Top 20 Austin Breweries
Gird your liver for our annual Central Texas brewery power rankings
By Eric Puga,
3:30PM, Tue. Nov. 12, 2019
America is one giant brewery mill. It's the place where they made one brewery template back in 1992 and then cloned it over and over again until you had an outpost of golden ales and porters, and if the beer maestro was feeling particularly plucky, something weird and contemporary like a West Coast IPA at the Copper Tank: San Bernardino.
Shit got real boring and monotonous in the world of craft beer up until a few enterprising people got together and decided to make wild ales and hazy IPAs and barrel-aged pastry stouts a real can't-miss weekend endeavor. That's when lardy beer men and their confused grandmothers-as-beer-mules started queuing up at industrial complexes to buy limited-release jeroboams of rare liquids for a third of their monthly salaries. And that's when the real fun began ... with pure, uncut, Colombian-grade hype.
These days, beer people will always remind you that their opinions are the best opinions, and this column is certainly not derivative of that 11th commandment. You want to know where the tastiest tacos are slung? A beer person will educate you that it's Veracruz in the north and Valentina's in the south. Best White Claw? Black Cherry, son. Bitchin'-est sax solo? Duran Duran's "Rio." Nuclear takes, we've got 'em!
That's why things like Brewery Power Rankings exist when theoretically, breweries should all strive for the same consistent business filters: enjoyable beer, a nice corn chip selection, a few backprint logo Beefy-T's behind the bar, and maybe a few decent boomers who are regulars for some added spice. But they are NOT. Each and every brewery is now a special snow crystal in our Central Texas beer bubble. In turn, we've tasked ourselves yet again with organizing the top 20 of – at last count – 87 operational breweries in Central Texas (with another 26 forthcoming to screw with your self-imposed weekday temperance). Go us!
Anyway, we've got it all sorted out for you, and yes, one can safely assume that the most important detail to a brewery's overall appeal is still the beer itself. We're in the clutches of quality here, folks. It is everything. Well, almost: While the quality of beer is any brewery's apex characteristic, we considered additional little compartmentalized wow-factors as well: taproom appeal; winsome seasonals and limited releases; local, national, and international accolades; cultural and constructive impact on the local beer community; maybe a notable food truck or cool can art, too. It's the best list. Just ask a beer person.
20) Last Stand Brewing (NEW)
Last Stand remains one of the best taproom experiences in Hill Country. Not only because it takes written consent from the beerlords to bypass Jester King in favor of a smaller, less-experimental brewery, but because Last Stand still dutifully churns out true-to-style mainstay boppers headlined by a rotational SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) IPA. Last Stand approximates the experience of a small, blinking-traffic-light, one-brewery town with a very snug biergarten between two very important brewery structures (we guess) where it feels like anyone could just break out in gospel and banjos at a moment's notice. Those are the places we like to drink beer. Plus they do their civic duty by offering $1-off pints to teachers in exchange for their fealty to our unglued schoolchildren. And with a second location announced for 2020 in South Austin we expect School to Be in Session if you know what we mean (it means teachers gettin' their drank on).
19) Central District Brewing (NEW)
Founding a brewery in Downtown Austin ... uh, what could possibly go wrong? Besides when Copper Tank, Bitter End, Waterloo, and Lovejoys all got thrown unceremoniously into Town Lake, we mean. It's probably fine, though. If nothing else, we admire Central District's courage to hunker down where so many other breweries have failed. That's just a business with some real grit, right there. Truthfully, the lovable but scuzzy Lovejoys and the notably inconsistent Bitter End makes Central District seem like Sierra Nevada by comparison. Having only opened their doors in March, Central District pulled off a more unlikely Gold (at GABF for Wit-tington witbier) than all those actors in Miracle starring Kurt Russell. Except this really happened.
