Top 20 Austin Breweries of 2020
It's time for our annual Central Texas Brewery Power Rankings
By Eric Puga,
10:30AM, Wed. Nov. 11, 2020
Mere months ago in the wildly fluctuating temperatures of late February, the plan for most – if not every – Central Texas brewery was to go full steam ahead into SXSW season and then emerge a more polished and accomplished brewery on the other side of March given the unimaginable demands put forth by proxy-hosting the world's largest scene kid dogpile. The prognosis for craft beer in 2020 was one of enthusiastic growth for the market, particularly in Texas who had just passed the Beer-to-Go law in June of 2019 and was ramping up to take advantage of that.
But with one snap of presidential baby fingers, breweries had to choose to ride or die in a pandemic, shifting distribution models from majority on-premise sales to a curbside model that could, at best, bring only a bite of the previous years earnings and at worst shut the brewery down completely.
Then, with a sudden canning commitment from the likes of brewhouses you'd never imagine could conduct anything more complicated than a recycling program, came a national aluminum shortage that stymied to-go opportunities for both breweries and customers alike as the world began to run out of beer packing vessels. That parlayed locally into a spat between Gov. Greg Abbott and the small brewers requesting temporary allowances for direct-to-customer sales to help mitigate the rapidly dwindling revenue streams from shuttered taprooms. But by then the governor was too busy to care, heavily involved in a serious on-again/off-again relationship with "opening the state" the likes of which made the World Series Game 4 final play seem sophisticated by comparison. By the end of July, the pandemic had claimed four reasonably healthy breweries in NXNW Stonelake, Hops & Grain San Marcos, Skull Mechanix, and 2019 Power Ranked spark plug, The Brewer's Table. The Texas Craft Brewers Guild surveyed its member breweries in the summer and discovered that average revenue had decreased roughly 71% for small brewers across Texas and predicted that two in three Texas craft breweries wouldn't make it to 2021 under the state's mandatory shutdown of bars and similar businesses.
And yet, through all of this discord, there was immense industry creativity and commercial resolve on the part of small brewers throughout the state. The typically low-heat simmer of creativity boiled over into instant innovation like revived beer styles, customer service modernization, and visionary packaging solutions (boxed 1.5-liter beers! mini-kegs!). Shout out to Black Star Co-op for creating ChronicAle, "a new hazy IPA all in the name of free press and informed election coverage." In a lot of ways, the trials of the pandemic might have saved craft beer in the long term as a kind of call to arms.
So despite the scurrying about by the Austin-area beer scene, we went ahead and power ranked 'em anyway. Especially now, paying tribute to the strength of Central Texas breweries is a debt that we as customers owe them after all that struggle. Ratings are focused primarily on the overall quality of beer, including a brewery's limited releases and seasonals. But we also paid notice to the other million tiny victories it took to stay afloat this year, like quality of service; local, national, and international accolades; cultural and constructive impact on the local beer community; taproom appeal and flexibility after service restart; and maybe an intangible or two, like a notable food menu or cool branding. But like everything else in 2020, we mostly had to go with our gut instincts. Choose your fighter.
20) Nomadic Beerworks (NEW)
Then-six-month-old Nomadic Beerworks had a great business plan and a simple one at that: Just clean up on all the highest accolades at the 2019 Austin Beer Guide (ABG) awards last December with an improbable treble for Best New Beer (Peak Season juicy IPA), Best New Brewery, and Best OVERALL Brewery. Then sit back as the trillions of dollars trickle into the company bank account. Not a bad idea for the charmingly chummy (seriously, it's the friendliest taproom staff we've encountered this year) 17-month-old beerhouse because they are brewing with a ton of confidence right now, particularly with that nifty little juicy IPA as well as fruit beer standout, Floating Market Pineapple Basil saison.
