Glass of `93
Five Years of Austin Brewpubs
Has it been five years already?" Billy Forrester of Waterloo Brewing Company wonders aloud. "Summer of '93... I guess it has." Five years since the Texas Legislature finally passed House Bill 1425 and gave the green light to brewpubs in Texas.
In this relatively short time, Austin's on-premise breweries have established a firm foothold in the city's highly competitive bar scene and are now brewing their finest beers for an increasingly appreciative drinking public. The brewers are happy, local beer drinkers are happy, and the whole situation feels like one big, malty love fest.
Opening Days (ca.1993) and the Shakeout
Forrester, owner of both Waterloo Brewing and the Dog and Duck Pub, qualifies as the grandfather of Austin brewpubs and the prime agitator for the Texas brewpub movement. Due largely to his lobbying efforts, the legislature voted to alter Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) regulations prohibiting small breweries from selling their product on-site (read as: no bar in the brewhouse). But on September 1, 1993, HB1425 amended TABC rules and triggered a new renaissance in Austin brewing.
Within months, small-scale breweries sprung up faster than local drinkers could keep up. Waterloo Brewing Company, the state's first brewpub, opened for business in the sparsely developed Warehouse District - followed closely by The Bitter End, Copper Tank Brewing Company, Armadillo Brewing Company, and the Stone House Brewery. (For a while, it seemed like the newly legal operations would beat out neighborhood coffee houses for the Chronicle's 1994 "Strongest Growth Spurt" honors.)
In the intervening years, however, several of the original players abandoned their brewing operations, due mostly to inconsistent beer, beginner's mistakes, and/or general management problems. The Stone House on West Sixth ceased beer production shortly before becoming the Boar's Head Pub, a tap-only bar, which in turn gave way to the building's current incarnation, the Havana Harbor Cigar Factory. Likewise, Armadillo Brewing folded and reemerged as Katie Bloom's Irish Brewpub before shutting down their tanks for good. (Bloom's, located in the thick of the Sixth Street entertainment district, is still open for business, but no longer serves house-brewed beers.)
In recent years, two other bars - The Draught Horse and Lovejoy's - have joined the brewpub fray in a more limited capacity, adding micro-microbrewing equipment to their existing lines of microbrew and import beers. "There's a local trend toward the multi-tap bars adding small brewing operations," says Steve Anderson, brewmaster at Waterloo. "It's a good idea because there's a much smaller initial investment." These hybrid brewing setups sell limited runs of house-brewed beers alongside Texas and national micros.
Of the five original Austin brewpubs, the three survivors - Bitter End, Waterloo, and Copper Tank - have flourished by developing specific niches (and territories) in the local beer bar market.
"The current brewpubs are pretty spread out," says Rob Cartwright, head brewer at the Copper Tank. "Since Katie Bloom's stopped brewing, we're known as `that brewpub on Sixth Street.' The Draught Horse operates up north as a neighborhood bar, and the others are down in the Warehouse District. There's not a lot of overlap."
Both of the Warehouse District brewpubs further distinguish (and support) themselves through their adjoining restaurants. The Bitter End's upscale bistro and Waterloo's American bar food suit their respective atmospheres. "Having the restaurant takes some of the financial pressure off the brewing side," adds Anderson.
But the most important unifying factor among the survivors is consistently good beer. In the earlier brewpub days, quality could vary widely from batch to batch. But as the local brewers gained valuable experience, both their products and reputations stabilized. "At this point, it's in our common interest to keep bad beer off the market," says Waterloo's Anderson, "because any bad beer gives us all a bad name."
There's also a consistent (and uncommon) sense of community among the surviving brewmasters, who routinely turn to each other for ingredients during emergencies. "We're all brewers, and we all get together to talk about our new batches," comments the Tank's Cartwright. "But we also like get out and taste what the other guys are doing."
"That's the great thing about having our own clientele," echoes Anderson. "The brewpubs have friendly competition instead of a business competition. And we help each other out when we can."
Better Beers for a Pickier Public
Austin's brewpub boom coincided directly with a national surge in nationwide microbrew distribution, making it easy to find far-flung ales alongside time-tested regional favorites like Shiner or Celis. Multi-tap beer bars commonly stock 30 or 40 different draft beers brewed everywhere from Seattle to Scotland. And, ironically, it's providing benefits for local brewpubs.
Tim Schwartz, head brewer at the Bitter End, finds that the micro boom has helped to educate the palates of Austin's beer drinking population. "It's been great for us, because our customers are more aware of different beer styles," he notes, "so they come in looking for something different. In the past few years, we've sold a lot more of our full-flavored beers like our Pale Ale or Sledgehammer Stout, and we've beefed up almost all of our recipes."
Cartwright also sees similar trends across town at the Copper Tank. "People are diversifying what they drink," he says, "They don't seem to be stuck with their phobia of dark beers, and they like having a wider variety of choices."
"Since we sell our own beers, we're not hurt too much by flooding on the open market," says Anderson. "But it's tough for people like Live Oak [Brewing]." The smaller local microbreweries (including Live Oak Brewing Company and Hill Country Brewing Company) have to compete with larger distributors for shelf space and distribution rights - no easy task in a tap-heavy town.
Local brewpubs, meanwhile, have a bit more freedom to experiment with diverse beer styles and wide-ranging seasonal brews. The Bitter End's Schwartz experiments constantly with styles less familiar to new craft brew drinkers (Scottish wee heavies, spiced honeymeads, various Belgian styles), in addition to the bar's usual stock of ales and lagers. "We've got a dedicated crowd of specialty drinkers who are always looking for something different on tap, so we keep experimenting."
"Right now, we're working on lighter seasonals for summer," Anderson says, "like our hefe weizen (unfiltered wheat), honey ale, and pilsner." During the summer months, Waterloo serves the hefe alongside its standard offerings: a rich porter, a light blonde ale, a hoppy India pale ale, and a bitters-style ale.
Meanwhile, the hybrid brewpubs, working on a much smaller scale, can essentially play to the brewer's whim without a large-scale investment. Lovejoy's brewer Paul Koonz swaps out his 10 recipes depending on his mood on brewing day, which has earned the bar a well-deserved reputation as "the place where we brew whatever the hell we want." Farther north at the Draught Horse, brewer Josh Wilson is preparing to celebrate its 100th brewing cycle with a batch of high-gravity Imperial Stout (set to go on line as this article goes to press).
And as Austin enters the lo-o-o-ong summertime stretch, there are official plans for Round Rock to get its first brewpub (spearheaded by Dan Moran, partner and former brewer at the Draught Horse) and rumors of other operations slated for the booming 183/MoPac intersection. Sounds like the perfect time to ponder the next five years over a few cooling pints of local beer, tapped fresh from the tanks of Austin's notable "Class of '93."