18) Blue Owl Brewing (NEW)
You gotta admire Blue Owl still interloping with kettle sours, given all the overeagerness out there about fantasyland beers like double dry-hopped hazy milkshake IPAs. Being literally the opposite of hop-panderers has made Blue Owl a more intuitive, increasingly resilient brewery exhibited in large part by the quality and thoughtfulness they've put into their rotational lineup over the last couple years. Little Gose was already a knockout beer, but the brewery amped it up in 2019 with a lineup of variants like smoked lime, watermelon & mint, and Thai basil with orange. That's just taking the fight right to the hype nerds. Beyond that, beers like Tropícal Brut passion fruit & guava sour dry ale, Czech Czech sour pilsner, and Admiral Gravitas sour imperial oatmeal stout continue to flaunt Blue Owl's reputation as a dexterous and high-quality brewery even with a steadfast commitment to tart. Adding Dapper Devil raspberry Belgian strong ale to their canned lineup is just Blue Owl openly flirting with us.
17) Independence Brewing Co. (NEW)
Seems Indy has finally got their chorus all hummin' again after a cacophony of harpsichords and tongue drums and contrabass flutes trying to create a cohesive melody like a brewery version of the Polyphonic Spree. Their solid matte-black rebranding has reinvigorated their outward appeal despite always having had a solid group of mainstay beers, and adding murdered-out Convict Hill to the canned lineup, IN SIX-PACKS, is like experiencing Avengers: Endgame in ultra-HD 4K Blu-ray. But taking Liberty Lunch away from Austin – for a second time – is like experiencing Eric Bana's The Hulk in Adobe Flash. It's a letdown. Still, Independence's Redbud series with a variety of cherry, passion fruit/guava, cucumber, and strawberry/raspberry throughout the year has been refreshing, while their experimental IPA tallboy series, Highboy, has filled a beer fridge gap now that Austin Beerworks' Heavy Machinery series seems to have gone away forever.
16) Family Business Beer Co. (NEW)
Few people know this, but Family Business Beer Co. was constructed on Hill Country farmland by surgically extracting all the dadcore from Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and momroot from HGTV's Pinterest page. Everything there is a tribute to unfussy Sunday Fundays, awash with oversized Hasbro games and horseshoe pits, covered porches and oak-shaded picnic tables, thirst-assassinating pilsners (FB's Golden Age recently brought a silver medal from GABF in the prestigious German-Style Pilsner category), and even a 1000% fenced-in playground for optimal lazy parenting. Family Business? More like Family Vacation, amirite? Anyway, you may have heard that this outfit is helmed by steamy horror show man Jensen Ackles, but the featured celebrity here is actually head brewer Nate Seale, formerly known for (512)'s iconic Pecan Porter, but now hailed for skull slappers Cosmic Cowboy American IPA and Grackle imperial stout.
15) The Brewtorium (NEW)
The Brewtorium is the spunky, red-hot, mid-major NCAA team that starts off the tournament with a wide-eyed ambition, then proceeds to annihilate every other club with an acrobatic innocence on their way to unmerciful glory. The Brewtorium's current flex has been very impressive, finding great range from smash hits like Namaka coconut IPA to Pillow Fort juicy pale ale to Schwarzengiggles schwarzbier. It's a tap wall featuring Brewcare for All: sours, lagers, stouts, and IPAs in sizes juicy, milkshake, and regular. Now that the once-colossal taproom feels more "lived in," it's a cozy retreat in a rare booze desert of Central Austin. Plus, the biergarten just got an upgrade from no taps to fully tapped, making the hike to the loo located in Marfa a little less of a trek from that side of the brewery.
14) Hops & Grain Empire (SAME)
Hops & Grain finally expanded their storefronts from one to a grand total of two, no thanks to all the permitting bureaucracy that exists when simply trying to make beer in more than one location – red tape killed H&G's ability to expand their OG Calles Street location several years ago into a more robust operation, thus facilitating the need for a larger San Marcos brewery. So, we're stuck with a brewery clone 40 miles away in Hays County instead of Hops & Grainworld in urban Austin. The good news is that they continue to offer one of the best core lineups in the city, even though we'll still campaign for and get stampy-footed about the retirement of early-day marvels Pale Dog and Alt-eration. But given that Greenhouse IPA is back, we'll continue to hold out hope.
13) Hi Sign Brewing (+2)
Things are getting marvelous in a hurry over at Hi Sign Brewery & Hill (well, behind the massive city of Austin mound-o-dirt, to be fair). Their beer is both interesting and consistent, particularly with Hi-C New England IPA and Violet the Blueberry Blonde rapidly becoming two staples of local beer bar tap walls. Hi Sign continues to demonstrate underrated talent with a rotation of hazies, seasonal lagers, a slick Mexican lager in El Berto, and one of the most overlooked beers in town in Blood Orange Ubuntu Coffee Stout, the perfect stout after a hard day of making dirt mountains. And this past spring, Hi Sign flexed as the title beer sponsor of Austin festival darling Hot Luck, and you know Aaron Franklin isn't going to show out with anything other than a plucky brewery to pair with those cottage pie flautas.
