Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Tracks of 2015: Vol. 11

Sure, I could parse every moment of 2015 and compartmentalize them into sections of the year that played out in my favor, while others did not.  Then thoughtfully prose on about why certain events, whether positive or negative, rocketed a song's cachet into the top 50 or the top 25 or even the top 10.  But that would be recapitulation of the last 10 years since the alpha list of the Top 101 began in 2005 -- and also take up a shit load of time like it did last year when I was still only mono-offsprung and duties like this were kept to kill the spare time between an actual career and a hopeful one instead of recent dad duties like reprogramming my four year old to stop being a hater and coddling the next ultra-entitled mecha-millennial two-month-old.

In other words, creativity has got to be preserved within this limited-functioning brain of mine, as the imminent exhaustion of A1 dadding and B-minus husband'ing creeps, my residual imagination is now reserved only for paying gigs.  For that, you can read a proper list here in the Austin Chronicle

Thusly, here is [AA]'s Top 101 of 2015 without the stale practice of any kind of introduction, a vainglorious portion of personal reflection, or bombastic self-promotion to read [AA] in the form of print journalism.  Enjoy, yeah?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Class in Session: A primer on Austin's most drinkable beers

[Note: This post was originally published by The Austin Chronicle on September 18, 2015]

So, what are your plans for the weekend? Urban farming? Inking a Sharpie mustache on your index finger? Attending the second birthday party of a very small hipster-looking child? Or any one of the other million tiny triumphs of excessive Austin-ness?
How about tailgating on trillion-degree asphalt under a nearly translucent pop-up gazebo for a dozen hours in the maddening swelter of the it-really-should-be-autumn- now summer?
The gravity of our profane situation as sweaty Austinites is that getting slung on high-gravity beers isn't in the forecast until November – at the absolute earliest – so swinging your neck on a stout or a porter with a modicum of atmospheric appropriateness isn't sensible practice just yet.
But one doesn't have to just accept stodgy, uninspired beer because of this seasonal hitch. That is, "light" beer doesn't have to necessarily mean "lite" beer, and fortunately for us, our local beermakers tend to get intimate with our needs: easy-drinking, thirst-busting, flavor-banging, alcohol-downsizing, sessionable beers that are custom-designed for our daylight marathon-boozing needs.
For the sake of comparison, the quizzically popular and fully mechanized American "session" beers, Coors Light, Miller Lite, Bud Light – all classified as pale lagers by style – weigh in at about the same 4.2% alcohol by volume (ABV). For the calorie suitors, Bud "Heavy" comes in at 5% ABV, while the more exotic options, like Bud Light Lime and Lime-a-Rita, buzz in at 4.2% ABV and 8% ABV, respectively. For the ultimate Texas traditionalists, Lone Star punches its weight at 4.65% ABV.
As an expression of solidarity, the Chronicle has selected a handful of these lo-fidelity beers made by our local beer artists to help you get through the seasonal lethargy, made even more accessible by recommending beers based on availability in a hyper-convenient 12-ounce aluminum keg for maximal ease of transport, consumption, and disposal. So put it in your diaries and drink up; there is almost an inexhaustible supply of this stuff.

The One They Call Zoe (5.2%)

Hops & Grain Brewery
The first beer is a tunnel of love. It's considerably relevant to begin this indoctrination with, as this beer is also classified as an American pale lager, much in the vein of the mega-lites, but that is pretty much where the comparison bottoms out. Zoe – as it is colloquially referred to by the locals – is perhaps the city's best gateway beer, even if it's not its most pervasive. Zoe is exceptionally well-rounded, tropical, and smoothly hopped; it's the pale lager you want to be noticed with beachside if you want others to see you as someone with an actual backbone.

Peacemaker Anytime Ale (5%)

Austin Beerworks
If you are more of the ironic type, as if to suggest that in your checkered past, you've done your best day-drinking at Wrigley or in an alleyway, this is the one to try. This is the same beer that ABW offered to its customers at a cut-rate deal of 99 beers for $99, which would typically set off alarm bells for French wine or rib eyes, but since this is delicious extra pale ale, we went along with it, and lo, were we happy. Peacemaker is ABW's Le Picador, their original masterpiece which doesn't seem to get enough credit for spawning artistic discipline in Texas' craft landscape. Peacemaker is a remarkable way to extinguish the heat with its long washes of zest and note-perfect flavoring hops.

Lazy Day American Lager (5.5%)

Uncle Billy's Brewery
A reasonably new contender in the canned-goods circuit, Uncle Billy's is mostly notable for their marvelous can design denoting their pale ale, and Lazy Day. While this beer is at the higher end of the "sessionable" spectrum, Lazy Day is a genuinely approachable, full-bodied lager with a deft grain bill and nearly nonexistent hop profile. If a traditional interpretation of a midcentury American beer exists in Austin, this one is it, bungalow renters.

Metamodern IPA (4.5%)

Oasis, Texas Brewing Company
For those unaware, the Austin area claims its very own "session brewery" where an entire production facility has dedicated itself to our passive character. None of Oasis' mainstay beers creep beyond the 5% boundary. Metamodern is their imminently classic session IPA which coordinates two of the trendiest hop varietals at the moment – Citra and Mosaic – and leads them to a bubble bath of seductively juicy and invigorating beer.

