It's a good time to drink beer in Texas
I believe that this is the golden age of Texas brewing.
Now, it won't take the discerning beer drinker long to realize what a pathetic statement that is. Anyone who has traveled outside our borders knows that we could be doing much better. When compared to the likes of Colorado, Oregon, or California, our beer scene is pale and ailing. A visit to a former roommate last year turned up more brewpubs in his Portland, Ore., neighborhood alone than in all of Austin.
But golden ages are relative. Remember the days when drinking local meant Lone Star, Pearl, and Shiner as your only options? No more. The Texas microbrew movement has been bubbling up for nearly 20 years now, and I believe it has finally reached a boil. There really are some great things happening in the Lone Star State (so to speak) right now. Consider this list of offerings by Texas brewers, and I think you'll agree that we're blessed with some great choices.
And "choice" is the key phrase. A significant sign of Texas brewing's maturity is the variety in styles. Almost all our microbreweries have not only their flagship beers appealing to the broader public, but also more experimental, bolder brews to challenge the taste buds – thus, my division below between the best-sellers and suggested alternatives.
It's a good time to drink beer in Texas – but hopefully someday we'll look back on this "golden age" and call it "the formative years."
Saint Arnold Brewing Company (Houston)www.saintarnold.com
Flagship beer: Amber Ale
Drink this instead: Elissa IPA, various seasonals
Year-round, try the Elissa IPA. It stacks up just fine against any other India pale ale I've had. It normally has a slightly subtler hop presence than some American IPAs, more like a British version, but in the last sixer of it I tried, the hops seemed more aggressive. Either way, it makes a hop-head like me happy.
Seasonally, you can't go wrong with their Winter Stout or Spring Bock, especially the latter. The bock's malts are addictive. Also, if you know the secret password, you might find a six-pack of their Divine Reserve limited edition series on the rare occasions it is issued. Beers in the series have included the Barleywine, the Abbey American Quadruppel, Double IPA, Wee Heavy, and the Russian Imperial Stout; No. 6, another great American Barleywine, hit stores in June and it's already hard to find.
Flagship beer: Shiner Bock
Drink this instead: Annual anniversary brews
Shiner (the town and brewery) used to be a much simpler place: Your choices were Shiner (the pilsner we called "Shiner Premium" back in the day, now named Blonde) or Shiner Bock. Now, the little brewery in the little town has grown up, and Shiner's become one of the most adventurous beer makers in Texas. Seasonally, you can get a crisp, refreshing Kölsch in the summer and a dark, hearty Dunkelweizen in winter. I'm not much for Hefeweizen, but my wheat-loving friends swear by Shiner's version.
But the burst of creativity really kicked as they approached their 100th anniversary (coming up next year). They began issuing a series of limited edition beers, one a year, counting up to 100. Their "96" was an Oktoberfest-like Märzen-style ale for which I still pine; "97" was a black lager that has since become a permanent part of their lineup, renamed Shiner Bohemian Black Lager; "98" was the Bavarian-style Amber I'm happy to say can still be found on the shelves, possibly the best thing they've ever done, although it gets strong competition from the new "99," the Munich Style Helles Lager made with Hallertau hops that tops just about anything I've had actually from Germany.
Live Oak (Austin)www.liveoakbrewing.com
Flagship beer: Pilz
Drink this instead: Big Bark Amber Lager
Actually, the Pilz is excellent, as is everything I've ever tried from this Austin brewery. But to recommend an alternative, try the Big Bark. Ambers don't top my list of favorite styles, but whenever I see this on tap, I know what I'll be drinking the rest of the night. Big Bark has a pleasant bite to it for those who enjoy aggressive flavor. Really, you can't go wrong with Live Oak: Just randomly try anything pouring from their distinctive bark-covered tap handles, and I promise you'll be happy.
And if you really like a bold beer, keep an eye out for a Barleywine called Old Tree Hugger. Barleywines are not for everyone – properly done, they have a rich, powerful flavor that really packs a punch, and are brewed to have a high alcohol content. It's a beer to have if you're having only one – otherwise, you might relive the experience I had when I nicknamed it "Toilet Hugger." It's not currently available, although Live Oak promised it will return to area bars someday.
And that leads me to Live Oak's only flaw: They don't bottle. If you're not in a bar or restaurant or buying a keg in Austin, you're SOL. And that's your loss.
Real Ale (Blanco)www.realalebrewing.com
Flagship beer: Firemans 4 Blonde Ale
Drink this instead: Firemans 4 Blonde Ale
This is a rare case where the flagship beer really is my favorite. This blond ale was a latecomer to Real Ale's lineup, but was an instant hit when it first appeared only in bars. The citrusy flavor hit that difficult-to-find spot between the richness appealing to beer snobs and a crispness that captures less adventurous drinkers. Real Ale was soon left with no alternative but to start bottling it, delighting us parent types who can only spend so much time in bars.