19) Hopsquad (NEW)
Architetto Ruffini, Hopsquad's Italian pilsner is going to blow your boots off into League One. Every time I daydream about Hopsquad, I think first about how delicious that lager is. Then I imagine myself drinking it with a full panoramic of the new Austin FC stadium in the distance and a full weekend slate of English Premier League games above. But the main focus is always on that floral, spicy, slightly grassy Italian pilsner. And though this budding year-old brewery is already hanging with the gigantes of Brewery Row, like Austin Beerworks and Celis, it feels like a fresh brewery, complete with airy taproom and lowkey superstar food truck in Tsuke Honten, which makes for some delightful food pairings with the Hopsquad's squeaky clean beers.
18) Yokefellow Beer (NEW)
Drinking a Yokefellow beer is like consuming a liquefied Kevin Morby album, gentle and straightforward and thought provoking. A brewery without so much as a taproom to parse out founder (and former lead Jester King brewer) Garrett Crowell's creative notes, this low-fi beer project slowburns on the strength of Crowell's tiny nuances on simple beers. Billowing Clouds of Hallertau, for example, is a basic hoppy pale that bursts with candid Hallertau Mittelfrüh and sunshiney peeks of melon, while Young Lager not only sounds like Pitchfork rec, it is also a brilliant take on a Yorkshire pale ale, rife with Golden Promise malt and East Kent Goldings hops that Crowell describes as "orange marmalade and apricot jam on white toast." What a voice! We can't wait to see how Yokefellow further develops from its few, but dazzling offerings.
17) Family Business (-1)
In the Before World, Family Business certainly lived up to its folksy name by basically hosting an Old Settlers Festival every weekend in their oak grove with singer/songwriter gigs, artisan vendors, and tipsy powerbroker parents doing that goofy knee buckle dance with their ketchup smeared kids. Combined with bedrock head brewer Nate Seale on the beer decks spinning pitch perfect beers like Cosmic Cowboy and 2019 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) silver medalist Golden Age pilsner, a Saturday there was pretty much a can't miss plan. We'll float 'em on all of that until the post-pandemic reboot happens. In the meantime, they canned and healthily distributed a trio of their rock-solid beers to much of the Central Texas region, including the aforementioned Golden Age pilsner, my imaginary best friend during summertime quarantine grilling.
16) The Brewtorium (-1)
The Brewtorium is required by law to always have some schmuck at their counter in awe of all the selections being offered on tap, holding me up from enjoying my delicious 2019 U.S. Open Beer Championship gold medalist Iron Belly porter on the expansive back patio, or one of their terrific, yet underrated hazy IPAs that few people really ever associate with The Brewtorium, but then never go back to doubting their joose skills again. And yet, maybe my favorite style from this two-and-a-half-year-old program is their English-inspired ales, Knights Tippler Dark Mild and the ESB. But ... well ... I also fuck with all their lagers too, like Electric Leiderhosen Vienna lager, Dad Jokes Mexican lager, and Dang Ol' Pils. You know what? It's me. I'm the schmuck at the bar counter in awe over all of their selections. Just shoot me a nasty eye roll when I'm taking too long with my third sample.
15) Hi Sign (-2)
I thought we had ruled the Hi Sign taproom out of our futures forever as it was gradually swallowed by Mount 183 earlier this year, but there is still some flicker of life in that crappy old wayward barn. Now don't get me wrong: Once you've actually reached the brewery itself, it's pretty damn terrific. Their core lineup of brews including Wooderson IPA, El Berto Mexican lager, and Violet the Blueberry Blonde are laser-focused on quality and consistency, and getting better with each batch. Hi-C juicy IPA can now be unofficially considered an iconic Austin brew, and the recently staged Alpha King Challenge, a renowned hoppy beer competition, placed the brewery's Super Astronaut Double IPA as one of the nation's best 20. And as each plane buzzes ever so closely over the biergarten's groves I reenact Jack's airport speech to Kate "We have to go back!" toasting the 5:15 from Sky Harbor. But as we are also hearing rumors of an imminent move to an improved and (thankfully!) more accessible location on Austin's Eastside, we defer to Kate's retort to Jack, "We were meant to leave!"