Hans' Pils (5.3%)

Real Ale
Before you even think about cruising over to your dad's crib for the game with a couple sixers of "not your father's root beer" under your proud elbows, consider that you will likely be able to read his everlasting disappointment face about your life (and beverage) decisions, and you will then feel bad. Instead, go with Hans' Pils, of course, for delicious pilsners are roughly 85% of a father's chemical makeup.

RedBud Berliner Weisse (4.5%)

Independence Brewing

Gose (4.4%)

Real Ale
If you are the kind of person who prefers beer to simply keep you well-oiled throughout the day, then there are solutions to your drinking problem. RedBud and Gose hardly even taste like beer, or rather the terrible beer you used to drink in place of these. RedBud is a sour wheat beer that emulates a shandy or possibly a lemonade radler, while Real Ale's Gose is a take on the traditionally salty and tart, malted wheat beer of northwest Germany. And if there is a culture day-drinkers in Texas should be mirroring, it's that of the Germans. One should keep in mind, however, that the last sixers of each have been pushed out for distribution, so go out, find them, and hoard like the wind!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Festival of Brites at Zilker Brewing

[Note: This post was originally published by The Austin Chronicle on June 5, 2015]

The Austin beer scene is not very good at being dull. Of late, Austinites with discerning craft beer palates have been on an incredible streak of bankrolling at least a half-dozen new breweries. Over on the Eastside in particular, brewery taprooms have ascended from the pasture of warehouse blight like remembrance poppies.
Forrest Clark, one of three co-founders of Zilker Brewing Company, is pretty clear that there is no intricate strategy to enjoying their offerings. "We were inspired by the flavor complexity of American hops and Belgian yeast together," he notes. "Combined with our high-quality malts, you get a highly [satisfying] finish to our beers."
Soundtracked by the foot traffic of hipster-Sixth, the flit of bikes, and the dive bar murmur, Zilker enjoys a very rare attribute for Austin breweries: the ability to engage the street life of its surrounding neighborhood. While many local breweries set up shop on the edges of Austin, Zilker took a cue from the boutique breweries of Portland, Asheville, and San Francisco that cater to the walkability and bikeability of an entertainment district.
"It was important for us to engage the neighborhood in a way that would be supported by the people around us every day," Clark states, "and it was important to have this neighborhood feel with all of our equipment exposed [to the public]. We always wanted to be able to debut our beer at our own brewery first so we could be the face of our beer, and people could get to know us before they tasted our beer anywhere else."

Zilker Brewing's taproom, with brite tanks out in the open, demonstrates exactly that transparency. Brew kettles serve as the brain of this taproom, separated from its speculators by a bloodstream of revolving patronage entering and exiting the heart of Zilker's bar chamber. On the surface, everything at Zilker appears to be not only sustainable, but downright thriving.
Zilker debuted with a set of core beers: an ESB (Extra Special Bitter), a well-balanced, meandering version of the traditionally toasty and fruity British ale; a honey saison which uses 50 pounds of Round Rock honey during the fermentation cycle to enhance its bouquet; and an IPA which utilizes a specific yeast strain to mimic a fruity ester aroma that can almost be perceived as an additional hop. It is certainly a lo-fi version of the typical American IPA, but is equipped with a thoughtful nuance that keeps it very interesting and thoroughly enjoyable.
Recently, Zilker added a pale ale to their lineup with plans to release a coffee milk stout and a Belgian imperial rye IPA. As per the custom of Austin's beermakers, the brewery also expects to offer their approachably lower-alcohol offerings by the can sometime in the future. Perhaps to be enjoyed in a rather large city park.
"We've been [in Austin for] 20 years," Clark refers to himself and his co-founding brother Patrick, along with head brewer Marco Rodriguez, "and have been homebrewing since 2008. It took us eight to 10 years to find a Belgian yeast strain we really liked. It took us 14 months to find the right location for our brewery. We stuck with it because we had the passion for brewing beer, but it also took a ton of perseverance and a lot of luck as well."

Friday, May 15, 2015

BREWED AWAKENING! Introducing the New Official Beer of Austin

[Note: This post was originally published by The Austin Chronicle on May 15, 2015]

When Austin was in its craft beer-loving infancy – let's call that the early Nineties – Shiner Bock was the perfect bottle to hold. It represented the city's shrug toward its inevitable ascendancy into alt-culture dominance. Its potable stability was the constant that stitched the fibers of Austin's bloated evolution, holding taut the tethers of nostalgia: Warm sips between gigs at Steamboat. Liberty Lunch. La Zona Rosa. The old Maggie Mae's and the porch of Shakespeare's. A genuine beverage to engage in during the lengthy summer wait when Salt Lick was the barbecue scene and West Campus houses still had warped steps on which to drink all afternoon.
Shiner Bock was an icon in this state, not only as a consumable, but as a tutorial on how to be a Texan – and an Austinite, for that matter. If someone handed you a cold one today, you would no doubt drink it. There is a reason why it is still stocked at Longhorn tailgates, historic taco joints, and other Austin institutions. But something happened in the early Aughts: Austin genuinely learned how to appreciate beer.
As smaller breweries began dissolving around town, a second swell of beer makers, like Real Ale and Live Oak, began popping up. Suddenly, Shiner Bock wasn't as exhilarating or refreshing as that candy-red bottle of Firemans #4 Blonde Ale that could lower the triple-digit heat by at least a full degree. Beer walls became much more localized to suit the curiosity of the city, and Firemans #4 organically became the latest official beer of the city; something to sip during Voxtrot's microcatalog gigs and "Keep Austin Weird" parades. But as desires often do, Firemans #4's draw eventually faded, leaving us as an established and nationally respected beer city without an iconic brew.
Until now.
The Chronicle assembled a tribunal of seven beer experts to undertake the unspeakable burden of determining the new face of the Austin beer scene. The only caveats were that the beer had to be reasonably accessible to all Austinites either on the tap or in the store, and that the beer had to be available year-round.
After a thorough vetting process, five exceptional beer candidates emerged from various Austin-area breweries, and were nominated to represent the city's eclectic post-Aughts culture, its continually developing beer palate, its cruel climate predicament, and its preference for quality.