12) Vista Brewing (-1)
Vista cleaned up with the big local honors this year: Editors' pick for "Best New Brewery/Brew Pub" by Austin Beer Guide and "Brewery of the Year" by CultureMap, and that's because their brewery experience is staggering. Drinking 11 (yes, drink all 11) classic European-style beers under the live oaks and low brush of the property's 21 Hill Country acres is a life hack to recovering from a shitty week in a cubicle farm. Even better if you catch one of their annual fêtes, beginning with Destination Brew Fest in the summer and ACL rival "Outside the City Limits Fest" in the fall. But if you're feeling like just getting your lambic on between those series of events, there's typically some amazing weather and a bucolic-sounding bluegrass combo to milk those chill vibes.
11) The Brewer's Table (+1)
The Brewer's Table is the brewery of both the boujee AND the bourgeoisie! Fifteen years ago, you would have had to separate the two, but here we are, in TBT's world. Condé Nast Traveller called it one of the "15 Most Beautiful Breweries, Distilleries and Wineries Around the World," while the readers of the Austin Beer Guide considered it the "Best Beer and Food Spot," and still yet this brewery earned an Austin Chronicle "First Plates" award for food. Make no mistake, if TBT wasn't a top-shelf brewery, it would still be one of the best restaurants in Austin. Combine the two, and you've got pure, hot, Tesla-branded electricity in the dining room and out in the lager garden! And speaking of lagers, TBT flagship Vor Ort remains one of Austin's best overall beers from a brewery that knows a thing or two thousand about making brilliant lagers. Accept no substitutes.
10) Oddwood Ales (SAME)
Compared to some other mammoth taprooms around town, Oddwood is the little amuse-bouche of boozing. Their straightforward selection of dazzling IPAs and wood-fermented beers is unparalleled, considering their brewhouse sits in a space the size of an armoire. But, baby, Oddwood just keeps pumping out dime after dime for their tap wall and for takeaway tallboys like Pure Moods IPA, Wolf Shirt American pale ale, and Titta e Guido – the first Italo-pils I'd ever heard of; still unsure if it's a beer or a cute Mario Kart character. It's-a Good-a Pils!
9) Real Ale (-3)
Real Ale gets our vigorous approval for finally delivering their exemplary pale ale, Swifty, in fully packaged six-pack aluminum cans, presumably as a cease-and-desist response to our steady stream of Swifty-themed fan fiction mailed to the brewery. Thanks guys! Few breweries are as devoted to their fans as Real Ale, who also continue to churn out mixed packs for the decision-impaired, particularly when it comes to their "bomber series," where RA put together a blend of big, mean bastards like Commissar Russian Imperial Stout, Black Quad, and Real Heavy Scotch Ale into smaller, more digestible 12-ounce sixers. Speaking of Real Heavy, it just returned from Great American Beer Festival (GABF) with a silver medal around its longneck, making five years in a row the beer came home with hardware (three gold, one silver, and a bronze). Real Ale has also kept busy with a stellar limited seasonal lineup in 2019 with the likes of Wall Ball IPL, Skullberry Strawberry Milkshake IPA, and the return of heavyweight Blakkr Imperial Ale after a multi-year hiatus, confirming our intuition that Real Ale is super into us.
8) Live Oak (SAME)
Live Oak is for people who covet drinking lagers in rustic gardens as if they were old-world dairy maids or Bavarian kohlrabi farmers coming off the land to have a couple of pilsners during sausagelunchen (totally legit German word). But Live Oak wants us all to be bloodletters, man. This brewery is SO METAL, they besmirch and defile medals from GABF, a competition that hilariously awarded them a bronze for making the world's best hefeweizen. That's like giving Harvard a Blue Ribbon School award. Jesus. Still, Live Oak is gold in our black hearts, particularly when it comes to classic sobriety villain Primus Weizenbock and their illustrious spectrum of pilsners, which comes canned in Pre-War flavor now! Raawk!