14) Batch Brewing (NEW)
Batch isn't a 2020 brewery, but we started hearing the buzz of admiration right around the beginning of lockdown, which is a ripe ingredient in a nine-layer dip of hype. First, brew several small batches of exceptional, double-dry-hopped IPAs with 8,000 Strata hops per square milliliter. Set the haze-o-meter to "Oat Milk Latte." Shutter the front doors to the public indefinitely. Get lardy beer men on the internet to communicate about its limited availability. Boom! You're the next Tree House. But Batch's sudden popularity isn't without merit. We've been dazzled all quarantine by the likes of Taraxacum Hazy IPA, Blueberry Space Cake with vanilla and graham crackers, WAP (Wet Ass Pale), and probably most notably strawberry Sjöfn – a beer I can never shut up about to my lardy internet friends. And while its 3.5-bbl house beer system is off and running, Batch really hasn't fully taken the lid off of its BugRoom project, the pet name for its mixed culture barrel program that features six open-top puncheons, four copper tanks for primary fermentation, and, well, barrels.
13) Meanwhile Brewing (NEW)
I've been to Portland exactly ONCE, which practically makes me an expert on all things Rip City, so when I heard the esteemed Breakside Brewery was sending a splinter team down to Austin to wow us Pilsnerds on all things West Coast IPA-y, I thought to myself: WELL FUCK YEAH! What took y'all so long? Meanwhile has come in hot with a beer board abundant with full throated beers, like Light Matter West Coast pale, Trust Fall New School West Coast IPA, and personal goodie bag, Erstwhile Rival, Meanwhile's take on an ESB that is slightly hoppier than your typical biscuit-y Extra Special Bitter, ironically enough. Or maybe it isn't so ironic given Meanwhile's Pacific Northwest pedigree. Either way, I would have moved to Austin too if my dream was to open an expansive biergarten with multiple food trucks and a music stage and plenty of leafy shade trees to cool the whole place down in the summer. Hell, they even threw in a soccer pitch on the grounds for fun. Can't do any of that in Portland. I've been there. It rains.
12) Vista Brewing (SAME)
Back around April when COVID-19 was starting to feel like a permanent condition, we gathered up the kids for an outing at one of our favorite Hill Country breweries, which shook them because breweries used to be some of our main family time and they probably thought the pandemic was over. Much to their surprise, we were only going there for a little exercise and a couple of take-away beers for porch time. At home. Sorry kids, back to your rooms. Nonetheless, we were all super appreciative to Vista for leaving their walking paths open for people like us to stretch their legs during troubling times. Plus, I got to secure one of my Austin all-timer beers in Dark Skies black pilsner, a roasty schwarzbier that tastes like cookies and feels like a fleece bodybag. In 2019 ABG readers agreed with my take on Vista's exceptional beer program, picking them as makers of the Best Limited/Seasonal Beer in peach sour ale, Stonewall, repeating as Best Limited/Seasonal Beer in 2018 with barrel-aged brett ale, Rosanna. This year, Vista made the first ever Texas sotol barrel-aged beer, Desert Skies, as part of a collaboration with Desert Door Distilling. With all of its skill and wisdom and focus Vista feels more like a brewery that's been around two decades instead of just two years.
11) Real Ale (-2)
Real Ale is my real dad. Real Ale is your real dad too. The 2019 ABG Editors Pick for Best Brewery couldn't me more daddish if it wore a pair of New Balance 608s and texted with one finger. And that is why we love the 24-year-old patriarch of Central Texas beer so much. Dad Ale is over there still making plenty of 2019 ABG editors pick for Best Everyday Beer in Hans' Pils to keep us happy. Dad Ale is still hustling, putting together specially curated mixed-six packs for us, like the walloping trio of Black Quad, Commissar RIS, and 2015, '16, '17, '18 GABF medalist Real Heavy Scotch Ale. That's like $30 worth of buzz for just under 10. Thanks Dad! And while Real Ale still feels pretty normcore in the grander sense of the Austin beer scene, it's simply the fact that they are always there for us in a pinch when we need 'em most: a Haim concert, date night at the Capital Grille, shopping online for a Toyota Camry. They just. Care. The hardest. And yet, every now and then Real Ale gets a vibe that shows us they're still that hip ass brewery they were when they were a little younger: Fresh Kicks hazy IPA! Wall Ball IPL! Fucking Swifty American Pale! An absolutely LEGENDARY Helles that no one ever talks about. New 19.2-oz core beer tallboys! Blakkr Ale in 22-oz bombers! That's so metal, Pop.
