddy days.  Why don't you stop waiting and chip in?

The State of the Texas Craft Beer Scene Part 1: Fort Worth
The State of the Texas Craft Beer Scene Part 2: Houston