That said, Real Ale has no clunkers in its lineup. Their original three beers (Rio Blanco Pale, Brewhouse Brown, and Full Moon Pale Rye) all satisfy, the rye malts in the latter giving a unique snap that I've never tasted elsewhere. If you have a taste for barleywines, Sisyphus is expensive (around $3 a bottle) but worth every penny. But the real finds are Real Ale's adventurous (but tap-only) seasonals. I recently sampled Devil's Backbone, a rare Texas attempt to mimic a Belgian beer, and a magnificently successful one. And their Real Heavy, while not the best rendition of a Wee Heavy (Strong Scotch Ale) I've ever had, still impressed me.
Flagship beer: Austin Amber
Drink this instead: Freestyle
Independence has disappointed me a bit – I think the Austin Amber is pedestrian, the Bootlegger Brown is not bad but I'm just not a huge fan of browns, and the lone six-pack of Independence Pale Ale I tried was downright awful (in fairness, maybe I just got a bad batch – I once bought a sixer of Real Ale's Firemans 4 that was completely undrinkable). Even their attempt to do something really adventurous, their Jasperilla Old Ale, I found lacking.
But the Freestyle Wheat shocked me. I went into this beer thinking that I don't like wheat beers, but Freestyle set me straight. I'm learning that what I don't like is the German Hefeweizen style, but Freestyle is something else. Independence calls it an "American white wheat," but to me it tastes like a really fine German lager. It goes down smooth, leaves me craving more, and is not excessively wheaty in flavor. It's not just PR baloney when Independence's Web page describes it as "the taste of Texas summer." This beer definitely lives up to the painting of Barton Springs on the bottle.
Rahr & Sons (Fort Worth)www.rahrbrewing.com
Flagship beer: Ugly Pug Black Lager
Drink this instead: Stormcloud India Pale Ale
I have to tip my hat to Rahr & Sons: Trying a Schwarzbier, or black lager, back when it was still a rather unknown style was bold on their part. But my complaint with Ugly Pug is the same one I have with Shiner Black: There are other breweries that are doing the style better. My feelings toward Rahr are similar to Independence: generally, their beers have disappointed me. A strong exception to that rule is the Stormcloud IPA. I first sipped it when the Brewers Association came to Austin for their convention last year, and immediately hunted for it in stores. They describe it as a "German-style IPA" – a quintessentially British beer with all-German ingredients. It has the aggressive hop punch a good IPA should have, but not enough to drown out pleasant floral notes.
A caveat to my criticisms of their other beers: I haven't tried all of their products. I was not impressed by their red or blonde lagers, but I have yet to taste their Bucking Bock, a springtime release that won a bronze medal at this year's World Beer Cup. Given how much I love Saint Arnold's Spring Bock, I'm very curious. Ditto for their Winter Warmer – the holiday season is my favorite drinking period, when brewers usually pull all the tricks out of their bag, so I'd love to see what Rahr can do.
Southern Star (Conroe)www.southernstarbrewery.com
Flagship beer: Pine Belt Pale Ale
Drink this instead: Pine Belt Pale Ale
You don't have a choice – so far, this is the only beer this brand-new brewery makes. They almost didn't make this article, but I stumbled across some at Spec's. And wow, for their first time at the plate, these guys hit it out of the park. Ignore the fact that it comes in cans (a rarity in the world of craft brewing): From the moment it poured into my glass and the smell of the hops hit my nose, I knew I'd love it. A slightly strawberryish flavor preceding a bracing, aggressive hop punch tasted wonderful going down, and heck, even my burps tasted good afterward. Rookie of the year!Coming soon:
(512) Brewing, Austin, www.512brewing.com
Freetail, San Antonio, www.freetailbrewing.com
Brewpubs – restaurants and bars that brew their own – first became legal in Texas in 1993, and that end of the beer industry has sputtered along, despite some quality product. The first one in Texas was the dearly departed Waterloo Brewing Co. in Downtown Austin, followed soon after by the Copper Tank and Bitter End – all three of which are now in the business graveyard. To this day, Waterloo's Guytown IPA is my all-time favorite beer.
Thankfully, worthy Austin heirs carry on their legacy. North by Northwest (10010 Capital of TX Hwy N., www.nxnwbrew.com) is often packed to the door, especially because of their Okanogan Black Ale and Pyjingo Pale Ale. Something I shouldn't tell you, because too many more people will just ruin it: The last Wednesday of every month they tap a keg of a cask-conditioned beer (a process in which the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation and maturation in the keg, without extra nitrogen or carbon dioxide added), a real treat for any serious beer drinker. The cask-conditioned version of the Pyjingo was so glorious it made me speak in tongues.