The Candidates

Hops & Grain The One They Call Zoe Pale Lager
Real Ale Hans' Pils
Live Oak HefeWeizen
Jester King Le Petit Prince Farmhouse Table Beer
Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap Pils

The Panel

Jake Maddux: Beer program director at Salt & Time; brewer, formerly of Thirsty Planet, New Belgium, Anchor. Opening the Brewer's Table in Austin in 2016.
Tre Miner: Assistant operations manager at Craft Pride and Certified Cicerone
Anna Toon: Beer and Food Journalist, Austin Chronicle
Jessica Deahl: Contributor to the Bitch Beer blog; graphic designer for Blue Owl Brewing
Sahara Smith: Operations and training manager at WhichCraft Beer Store
Chris Troutman: Editor-in-chief & co-founder of Austin Beer GuideDraught Punk podcaster.
Tony Drewry: The "Beer Pedaler"; captain of the NXNW Beerliner; promotions for Untapped Fest

Introducing the New Official Beer of Austin

Wowie Zoe

Hops & Grain The One They Call Zoe Pale Lager
Hops & Grain's Zoe has the opportunity to challenge beer palates in Austin that are used to the amateur ranks of American pale lagers, like Bud Light and Lone Star. Zoe represents an absolutely note-perfect beer, like a Jenny Lewis album, full of enthusiasm and moxie. There is nothing ostentatious going on; Zoe is just good, solid lager.
Sahara Smith: Zoe has so much effervescence, a very lively mouthfeel. I think that makes it a great beer for those 100-degree Texas summer days. It sits lightly on your palate and it sits lightly in your stomach.
Jake Maddux: It's so user-friendly.
Smith: If I'm going to a party where I don't know what people drink and I don't know their level of familiarity with craft beer, I will hands-down take a six-pack of Zoe with me.
Jessica Deahl: You can take it anywhere.
Smith: I feel that Zoe does a great job of hiding the lesser-accessible qualities of German malt. It is so extensively dry-hopped, and you get a lot of that hop character out of the Zoe.
Maddux: That's a good point. Hoppy beers are the leading category in beer right now. And that seems to be what everyone is into. Going from Shiner Bock to, say, Firemans #4, we went from a malt-forward, German-style lager to a very light-bodied blonde ale. So going something brighter and crisper makes a lot of sense.
Smith: I would say that Zoe sells the best in our store [WhichCraft].

Introducing the New Official Beer of Austin

Hans'ome Devil

Real Ale Hans' Pils
Hans' Pils is the official liver-softener of dadcore, and at least partially responsible for all the terrific dad bods in Austin. Spicy, herbal, and hop-bittered, Hans' won a silver medal at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival for German-style pilsners. If Texas is to become as synonymous with Czech- and German-style beer making as Kentucky is to fried chicken, then Hans' will be the standard by which it is measured.
Tony Drewry: [Hans' Pils is a beer] I've been championing for several years now. It even has its own fan page on Facebook. To me, it embodies what everyone likes about a good drinkin' beer. It appeals to the Bud Light guy and it appeals to a beer snob that will pick out every single hop in there. It's balanced, it's accessible, and [sales are up] 900 percent in El Paso! That's a big deal; they sell a lot of Bud Light out there. To me, this is a beer that bridges the gap for session beer drinkers and those who shotgun at a tailgate and, basically, anybody. It's a beautiful beer.
Maddux: Hans' is a great gateway beer.
Drewry: It's a northern German-style pilsner; it's very hop-forward. Way more IBUs (International Bittering Units) than a regular pilsner. So, it also helps bridge the gap between the guy who loves an IPA and someone just getting into beer looking for something adventurous. This is a beer that when they drink it, people say, "I always thought pilsners sucked – Miller Lite is a pilsner – but this takes it to a whole new level."
Maddux: Zoe, Hans, and some sort of Jester King are the top 3 sellers for me [at Salt & Time].