10) Hold Out Brewing (NEW)
Whenever you hear of a new brewery opening up in the year 2020, you wonder what kind of weirdo would work up that kind of sweat at a time like this, but then you hear it's a project spearheaded by the Wright Brothers and Matthew Bolick (Brew & Brew, Better Half, Little Brother, lots of other cool Austin-y shit) and your brain autoplays an Alexis Rose GIF doing those playful "obviously" hands. There is so much talent in the front and back of the house at Hold Out it makes Barça look like Bullcrap United. In their possession is a future Austin legacy beer in Ol' Gil Euro Pils, but demand is so high, they can hardly keep enough on tap for me to get a freshy in one of their half-liter jugs. We want bathtubs of Ol' Gil. It's what the people DEMAND. But like some people have safety schools, Hold Out has safety beers: Bjorn Again Texan kveik ale, Last Light dry-hopped porter, and Suavemente pale ale are delicious fallbacks for an extremely well-rounded beer program.
9) Southern Heights (-2)
A pretty undisputed fact is that the folks at Southern Heights use sorcery to make their IPAs. Any brewery who puts out a rotation of smash hits like Evergreen Terrace, It's Probably Awesome, Tahitian Dreamin', Everyday Friday, Friends With Benefits (Zilker collab series), and To the Cloud can only deal in the currency of a warlock, and that, my friends, is pure magic. And as a nod to their willful subjects (us) the brewery canned-and-curbsided every single one of these beers for porch-time fun ... but maybe also as a frenzied effort to compensate for their mostly taproom-based brewery model, which the 2019 Austin Beer Guide editors declared as the best in town. And though it seemed a little packaging fatigue set in eventually, we were still enraptured by intermittent releases of SH alchemy in Este Mexican lager, Jam Session fruited sour, Clarity West Coast IPA, and the indisputable best stout in Austin, Hoodie Weather.
8) Oddwood Ales (+2)
You'll be stunned to learn this, but a lot of craft breweries make their customer approach way too complicated, like you're a 6-year-old they're over here explaining Inception to. But not Oddwood. The pure beauty of this brewery is its approachability: simple beers, casual setting. Now, that's not to say that this is an underdeveloped or uncreative brewery, because Oddwood is a devout slayer of expectations, but let's just say it's the yoga pants of breweries: comfortable, versatile, designed for happy hour on a patio. Winner of the 2019 ABG Editors' Choice for Best Brewpub, Oddwood's consistently impressive beer releases are total stunners, starting with Future Utopia double dry-hopped hazy lager, folding into their crispy Italian pilsner Titta e Guido, and ending with their hazy IPA "Trees" series: Tomorrow's Trees Today and Tomorrow's Trees Yesterday. Okay, that does sound a little bit like the Nolan flick. Yet our favorite detail about Oddwood this Power Ranking cycle? Mother-of-all-bargains pricing on to-go tallboy four-packs, generally with lagers at $10 and hazies at $15.
