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 toBeerAdvocate.com. 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.