Introducing the New Official Beer of Austin

Hefe Life

Live Oak HefeWeizen
Considered Austin's first (and for many years, only) world-class beer by several online review sites and renowned experts of beer, Live Oak HefeWeizen is the only legacy beer that made the panel's short list of candidates. This gentle-drinking hefeweizen is a spectacular, chewy, fruity accessory to Austin's 300 days of sunshine.
Maddux: Now, hefeweizens are a rather divisive style. It's a fruity beer, a fruit-forward ale, it's bananas and clove.
Drewry: ... with a hint of bubblegum.
Maddux: It's a beautiful beer. [Live Oak's] is well executed, but it's just not a style that I tend to drink a lot of.
Anna Toon: The longevity of the brewery matters to me. I would hesitate picking something so new in the marketplace. [Live Oak has] been around a long time.
Maddux: This is one of the top-ranked hefeweizens in the entire country.
Drewry: One of the top 3 in the world, actually. There is a proprietary malt in this beer that only two other breweries in the world use. It's a very special malt that's just for Live Oak and only used by a couple of other breweries in the whole world – and out of the style that the Germans originated, brewed, and perfected over hundreds of years, there's a brewery in Austin that does it better than all but two. Now that is amazing.
Chris Troutman: And that malt doesn't even come [to the brewery] on pallets, they have to move it bag-by-bag inside from the truck.
Deahl: To try to do this style and do it this well is super ballsy.
Drewry: And bars all over this town sell the shit out of it. It is the beer that people in DFW and Houston associate with Austin. It's a beer that put Austin on the map as far as the beer scene goes.
Smith: Live Oak is so solid. They just really make top-quality, world-class beers.
Drewry: I've been in bars before and I've actually heard people say, "This is so much better than a Blue Moon!"
Tre Miner: But a reason [Live Oak HefeWeizen] stays on the beer walls so consistently and sells well is because they don't have a packaged product out. If they did, it might be a different story.
Maddux: By the end of the year, Live Oak is going to be canning their beer and it's gonna be pretty kickass. Live Oak Hefe in a can! But it not being a packaged beer is something that people might be concerned about when it comes to deciding the official beer of Austin.

Introducing the New Official Beer of Austin

Fresh Prince

Jester King Le Petit Prince Farmhouse Table Beer
Jester King is perhaps Austin's buzziest brewery, hoisting the regional banner for fruited sour ales that are coveted worldwide. While Le Petit Prince is neither a fruit beer nor a sour, its fuzzy brilliance is sometimes overlooked because of that fact. Le Petit is a true-to-style farmhouse table ale that is uncomplicated, low in alcohol, and refreshing. Just as it was in those nasty, plague-y days of Europe.
Smith: Jester King is also a world-class brewery. I mean, the head brewer of Cantillon raves about them.
Miner: Le Petit Prince was one of the first beers that Jester King brewed. They use a wonderful mixed-culture fermentation that includes several different yeast strains both domesticated and wild, and bacteria to give it the nuance it contains. It's best described as a table beer and sort of like a saison. Le Petit Prince is meant to be very refreshing, very light, very low-alcohol, and thirst-quenching. To me, this beer embodies the farmhouse spirit.
Troutman: Le Petit Prince adds a good flavor component to eating as well, and has been used in interesting ways like that.
Miner: I think that, as much as I love Le Petit, it's more of a personal preference. I don't think that Austin as a whole is ready for the funk that is a wild, mixed-culture fermentation beer.
Drewry: If we're talking about the next Firemans #4, I don't think this is it.
Miner: Maybe this will be the next official beer of Austin. It isn't as approachable [as the others].
Deahl: But we can all agree that Jester King really needed to be on the list [of choices]. It's really indicative of Austin. I don't think it's as accessible as the others. I love Le Petit Prince, obviously, but I can't take it to the river with me.
Miner: I'll say this about Jester King before I rule it out, is that I appreciate the fact that they've become more and more localized, brewing everything by means of what is available to them at the time. They locally source many of their ingredients, including Blacklands Malt, which is Texas' only malthouse. They embody everything about the farmhouse spirit and, in this case, a Texas farmhouse brewery. I would not generally call this as accessible as we would like it to be, and maybe it has a flavor profile that is a little too challenging for the novice beer drinker.
Troutman: The only reason I didn't object to Le Petit Prince being on our list [of potential winners], is because I really wanted to drink some of this tonight.
[Enthusiastic "yeah"s from the group.]