The Draught House Pub & Brewery (4112 Medical Pkwy., www.draughthouse.com, and not to be confused with the Alamo Drafthouse theatre chain), a fantastic albeit cozy beer bar, offers a few of their own – best enjoyed on a Thursday night, when house beers are on special. Their brews can be inconsistent in quality, but when they're on, they are really on. Warning: If the chalkboard says "limit 2" for one of their beers, that means it's high-alcohol. I say from painful experience: Heed the warning. Yes, they taste really good, but it's a trap.
Lovejoy's Tap Room (604 Neches, www.myspace.com/lovejoys) has also suffered inconsistency recently, but hopefully new brewmaster Todd Henry can smooth things out. But again, like the Draught House, when they're on, they're on, and the bar's punk funkiness makes a good launching pad to Emo's.
A newcomer to Austin is Uncle Billy's Brew & Que (1530 Barton Springs Rd., www.unclebillysaustin.com), and they do a fine job with both ends of their business, brewing fine craft beers and smoking juicy barbecue. Their Axe Handle Pale Ale locked down a place among my favorites. They also feature the occasional cask-conditioned keg. A fine place to fill up after working up a hunger at Barton Springs.
Elsewhere in Texas
Out-of-town brewpubs are more of a mystery to me, but on my wedding anniversary last month, Blue Star Brewing (1414 S. Alamo #105, San Antonio, www.bluestarbrewing.com) pleasantly surprised me – especially their Belgian-style Bier de Bleu and magnificent barleywine King William Ale MMVIII. This will now be a regular stop on future trips down I-35.
I also enjoy Fredericksburg Brewing Company (245 E. Main, Fredericksburg, www.yourbrewery.com). I remember the beers were satisfying if not spectacular, but in fairness, my last visit was six years ago – since then, their Hauptstrassa Hellest (Mainstreet Light) won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, so perhaps I'm overdue for a return.
I've heard raves about Eola School and Lodge (12119 FM 381, Eola, www.eolaschool.com). In the unlikely location of this ranching town 20 miles east of San Angelo, James "Mark" Cannon – owner, brewer, chef, waiter, dishwasher, and lone employee – reportedly is doing solid brewing in Eola's former schoolhouse.
Up in Dallas-Fort Worth, fellow beer blogger Paul Hightower (www.texasbeer.blogspot.com) reports: "The only brewpub in North Texas doing anything outside the ordinary is The Covey (3010 S. Hulen, Fort Worth, www.thecovey.com). Recent beers have included a Belgian trippel and a cocoa brown ale, and the brewer tends to rotate different hops with each batch of IPA he makes." Houston has some catching up to do as well: Blogger Ted Duchesne (www.barleyvine.blogspot.com) grumbles: "You've gone and touched a sore subject with me. Unfortunately as great as Houston's beer scene has gotten, what with numerous beer pubs and the like, the city's brewpubs have much to be desired. The only brewpub within the loop is the at-most average Two Rows (haven't been in over a year, but the brews are average at best and wildly inconsistent)." Two Rows (www.tworows.com) also has locations in Allen, Addison, and Garland.
YET TO CROSS MY TASTEBUDSThe Edelweiss Brewery & Restaurant
209 W. Holland, Alpine, www.edelweissbrewery.comHumperdink's
Multiple DFW locations, www.humperdinks.comJaxon's
Four El Paso locations, www.jaxons.comDodging Duck Brewhaus
402 River Rd., Boerne, www.dodgingduck.comBig Buck Brewery & Steakhouse
2501 Bass Pro Dr. #100, Grapevine (also a location in Gaylord, Mich.), www.bigbuck.comThe Triple J Chophouse & Brew Co.
1807 Buddy Holly Ave., Lubbock, www.triplejchophouseandbrewco.comPadre Island Brewing Co.
3400 Padre Blvd., South Padre Island
STARTING BREWING SOON:Dancing Bear Pub
1117 Speight, Waco, www.dancingbearpub.com (open, but waiting on its brewer's permit)Port Aransas Brewing
429 Alister, Port Arthur, portabrewing.com
Some craft beer lovers will drink any style, any time, any where. Me, I'm more picky. I drink seasonally: malty Oktoberfest brews in fall, heavy porters and stouts in winter, lightening up a bit with a nice bock in spring. And when the mercury busts out of the thermometer, I want something crisp and refreshing. Here are some Texas beers I recommend for drinking right now during the summer swelter:
• Shiner Kölsch
• Shiner Hefeweizen
• Independence Freestyle
• Saint Arnold Fancy Lawnmower
• Saint Arnold Summer Pils
• Live Oak Pilz
• Saint Arnold Texas Wheat
• Real Ale Firemans 4 Blonde Ale
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org