7) Southern Heights (+2)
Southern Heights has a "No Core Beers" policy, which makes them both outstanding and audacious, but also a bit of a challenge when it comes to bedding back down our absolute hunger for G.O.A.T. Southern Heights masterpiece, Extra Crispy pale ale. That's OK, because in its place are 140 dozen new and expertly bittered beers rotating on the tap wall to satisfy the cravings, like Evergreen Terrace mountain IPA, experimental small-batch It's Probably Awesome IPA, and Dave's Not Here, Man West Coast IPA. SH has conveniently upped their canning game as well, with to-go big-timers Tahitian Dreamin' tropical IPA, '93 Bronco hazy IPA, and Billy Bong Thornton dank IPA. They're into IPAs, okay? That's no crime. If Pinthouse is considered the LeBron James of IPAs, then Southern Heights is their Trainwreck co-star Amy Schumer. IPAs with a laugh, y'all! Oh, and they were voted "Best Austin Brewery" by the editors of Austin Beer Guide, while also taking home "Best New Brewery" by its readers.
6) Zilker Brewing (+1)
Zilker's clout comes from its heavy rotation of seasonal beers, from last summer's Pilsgnar pilsner to Snake Juice Double Hazy IPA to UTOPiAFest sanctioned Utopian Festival Ale to its recent Icy Boys rice lager collab with on-site food truck babes Spicy Boys Fried Chicken. Best of all, they've lassoed all those beers (and many others) into to-go cans straight from their taproom point-of-sale. Thus far, it's been our favorite example of a production brewery using last September's Beer-to-Go law to their advantage, and we expect that Zilker has many more flavors to push onto its fans in their slick and stylish take-away cans. Zilker is the reigning "Best Brewery Taproom" picked by Austin Beer Guide editors, and the condo builders of Austin seem to agree, making Zilker the true nexus of urban beer drinking in town. Zilker's greatest contribution to the city this year? It's their Friends With Benefits hazy IPA collaboration series with pals Southern Heights.
5) The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. (ABGB) (-4)
It was gracious of the ABGB to let a different American brewery win Large Brewpub of the Year at GABF in October after three consecutive years of dunking on their competition. Kids born in 2016 have never even known a world without ABGB reigning supreme. At this point, the ABGB is a platinum-level beermaking institution that doesn't even need validation from us; Paste magazine, who nationally recognized them as one of 2018's "Best Breweries"; the Austin Beer Guide editors who named their Fermentation Fest as Austin's "Best [Beer] Event"; a panel of BIG-TIME INDUSTRY TUNAS in Denver; or anyone else to confirm they're the zenith of pilsner brewers in the United States. However, something they do care about, it appears, is the high quality of local philanthropy in the form of their Hell Yes Project, which donates a percentage of their yearly proceeds to their nonprofit partners like AIDS Services of Austin, Austin Pets Alive!, and Friends of Barton Springs Pool. That's something worth drinking for.
4) St. Elmo Brewing (+1)
Beer-to-Go kerfuffle aside, perhaps the most stunning local beer story this year was St. Elmo's 2019 GABF Gold in the Fruited American-Style Sour Ale category for its pink guava sour named Roxanne. Not that St. Elmo isn't full of brewing talent and deserving of the award many times over, but it's a category where, given the giant wash of 215 separate entries into that particular category, a beer would have to be utterly magnificent to rise above a group that features some of the most distinguished breweries in America. And yet, the very best detail about St. Elmo as a brewery isn't just one particular beer, it's their ever-evolving beer wall that features the widest range of styles in the city. To call them the most talented brewery in town is to call Klay Thompson a pretty good shooter. St. Elmo is so much more than that: bottling 10 different barrel-aged beers in a single month, winning "Best Overall Beer" with Carl kölsch in the Austin Beer Guide, collecting "Best Drinking Hub" according to Austin Monthly. Heck, they even cobbled a couple of hard seltzers together for the people who also think Skyline Chili is cuisine. Keep shooting your shots, St. Elmo.