Introducing the New Official Beer of Austin

Green Party

Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap Pils
The lads at Austin's eponymous Beer­works have given themselves quite a few challenges by simply being so good at what they do – and that is brewing a spectrum of high- quality ales that are in such high demand – that they've outgrown their workspace four times over. However, their lager, Pearl Snap Pils – in its striking green can – is the main reason for the grueling calisthenics it takes to run their successful operation. Austin Beerworks' bestselling beer is a sturdy, yet medium-bodied interpretation of a German-style pilsner that finishes with a bright, hopped-up confidence.
Deahl: I've only been here a little over two years, so I can read through my entire Austin beer catalog. The first Austin beer I had was a Pearl Snap, and I thought it was amazing. I loved the packaging.
Smith: The first time I saw Pearl Snap, it was at the old Cheer Up Charlies, and I saw it on the shelf, and the way that it looked, it just stood out from everything else on the shelf.
Deahl: It's a Christian Helms design, and when you're holding it, it's almost like an accessory. It's beautiful and identifiable up on the shelf. It feels really Austin to me, and I don't know if that's because of what Austin Beerworks has contributed to Austin, or what Austin has contributed to Austin Beerworks. But I think it's a real culmination of the two.
Drewry: With Pearl Snap, I take that beer up to [bars in] Ft. Worth and people want to know what it is, and they say, "Give me that one with the A on it."
Troutman: I think that Pearl Snap really fits our criteria; where the previous beers were varying in accessibility, [Pearl Snap] is very accessible, but also a bit more challenging. It's more interesting if we're talking about Austin's taste buds growing up. Going from Shiner Bock to Firemans #4, I think Pearl Snap is the natural evolution being both accessible and interesting.
Deahl: I bring six-packs to California with me in my luggage and I am super proud of it. I just know that, for me, it was a fantastic introduction to what can be made down here.
Smith: You have to consider what about Austin makes these beers unique? And I think it's more of a broader thing about Texas. Zoe, Hans', and Pearl Snap all have a heavy German malt base and that speaks a lot to our German and Czech influence in Texas.
Drewry: This would probably be the only other region in the world where these beers were as well-made as their original region.
Smith: Exactly. Three of the most popular beers in Austin are German-style lagers.
Maddux: Lagers are crisp and clean and beautiful and not too fruity. Making lagers is like a chef making an omelet. It's very easy to do, and very easy to fuck up.
Smith: Yeah, it's harder to hide flaws in lagers.
Drewry: If you make a good lager, I'll probably like the rest of your beers.
Miner: Of the three lagers, I would say Pearl Snap is the most balanced.
Troutman: Weather is a big factor, but also being a liberally drinking city. I mean, I never was into day drinking until I moved to Austin. So I think moving from the darker, maltier beverage [Shiner Bock] to the lighter, crisper [Firemans #4] spoke to the liberal attitude of drinking in Austin. It has to be a lower ABV beer with character. Thinking about it, I really feel like Pearl Snap is what we can identify as that beer.
Miner: Being at Craft Pride, which only serves Texas beers, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly our best Austin sellers are, but Live Oak Hefe is probably our number one selling Austin beer, probably Pearl Snap for number two.
Troutman: Beer is a party beverage. And what I want at a party is Pearl Snap.
Maddux: Austin Beerworks is one of the top 5 fastest-growing breweries in the entire country, so that's gotta show something right there, that in one of the fastest-growing cities [in the U.S.], they're the fastest-growing brewery.
Troutman: Austin Beerworks is the most fun, party brewery. Not that they're necessarily a better brewery than others, but they're just so much fun. Austin Beerworks brings beer back to the everyman, that beer is for having a good time without being pretentious and winning medals. It's unapologetically a great beer. If my best friend came to town, I'd give [Pearl Snap] to him without reservations or apology.
Toon: It is very reflective of Austin.
Drewry: Every beer on our list is something I drink on the regular and that I have a lot of respect for. I look at Austin as an outsider who has spent a lot of time here over the years, and now that I live here, I think Austin will be Texas' first world-class beer city.
Deahl: We all learned something about ourselves.
Maddux: ... that we love light, sessionable lagers.
Drewry: And that pilsners were awesome all along! Before we vote on this let me get a quick panoramic of the committee. Grab your drinks.
Deahl: Where on the Internet is this going?
Drewry: Everywhere!
Miner: Quick, what beer makes me look the coolest?

The New Official Beer of Austin

A lot of the circumstances around this decision are perhaps more interesting than the decision itself, and surely, you must be thinking by now that these are truly special brewers who are all worthy of our attention and admiration. You are not wrong.
It is, after all, American Craft Beer Week, and all beer should be celebrated with perfect objectivity. But with nearly 3,500 current breweries and 2,000 new ones just in the last decade, it seems timely to identify a trend in the Austin market. Something that will establish our identity as an experienced beer town.
Austin Beerworks' Pearl Snap Pils is that beer. A beverage that characterizes Austin as a dear friend to crisp lagers and pays homage to our regional German-American influences. A beer that has hop appeal for texture, but finishes cleanly with a sturdy backbone of refreshment. Pearl Snap Pils is a cold-blooded assassin to Austin's ribaldry summer temperatures and a beer with the boisterous ethos of Texas, with the playful tenor of Austin's vigor.
No other packaging defines the exuberance of Pearl Snap, and it has become iconic across the state because of it. The boldness of Pearl Snap's exterior directly addresses its fearless interior: natural, efficient, clever, minimalist. Yet somehow assertive. Teddy Roosevelt himself would drink a Pearl Snap and then jump a mountain. After all, nature is basically a great big excuse to drink beer, and for the most part, Austinites embrace that challenge. Pearl Snap is a worthy companion.
And finally, Pearl Snap Pils is a beer with so much love for its home that it doesn't leave this city willingly – very much like the people in it. It is, however, highly desired by communities outside of our boundaries and thus, someone would have to cull our lovely, indigenous brew and mule it to the outliers. As Austin gains momentum as the brewing capital of the Southwest, this beer is a major catalyst for that benchmark, young as it may be. That is the spirit of Austin.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Background Locals: A six-pack of Austin's most underrated beers

[Note: This post was originally published by The Austin Chronicle on April 2, 2015]

