The Austin Chronicle

It Was a Dark & Stormy Afternoon

The Austin Pub Crawl

By Spike Gillespie, November 14, 1997, Food

Confession: I think I have a crush on Kelly Willis. But wait, I leap ahead of myself.... We all met in the parking lot of The Austin Chronicle: moi; Chron features editor Kate Messer; Chron food critics Pableaux Johnson, Pat Earvolino, and Meredith Phillips; music critic and Designated Smartass Michael Bertin; Local Country Music God & Goddess Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis; and the incredibly funny and wondrous Johnny Hardwick, former Austinite (in town to shoot an episode of Austin Stories) and voice of Dale on King of the Hill.

It was pouring, I mean pouring down rain -- London weather for our London assignment to crawl five Austin pubs and sample and rate 30 homebrews. Gerald, our designated and affable driver, herded us into our van and cheerfully hydroplaned us to our sundry destinations. Assisting in the handling was the other Gerald (pub crawl longtimer and Captain Day Trips, Gerald McLeod), and Kevin and Tim. (While I really like Kevin and Tim, I admit it would've been easier if they were all named Gerald, particularly after the 10th round of brew.)

The stops, in order: Lovejoy's, Copper Tank, Bitter End, Waterloo Brewing Co., and The Draught Horse.

I table-hopped my peers at each establishment, learning as much about human nature as I did homebrew. There is a vast difference between the musings of professional food critics ("Ah, this has a full flavor and the perfect head") and people who entertain for a living ("This beer wouldn't be so bad if you were throwing it up").

By the time we hit the Bitter End, I was, admittedly, a bit buzzed, though I swear to you I only sipped, sent back more than half of most samples. Not to be outdone by the savory, orgasmic appetizers heaped upon us at the Copper Tank, the Bitter End folks fed us dinner (actually, the Chron paid for it), allowing us to choose from their extensive menu, and perhaps unfairly prejudicing us in favor of their beer. (I ordered the spicy mussels and found myself in a fork fight with Pat, who heartily agreed with me that whatever they do to those slimy, shell-encased treats, they do it right.)

Now, about Kelly... seems that though I meant to continue alternating my seating (a big goal was to fight Bertin to the finish for wittiest commentary -- we've both read all of the Mad "Snappy Comeback" books, you know)... by the third pub, I just kept sitting next to her. Even Bruce (did I mention they're married?) was able to circulate away from his wife. But me? What was it? I'd only seen her perform once. I was not a groupie. But she had this thing about her. We tossed back the wee samples. We got buzzed. I forced her to listen to my life story. Twice. She taught me to smile like Marilyn Monroe.

Together with Ms. Willis and the food critics, at one point we grasped for some common theme, a metaphor to link all the beers together. I'd already done the "this reminds me of that boyfriend" routine in years past and needed something new. I know! How about oral sex? Well, the concept worked aloud, though somehow did not translate well on paper.

Day turned to night. We struggled on. Oh, the life of a beer taster. Later, I learned of this thing called "palate burn." It's when you taste so much of something and you get sort of confused.

Which is an extremely important thing to remember as you read the following commentary. As Kelly pointed out after one too many cynical comments was hurled into the air, shouldn't we worry that we might be hurting the brewer's feelings?

Excellent point. I will be the first to say that I did not taste one bad beer. Sure, some were weak. Some didn't grab me. One or two made me utter a big "Yuk." But remember, this was a comparison situation. We couldn't give everything a 10. How helpful would that be?

Which led to another discussion (and okay, maybe I was slurring slightly as I dragged out my soapbox to contribute). The important thing to remember about all these beers and the places that brew them is that the beer itself is only one part of the pie. Ambience, my friends, is as crucial as the brewing process and ingredients. And each of the places we visited had atmospheric flavors as distinct as their beers. Lovejoy's, for example, is my favorite kind of place. A dog greeted us at the door, we sat at picnic tables, and the food offered was soft pretzels and mustard.

Some might have enjoyed the cavernous, pristine Copper Tank better, with their melt-in-your mouth stuffed salmon delights. And I dig that. The point (I think) is that we had a collective blast. And when I am rich and can invest in a company, I will hire Gerald (the driver) away from his company and set up safe pub crawls for all.

When we reached our ultimate destination, the Draught Horse, I felt a little bad for the owner. We were stuffed. We were tired. We were tipsy but not joyously drunk, the time/drive lapse between destinations acting as a serious buzzkill. I made what might have been a grave faux pas. After he graciously oversaw us sipping his lovingly brewed concoctions and munching on Goldfish and spicy peanuts, I stumbled to the bar. "May we," I asked, "have a pitcher of Bass when we are finished?"

Was it a slap? I hope not. I tried to explain. After spending seven hours sipping 30 brews I never tasted before, I wanted to do something akin to falling into the arms of a long-lost love. It wasn't that I disliked any of the brews, at the Horse or anywhere else. In fact, I loved quite a few, and liked all the rest. But to finish off the evening, I wanted my naked tastebuds caressed by the familiar. And I wanted this familiar to be in a big pint glass, not a wee sampler.

I carried the Bass back to the table and seated myself next to Bruce, who had jockeyed for the shotgun seat next to his lovely wife. Again, Ms. Willis hoped we weren't hurting feelings. Again, I reassured her. And then, after turning from strangers to friends, if only just for a day, she wondered aloud if she would be embarrassed at all she'd shared with us.

Huh? Actually, I was wondering the same thing. Would she and Bruce turn to each other in the morning and lament a day spent with this mouthy broad? I hope not. I hope we all came away with the same feeling. It was tasty. It was intoxicating. It was well worth the "effort." And I encourage you all to check out these pubs, ditch that old-lover desire, and if only for one night, try out some of the very unique offerings available only in our fine town.

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