7) Live Oak (+1)
A stone-cold fact before we begin: Austin takes Live by God Oak Brewery for granted. This is true. If you plopped it down in Prague or in some rural German countryside, the locals would be absolutely horny about it and the tourists would line up like it's a Bob's Burgers activation. But we treat Live Oak like it's an elderly grandparent that wandered into the family game of Scattergories. Not anymore, I say! Would an aged brewery do 94 (not quite 94) unique canned pilsners in one season like this freshass brewery did? Diamant Pilz, Aurum Pilz, Lyghte American Pils, Piwko Polish Pils, Pink Pils, Kiwi Pils, Pre-war Pils, Another Pils, The Other Pils, Gold, and of course their OG, year-round Pils – you name it. Live Oak did make more Pils this year than Pfizer. And shit, all those fresh golden lagers might not even be Live Oak's greatest beer culture contribution. In February, RateBeer.com ranked the brewery's inimitable hefeweizen as one of the top 3 weissbier in the world, which to that we say, WHY THE HELL WASN'T IT THE TOP ONE?
6) The ABGB (-1)
When you go on and win three straight back-to-back-to-back Great American Beer Festival Large Brewpub of the Year awards, you get to lean into that as a prefix the way entertainers like Daniel Day-Lewis do with all of those Best Actor Oscars added to their title, or when someone calls Paul "Mr. McCartney" and he gets to say, "It's SIR McCartney, yeh knob!" – I bet he loves that. This 2019 ABG Readers' Choice winner for Best Brewpub remains closely associated with some of the best lagers in the country, largely in part to royally knighted masterworks like Hell Yes helles, Industry German-style Pils, Velvet Revolution Czech-style pilsner, and Rocket 100 pre-prohibition-style Pilsner, all of which have also won the highest honors at various GABFs throughout ABGB's seven-year existence. Internationally recognized beer knowers Paste Magazine said of ABGB's skillz: "As far as we're concerned, the folks at ABGB are the best pilsner brewers in the world today." Cool! Thanks for the assist! (Returning the favor, we think Ariana Grande's Positions is album of the year.) But the best thing about Sir ABGB in 2020? Canning all of those terrific lagers in takeaway 12-ounce and tallboy cans!
5) Zilker Brewing (+1)
Drinking Zilker beer is a deeply satisfying experience because everything coming out of this 15-barrel brewhouse is so unique and varied and expertly produced. With approximately 40 new small batches released so far in 2020, Zilker is basically holding Toyotathon for beer, like "What can we do to get you into this beer today?" How about their 20 different versions of hazy IPA in 2020 alone? [RV Salesman Commercial Voice] "Hey, we've got hazy Marco, Viking Candy, Juice Complex, and Birthday Sauce! Retro Room, Torrid Daydream, Midnight Sun, and Stir Crazy! Hey, fella, didya forget your anniversary? We didn't! Bring our Fifth Anniversary Hazy back home to the missus today! Our cans are Insta-certified!" Anyway, you get the point. It's madness over there. The good kind of madness. Oh, and they released wholeass 5-liter mini-kegs full of their spectacular beers that created a minor frenzy on the socials. Over here, we're just delighted that they released two former small-batch releases, Icy Boys rice lager and Heavenly Daze hazy IPA, into a permanent canned rotation so that we can get our weekly Zilker from the H-E-B.
4) St. Elmo (SAME)
South Austin beer studs St. Elmo did us a solid this year by surprise-releasing their 2019 ABG Best Everyday Beer mega-hit Carl kolsch in sixers and sending them out to market for all of us to enjoy in our own living rooms while listening to Positions for the dozenth time in a row. That alone is worthy of a lofty ranking. But if you've visited St. Elmo's biergarten anytime recently, you'll know that they are still making approximately 482 flawless beers every negative nine seconds, including this writer's favorite beer of 2020 in Canopy double dry-hopped hazy IPA. If you don't agree you should feel bad, but again, there's something for everyone's palate here as long as you like delicious beers. Other beery standouts while I gorged on Spicy Boys chicken from the popup food truck: Pow! hazy IPA, Mahalo pineapple pale ale, and Meanwhile collab Tu Meke double dry-hopped Southern Hemisphere lager, which is a mouthful to order with a chunk of yardbird stuffed in the ol' gob.