Craft breweries can be a whole lot like pop singers. Many of them – the stars at least – have a formula for producing smash hits, and therefore the marketing confidence to rankle the public in a way that will guarantee the proliferation of hype and consistent face time with their product. Almost always it guarantees a hefty financial backing from its consumers regarding any and all future releases. That's super.
Like popular music, there is a beer-y spectrum of exposure, and often it's up to our own personal discovery to mine the gold from the tap wall in such a way that the most dispassionate A&R suit doing a 10-day stint at South by Southwest would be proud. In the list below, you will recognize the burnout, surfy garage-rock beers that are squandering their stylistic novelty to the up-and-comers from their genre. Perhaps you will also recognize a once-triumphant beer that has debilitated under its own marketing failures, an uncalibrated gradient that mismatched the power of the finished product with the assigned promoter. Sad, actually.
And yes, there are the talented juvenescent, simply cloaked by the vastness of options; new beers entering a crowded landscape amongst a cavalry of brothers, but also aggressors like the infamous Big Three (Bud, Miller, and Coors), who not only demand their remaining 8% market share, but deploy chicanery through their own "craft" brands, insistence on prime shelf-estate, and promotion through the lyrical styling of Pit Bull. The struggle is, in fact, real.
Sure, the city of Austin does have its critically acclaimed icons: Austin Beerworks' Pearl Snap, Live Oak Hefeweizen, and (512) Pecan Porter, to name just a handful of worthy, sparkly candidates. But perhaps more interesting than that are the beers we have casually let toddle away under our gaze because we cannot get past the broadcast of those knockout brews.
These beers are Austin's undiscovered talent:

Real Ale Brewing | 4² (Four Squared) Pale Ale

Why it's underrated: Real Ale brews one of Austin's iconic ales, Firemans 4, which steals a ton of this beer's credibility in that many believe Four Squared to be a "heavier" version of the original. While slightly inspired by Firemans, it's not just an amped-up version. 
Why you should pay attention: Pale ales are hard to mess up. Yet, using that rationale, it's also a beer that is difficult to make outstanding. A perfect pale ale is one that can satisfy the hop heads, but remains sensible enough for the casual weekday drinker. Originally introduced as Real Ale's 16th Anniver­sary beer, Four Squared is an incredibly controlled beer; weighty but sessionable, cleverly balanced between the allied coalition of hops and malts, but ultimately memorable because of the dry-hopped addition of aromatic hops during the fermentation cycle. The finished product is somewhere between a Midwest IPA and a Northwest pale ale – chewy, bready, ripe-melony, wholesome drinking. It has so much character, it could have been written by Cormac McCarthy.

Circle Brewing | Blur Texas Hefeweizen

Why it's underrated: The marketplace is absolutely dominated by One Hefe to Rule Them All: Live Oak Hefeweizen, which also happens to be ranked in the World's Top 250 Beers according This fact, along with poor market visibility for Circle Brewing, leads to a woefully unappreciated beer.
Why you should pay attention: Suggesting a hefe other than one made by Live Oak often leads to a stampy-foot tantrum by the beer collective, but Circle makes a damn drinkable secondary option, particularly because this is one that can be enjoyed in your own home in the form of a handy 12-ounce bottle. I'm actually really impressed with Circle's commitment to mess up the promotion of this beer so badly, because, stylistically, it is really a non-competitor to Live Oak's version. Circle should remain calm, remember their survival techniques, and remind everyone constantly that Blur is a creamier, sweeter, and more sessionable (lower ABV) hefeweizen than Live Oak's.

(512) Brewing | India Pale Ale

Why it's underrated: The American IPA is a completely oversaturated style adorning tap walls and store shelves throughout the country. In Texas, the spike in space dedicated to the style is especially crowded with the influx of IPA giants into the state, like Ballast Point, Stone, and Odell, along with prodigies Magnolia's Lone Pint Brewing with their Yellow Rose IPA. Simply put, (512) IPA's tap handle or hop-reputation doesn't stand out on a wall with options.
Why you should pay attention: "Beer is a simple game. You boil the beer, you ferment the beer, you bottle the beer. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. Think about that for a while." I think I heard something like that in a movie a long time ago. The point is, (512) IPA is the best IPA in the city, and you will have ignored it because of its innocuous self-promotion and usage of hops that sound like a tedious Avett Brothers set list (Glacier, Simcoe, & Columbus). It's a simple, straightforward iteration of the style without a bunch of petulant hops-of-the-moment, which makes (512) IPA a go-to when the pressure of a 100-option tap list is staring you down like a hop groupie.

Adelbert's Brewing | Black Rhino Belgian Dark Ale

Why it's underrated: Adelbert's branding is pretty monotone, and their label is one that would have a hard time standing out amongst 837 other options on the shelf. Also, yeasty, Belgian-style beers are not exactly a refreshing commitment for a city dying from heat-related thirst. Shame, because they have very talented brewers.

Why you should pay attention: Black Rhino is a spectacularly unique beer that nobody else in town is producing at this time, and very likely never will. What seems like an experimental recipe, Black Rhino falls somewhere between a Belgian-style porter and a dubbel. It is roasty and discreetly smoky, but retains all the delightfully benchmark ester characteristics of a traditional Belgian ale. Black Rhino is reminiscent of chocolate-covered dark fruit, like raisins, or maybe if you're of Whole Foods nobility, açaí berries. The price point for this beer is especially enticing, coming in at about $8 for a 750ml bottle.

Jester King | Le Petit Prince Farmhouse Saison
Why it's underrated: The primary reason that this beer is overlooked is because Jester King is known for its rare fruited sours, and Le Petit Prince is neither fruited, sour, nor altogether rare in the beer-nerdy sense of the term. Le Petit Prince also weighs in at an extremely patient 2.8% ABV, which lends to its avoidance when inebriation is a primary objective. But let's just be real; that is almost always the secondary and tertiary objective, too.
Why you should pay attention: Meanwhile, back on the farm, Jester King would like everyone to know that they make some regular-rotation, legacy beers as well. And while this full-flavor farmhouse ale isn't named as an homage to a waifish icon from Minneapolis, Le Petit Prince does pack a comparable wallop of character for such a dainty package. Yes, the semi-regular Jester King rarity releases are joyful events, even if they necessitate the lardy Jesterheads to reschedule their weekend LARP events, Second Life meet-ups, and Quidditch fantasy drafts, Le Petit Prince's delicately stitched wild yeast and masterfully hopped profile is one that should create a similar stir.