3) Pinthouse Pizza Collective (NEW)
Last time, we justly ranked all the PHPs as independents, given the variety of brewing philosophies between each of their storefronts. But now that their brand is on pace to expand to 63 stores by the end of 2022 ('sup Pinthouse Mueller Phase 7 District 2), we narrowed them down to a single collective, as we see their obvious attempt to commandeer our Power Rankings as simply an index of their IPA wizardry. Can't fool us, PHP! The newest and northiest PHP in Round Rock is a gigantic homage to what has come to define the PHP empire: the hazy IPA (with a bit of wholesome IPA thrown in there for parity), thanks to the masterwork of PHP's director of brewing, Joe Mohrfeld. You see, Joe just directs the IPAs to be great and reach their natural potential, like the Scorsese of hops. After Mohrfeld brainwashes his beers, then they start winning awards, like GABF gold for Green Battles in the "Best Fresh Hop Beer" category, "Best Overall Beer" for Electric Jellyfish by Austin Beer Guide readers, "Best Brew Pub" by Austin Beer Guide editors. And hell, throw in a 2019 "First Plates" win courtesy of us. And with all the special-release canning they're doing with hefties – Crispy Boi Cold IPA, Southern Tropic IPA, Diamond Dust Hazy Double IPA, and Sacred Delicacies Dry Hopped Pilsner, to name a very few – they should really think about even more expansion.
2) Jester King (SAME)
What's it like when serious craftspeople own and operate a farmhouse brewery? They brew beer, sure. Then they sell the beer, yes. Then they dig out a sustainable farm on-site, populate it with little artisanal crops that are later hand-coddled into high-end dishes curated by master chefs in a rustic kitchen, buy ranch land that preserves the property's natural beauty over the foreseeable future, innovate a vineyard, build a wedding hall, and anchor at least a half dozen outdoor festivals, including the prestigious Cantillon Zwanze Day, an experimental music festival, and platinum standard Funk n' Sour Fest. Also, goats. Lots of goats. Yep, Jester King is still out there doing that rural hustle, while also setting the eternal benchmark for what it means to not only own a world-class brewery renowned for its fruited sour ales, but to be resolute leaders of the community. Co-founder Jeffrey Stuffings was nominated for a 2019 James Beard Foundation award for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer which recognized Jester King's masterwork in producing beers that make beer nerds scrupulous in Fen Táo sour peach ale, Atrial Rubicite sour raspberry ale, and their perpetually underrated chef d'oeuvre, Le Petit Prince.
1) Austin Beerworks (+3)
Austin Beerworks is always the correct answer. Even if the question wasn't "Who's the apex predator of Austin beer right now?" Recently named "Best Brewery" in The Austin Chronicle's Readers Poll, ABW took all the helicopter big distros to task by helping pass the Beer-to-Go law in the 2019 legislative session after consecutive failures over the last five sessions. Absolutely, there were many hands on deck for that fight, but ABW was justly the face of the campaign, concluding with Gov. Abbott making it rain Pearl-Snap at a wrap party in their own taproom.
Does Beer-to-Go become law without ABW? Maybe. Did it happen because of their indisputable cachet? Irrefutably. Hell, making beer is what ABW does in their spare time. And like everything else they tackle, they do it with aplomb. From their plan to release a new beer in the taproom every Tuesday as a big ol' Come and Take It Big Distro crowler flex, to their Killer Strains bottle series, to three – count 'em, THREE – varietals of the pants-shittingly delicious Einhorn Berliner Weisse in Ginger Lime, Sour Cherry, and Tropical. As the brewery celebrates its eighth anniversary this year, they're still achieving the hype of a blue chip recruit as purple drank Flavor Country hoppy pale ale (now offered in 12-packs by the way) was recognized nationally by Forbes as one of the "Top 11 Beers of the Year" and locally by Austin Beer Guide readers as "Best New Beer." Those readers also claim ABW to be the "Best Brewery" and "Best Brewery Taproom." But was that enough for ABW? Nope. The brewery also constructed an all-inclusive, safety-rated, and ADA-accessible playground while also finding time to officially host the supporters group of future neighbors Austin FC. Now I suspect all you sweet parents and bawdy soccer fans are thirsty. So what's the answer? Austin Beerworks.
Others Receiving Votes: Altstadt Brewery, Skull Mechanix Brewing, (512) Brewing Company, Rentsch Brewery, Red Horn Coffee House & Brewing Co.
Dropped from Rankings: none