3) Austin Beerworks (-2)
Every year around the time of these Power Rankings, ABW unpacks their marvelous 2013 GABF gold medal-winning Black Thunder schwarzbier from mothballs, and I'm scandalized because it's this guy's favorite Beerworks seasonal to slam while ripping power metal from the Amazon Echo Dot. It's like, how do they know me? And that is generally the gist of Austin Beerworks: They know us. They love us. They express that by brewing at least one of our favorite Austin beers per season. When ABW flipped their dismally shuttered taproom into a jovial drive-through beer barn, it lifted my spirits just to have a 90-second visit. It's sort of the intangible gift that ABW has. Of course their actual, concrete gift is making beers like Pearl Snap and Fire Eagle every day, along with exciting new canned mainstays like Amber Vision red ale and Sun Shovel pale wheat. Their lineup of one-offs, special releases, and seasonals – like Pils vs. Pils (old-vs.-new-school Pilsner mix-pack), 2019 ABG Best Seasonal winner Sputnik coffee stout, and Zombie Dragon IPA, an homage to dearly departed Austin icon NXNW – continues to feature ABW's strength in knowing the psyche of Austin, then projecting that into liquid form. In 2020 co-founder Adam DeBower received the Brewers Association F.X. Matt Defense of the Industry Award as the most outspoken champion of the small beer industry. We'll toast our last summertime Einhorn to that.
2) Pinthouse Collective (+1)
The future Pinthouse envisions is an IPA in every man's, woman's, and Martian's hands by 2050 as the hazy beer powerhouse continues to expand into the cosmos within the next few decades. Fine by us! Their beers, after all, are [don't say it!] out of this world. Damn. With Pinthouse's FOURTH store just seconds away from debuting in Southeast-ish Austin, the best IPA makers in the entire Southwest expect to continue to wow fans with their pillowy, round wares, just in a different, equally gorgeous taproom in a contrasting region of the city. Pinthouse is just brewing "fuck you IPA" at this point. Double 2019 ABG Best Overall Beer winners for Training Bines IPA (editors) and Electric Jellyfish IPA (readers), it's evident that Pinthouse has an agenda to imbue every Austinite with a love for softly bittered, juicy ales. And with Electric Jellyfish being the most popular draft beer in the city by sales, it only made sense to clobber us at home, too, with the popular IPA's inaugural release in 16-ounce four-pack cans. And yet, as this year is wont to do, Pinthouse won Austin-proper's only 2020 GABF medal this year, a gold one at that, for a Belgian quad called Cosmic Sloth. Har, har. That's like giving Steve Martin a Grammy for best bluegrass album. He what? He has how many?
1) Jester King (+1)
Jester King is our highest rated brewery for this cycle and it wasn't even close. There is absolutely nothing comparable in scale to what Jester King is doing out on their 165-acre Hill Country ranch when it comes to use of their space, depth of their brewing program, and weight of their creativity. Jesterworld is a service à la française for beer. A brewery with your choice of toppings. Do you want delicious fruited sours in the hop yard with brown butter skillet cornbread? How about a farmhouse ale simultaneously co-fermenting with grains and fruit by the Goat Pen and a sopressata pie? Not exactly what you had in mind? Maybe a canned OG legacy beer, like Black Metal, from a decade-old recipe revived from retirement in the vineyard with a rye sourdough chocolate chip cookie? That's the one. No business has made recovering from near catastrophic financial failure seem as smooth as Jester King did this year, moiling a 250-yard radius outdoor-themed biergarten, readjusting their beer program from mainly complicated barrel-aged fruited ales in bottles to clean, crisp lagers in cans (an Italian Pils!), and all while continuing to brew what put JK on the map in the first place: platinum-quality fruited sours, like Atrial Rubicite raspberry sour, Colour Five blueberry sour, and personal demon (F¯en Táo) peach sour. Readers' pick for 2019 ABG Best Brewery Taproom and Best Food and Beer Spot, the 10-year-old brewery picked up their third James Beard Award nomination for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Producer. As new proprietors of an on-site five-unit inn and campsite, the Tipping-T, we believe that the brewery will only continue to elevate the Jesterworld experience. You're No. 1!
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