Hops & Grain Brewing | Volumes of Funk series

Why it's underrated: While Hops & Grain boasts a slick knowledge of media and marketing for their brewery, the 3-year-old outfit is oftentimes coy with their very best ideas – either as a sign of artistic modesty or by design as encouragement for taproom visitations since it is only released on-premise. Very likely, it's both of those things. Hops & Grain's "Volumes of Funk" is their little-publicized sours program.
Why you should pay attention: Everything Hops & Grain brews is done with total class and complete confidence – and then sometimes, they age it in oak barrels inoculated with wild yeast and bacteria to make their beer even more extraordinary. Beers that have been soured by the hands of this series include their flagships: Pale Dog, ALT-eration, and Porter Culture, as well as a few one-off batches, like a barleywine and a cherry Berliner weisse. This is what you see when you dream about the future.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Killer Whales: Is the hunt for rare beers hurting the communal spirit?

[Note: This post was originally published by The Austin Chronicle on February 26, 2015]
I am typing this thought onto the screen of my phone while sitting in my parked car in front of a mega beer outlet on Black Friday. I am waiting for beer.
Actually, beer is waiting for me – and a platoon of similarly minded beer hunters who are willingly waking up from poultry hypnosis to queue in a chilly line for the 10am opening.
When the booze armory finally opens for business, a greeter leads an anticipatory line through the shelves of discounted wine and cocktail setups like the Rat-Catcher of Hamelin, who then hands the group off one by one to a designated store clerk doling out individual four-packs of Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Stout to each customer, and to those keen enough to inquire of its existence in Austin, a solitary 22-ounce bomber of Goose Island's Vanilla Rye variant of Bourbon County Brand Stout. Both of these highly desired liquid commodities hold a perfect 100 rating on the craft beer fansite, which aggregates crowd-sourced reviews from thousands of worldwide contributors.
Amongst a very devoted community of craft beer admirers is an even more ardent society of collectors who seek out the rarest and most extraordinary beers in a brewery's portfolio. Often, these limited-release libations – colloquially referred to in this subculture of fanatical beer enthusiasts as "whales" – create a feverish hunt that begins on social media and ends when the long-pursued vessel is wrested from the clutches of the open swell – or in the case of BCBS, a beer store in North Austin.
But does this fervent pursuit for exceptionally inaccessible beer fit into the narrative of the craft beer movement as a whole, where the latest challenge is to accept the spate of converted light lager drinkers into its welcoming embrace? Is such a phenomenon so thrilling that it elevates the casual dabbler into full-blown craft beer zealotry?
Eric Kurkowski is a rare-beer collector from Houston who searches for his cache within Texas and while traveling out-of-state. From his experience, he says that "most distribution channels allow for a case or two of rare beers that only reach a small number of stores. Owners usually have a list of regulars who get a single bottle of each release, [and so] beer usually sells out before it even hits the shelf."
Kurkowski adds, "Most casual drinkers are not willing to jump through hoops just to get a taste of the newest rare release. They do not prioritize beer above [other plans]. They do not plan around work schedules, vacation weekends, or consider beer to be a centerpiece of many of their decisions."
CBS Release.jpg
Photo Credit: Ken Mello
Shawn Rocke, another avid collector who hunts for rarities in the San Francisco area, intonates that these limited-release events "are good for craft beer culture in the same way rare wines and rare whiskies are good for those cultures; by keeping a buzz with its most avid fans, but also maintaining a 'local' vibe that suddenly attracts a lot of attention." Rocke goes on to speculate that "[limited-release beers] reaffirm a commitment to a brewery, which continues to pay the bills by inadvertently marketing their more accessible flagship [year-round] beers." Rocke says he has witnessed this trend with hotly pursued California breweries Alpine, Russian River, and Ballast Point.
Such brand devotion has recently created waves of eagerness for rarities from Texas breweries, like Saint Arnold in Houston, who recently released the 15th iteration of their highly anticipated Divine Reserve series, which even prompted a Twitter hashtag, #DR15, so that all of the Captain Ahabs in various Texas cities could limit their frantic lunch hour hunt to only a few specific places.
In February, the Austin area was apportioned with one of the rarest treats of the craft beer world when Founders Brewing Co. from Grand Rapids, Mich., sent four quarter-barrel kegs of their extremely finite Canadian Breakfast Stout, a beer brewed with a blend of coffees and imported chocolates, then aged in spent bourbon barrels that had most recently been aging pure Michigan maple syrup. Like the Goose Island beer, CBS also carries a 100 rating on BeerAdvocate, and before this year's batch, was last brewed in 2011.
I met Myk O'Connor, Founders' brewery rep for much of Central and South Texas, at the Brass Tap in Round Rock for one of these limited tappings of CBS – only the second official tasting to ever be held in the state. He makes the case that rare-beer releases, "while not keeping the lights on for the brewery in terms of profit margins, do reward the effort of their customers who stay familiar with the brewery's endeavors, and [help the] bars who loyally market their brand."  
But a similar CBS event held in January at Dallas' Common Table pub, drew both feverish bewilderment from fans of CBS as well as harsh resentment from those who were excluded from the event due to limited space and product. An owner took to the pub's Facebook page, as one does in the face of criticism, stating, "[W]e absolutely & obviously love beer & the beer business. But we get really worn out by the vocal minority [of] people who complain when a bar they visit 2-3 times/year (only for whales, brah) doesn't set up a system to ensure the non-loyal whale hunters get the rarest of beers (at the expense of the sweet, sincere folks who support our business 52 weeks/year and who we know by name)." Frankly, who doesn't love a good mania in their city?
CBS moneyshot.jpg
Photo Credit: Landon Ortiz
The Round Rock event was remarkably tame by Dallas standards, and though it did bring what one can only assume was an unusually jovial crowd for a weekday in the suburbs, there was plenty of this whale to go around to those who sought it out. Still, to those inside, there was an air of uncertainty that at any moment, the bubble of CBS secrecy might burst, and with it, a swarm of whale-hunting, stout-thirsty locusts descending on the fruitage with their beards and Instagram photos and cries of "Oh CBS, how your powers are untold!"  
But even after a brisk hour of draining Founders' complex liquid into 10-ounce tulips toward its demise, I suspect that even a few credulous regulars got an unexpected tryst with one of the most coveted beers in the world as an addendum to their Monday evening chicken wrap. In this instance, rare beer had been made entirely approachable.
And while one's expectation of another fortuitous flirt with this particular whale again would be like dialing the French Laundry during dinner service to ask if there is a long wait, it can be determined that, based on the experience, everyone in the bar on that evening will later become a small part of the craft beer PR machine. Even if the craft beer they are championing is tragically common.
"Many beer drinkers never get to try some of the more complex, experimental beers that breweries are starting to make, which leads to feelings of entitlement, anger, or frustration," Kurkowski contemplates, "[but] these types of releases elevate beer into the stratosphere previously held by wine clubs and small-batch whiskies. This kind of exposure is great for any brewery, and the publicity and hype that comes with producing a rare beer can be a major boost. Still, the consumer is the ultimate gatekeeper, and the market has yet to change the minds of the brewers from making them because people keep hunting them."

Friday, January 9, 2015

Odd Future: Is Oddwood Ales Austin's next great beer?

[Note: This post was originally published by The Austin Chronicle on January 8, 2015]
Perhaps in a beer-keen city like Austin, one has already become accustomed to the bright, nerve-fiber electricity generated by wild ales – often colloquially referred to as "sour beer." To wit, there is Jester King Brewery, thriving out in the hills of far West Austin, now known the world over for their quality brand of fruited sour ales. Then there is the embryonic Blue Owl Brewery in East Austin, still placing the finishing touches on their new operation, but promising a full sour-mashed lineup.
Oddwood2.jpgBut if Austin is to grow from its current brewing toddlerhood into a fighty adolescence, more breweries doing experimental niche styles are necessary in order to wade past Austin's watery bock beginnings. Austin's newest wild ale brewery, Oddwood Ales, is helping to forge that gap.
Oddwood Ales head brewer and owner Taylor Ziebarth started out as a homebrewer, and traveled extensively as a post-graduate before eventually settling in Austin to begin a tech career. After several visits to Adelbert's – his neighborhood brewery – he took a wild leap. Ziebarth quit his Apple job to take on all of the contemptible duties of starting at the bottom of a successful brewery, that is, mopping floors and cleaning tanks. After successfully completing coursework at a brewing school in Vermont, Ziebarth took over production at the Adelbert's facility as their head brewer.
What started out as an unlikely vision "one or two years ago," Ziebarth recalls, eventually became his own brewing project, named for the rustic nature of his beer.   
"I wanted to make beer that was natural and alive," Ziebarth notes, "a beer that was full of wild character." So he began accumulating spent wine oak barrels from his employer, Adelbert's, and filled 18 of them with Adelbert's base beer, Belgian yeast, and brettanomyces (a type of bacteria that acts as a souring agent in wild ales). Over time, it would collectively impart all of the wild characteristics Ziebarth was envisioning. From that initial brewing session came his first beer: Saison.
There is an inarguably slim margin for error when it comes to small-batch beer making. The argument for a sampling beer only persuades people to give a brewery a chance, but not a promise to love it. What Oddwood's Saison accomplishes is a dry, woodsy, sweetly tart, and surprisingly confident beer. It articulates in precise ways: saccharine without cloying; tart but not biting; a clean and stylish finish that only encourages another sip.
oddwood4.jpgElite versions of this style, like Oddwood's, remind the drinker exactly how saisons should taste – especially in a market muddled by interpretations from breweries with production philosophies like, "Look, we know it isn't great, but there's lots of it," and "We were too tired to brew, here's an IPA."
Though Oddwood is following the traditional route of drip-feeding releases into the world to gauge reaction and build anticipation, Ziebarth hints that more beer styles from his brewery are in the works. He reveals that a Bière de Garde is in concept form, and that he would really like to brew a sour beer utilizing bourbon barrels, which he playfully refers to as a "country ale."
Still, one gets the sense that Ziebarth is not playing his full hand. Although he does not seem like the secretive sort, he does perhaps seem a little protective of what the beer world might do to someone who has his sights set so high.
"I like face-melting acidic beers," Ziebarth insists. "I have all the tools to do it, it's just a matter of time."