It's been more than four years since a band of idealistic beer lovers began brewing up a crazy idea: to start a member-owned, cooperatively run brewpub. Their start was slow and steady – a seemingly endless series of fundraisers and "beer socials" that made one wonder, will this ever really happen, or is it just a fun excuse to get together and drink?
It turned out to be a brilliant strategy. All those events gradually built a community and, more importantly, a thirsty, excited, ready-made audience for the concept long before a brick-and-mortar location had been procured. Once Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery finally morphed from an idea into a physical place, anticipation had reached a fever pitch.
It's an ambitious enterprise, aiming to bring a touch of democracy to the unforgiving world of capitalism (see "From Beer to Infinity," Jan. 22, 2010). As far as anyone knows, it is the first brewpub in America organized on cooperative principles – one of which is to pay a fair, livable wage to its employees, so tipping is not allowed. And it's also a pioneer in another sense, as the first major tenant of the otherwise struggling Midtown Commons transit-oriented development, located next to Capital Metro's Crestview commuter rail station (see "Not So Hot TODs," News, Nov. 26, 2010).
Whether Black Star's business model can succeed remains to be seen. But what's coming out of its kitchen and brewing tanks is definitely working.
(Full disclosure: One of this review's authors, Lee Nichols, is one of the hundreds of member-owners of Black Star Co-op, just as many of you might be members of Wheatsville. Some might see that as a conflict of interest, but to Nichols, it means he expects some good beer for his investment. Co-author Claudia Alarcón is not a member.)
Both the beer and food menus are divided into what Black Star calls Rational and Irrational halves, an inside joke referring to brewer Jeff Young's mathematician past. Nichols tackled write-ups of the beer selection while Alarcón handled the food, although both weighed in on a little of everything.
On the beer side, Rational means approachable beers, tasty but not necessarily shocking, and available year-round; Irrational means more complex seasonals with unexpected ingredient combinations, possibly with a heavier dose of alcohol. Unfortunately, Young hasn't had time to whip up anything on the Irrational side – we look forward to the debut of Moontower, the winter seasonal – but the Rational beers more than satisfied us. (Young also promises an "Infinite" series of oak-aged brews at some point.)
But you're not limited to the house brews – the tap wall includes about 20 nonhouse beers, an impressive offering ranging from Texas brewers like (512), Jester King, Rahr & Sons, Ranger Creek, Live Oak, Saint Arnold, and Real Ale to national craft-beer stars like Victory, Avery, New Belgium, Lagunitas, and more, plus another 30-40 choices by the bottle. And on the day we visited, the guys at the Beer Town Austin blog were sponsoring a special cask of Stash IPA from Austin's Independence Brewing Co.
From the kitchen, the Rational dishes are the staples, perennially listed on the menu, while Irrational ones are locally inspired and ever-changing blackboard specials based on seasonality and availability of specific products. The food is created with a variety of beer styles in mind, so interesting pairings are available for all items.
From the Rational menu, we really loved the snack plate ($8-16), fully customizable with your choice of up to five items from the daily selection of Texas cheeses, house-made pickles (in sweet, salty, spicy, and beer varieties), and meat items, available in portions for one, three, or five. We chose the purple broccoli and turnip pickles, Spanish-style chorizo from Salt & Time, house-made head cheese (very fresh, but lacking seasoning), and Wateroak chèvre. This platter, paired with the house beer sampler, made for some interesting taste combinations and fun conversation.
After polishing that off, we tasted a couple of hearty cold-weather treats. The Bowl of Red ($7), a chopped-style chili with both beef and pork, was very spicy and flavorful, garnished with fresh jalapeño slices and minced onion on the side – and being proper Texans, we took advantage of the option to upgrade it to a Frito pie at no extra charge. We paired it with the High Esteem, the lightest and most refreshing of the house brews and likely to become Black Star's flagship. At first, it didn't seem properly suited to the frigid day on which we visited, but we soon realized the citrusy, floral pale ale with a dash of honey was ideal to wash down and quench the chili's heat.
The chicken pot pie ($10), a bowlful of diced chicken, carrots, celery, and mushrooms swimming in an herbed cream sauce, comes topped with a thick, golden potato-biscuit crust perfect for soaking up the creamy goodness. It was delicious with the freshly tapped Recalcitrant Dockhand, a fine ale so dark and rich that at first we thought it must be a winter seasonal. We recommend you don't drink this one immediately on pouring – if you drink it too cold, your numbed tastebuds will miss its rich complexity. After a few minutes of warming, beautiful and well-balanced coffee notes come out, as well as notes of molasses and vanilla.
On a second visit, a nitrogen version of Dockhand was available. To Nichols' surprise, he didn't like it as much as the standard carbonated pour, but if you enjoy the creamy mouthfeel of a Guinness, this might be a better alternative for you. He paired it with a fried egg sandwich ($7), an enjoyable, if messy, late-night snack. Between two perfectly toasted slices of bread, what easily could have been a bland filling of egg and tomato was enlivened by tangy pieces of arugula.
The other two house brews were enjoyable libations, as well. Only the Double Dee brought us the mildest disappointment – it was rich and hoppy with a good dose of malt on the front end, but Alarcón thought it finished a little flat. (Young said, "We're working on that.") The Vulcan, on the other hand, was a layered and enjoyable surprise. It contained a solid blast of hops, yet balanced them out with malt and rye to mold it into a surprisingly round, soft mouthfeel that went down with a pleasant smoothness.
Alarcón decided to pack up dinner and head home to watch the game. A simple roast chicken ($11) sounded so good on a cold night, and it didn't disappoint. It was tender and juicy, with crispy skin and savory pan sauce, and went well with the slightly chunky mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. The vegetables change seasonally. For good measure, add a side of Black Star's toothsome bacon-studded greens ($4), perhaps a mix of collards and mustard.
Having tried some Rational items, it was time to get Irrational, so Alarcón went for the night's special, a melt-in-your-mouth braised beef shank ($16) served over a bed of creamy serrano grits, topped with Meyer lemon gremolata; on the side, golden, roasted florets of local cauliflower. The sauce lacked a little depth, perhaps because the portion served was the end of the shank and there was no marrow in the bone, but in general, everything leaned toward the undersalted side. Dessert consisted of creamy homemade toffee speckled with crispy bacon, but the beer float with Wateroak's goat milk ice cream also tempted.
Two things turned us off slightly at Black Star. There's the space itself, which lacks the cozy ambience and comfortable vibe of a pub house – it has an industrial style, nondescript furnishings, and zero decor aside from paint on the walls. It recalls the atmosphere of an IKEA cafeteria – clean, but sterile and uninviting.
Service was the other disappointment. Because everything is ordered at the counter, lines can get long and waits can be daunting, and it seemed the staff didn't go out of their way to alleviate the situation. They were all friendly, and, when approached, helpful and ready to answer questions or offer suggestions, just not proactive in anticipating the customers' needs. True, the night in question was busy with the special cask-tapping event, so we hope that as time goes by they're able to add table service or make the counter ordering system more efficient. (Certainly, the service and timely delivery of the food has made great strides just in the short time since the uneven opening days.)
Whatever flaws may need to be worked out, it's clear this venture is off to a good start. Healthy crowds in the opening months seem to indicate Black Star is being embraced not only by its immediate neighbors in the Midtown Commons condos, but also by residents from the adjacent Crestview, Brentwood, and Highland neighborhoods. Early evening sees families with children out on a porch that allows kids room to move, giving way to an evening crowd of young hipsters and craft beer lovers.
We're not sure if the nearby train will ever really take off, but for the North Lamar area, good beer and adventurous food has definitely arrived.
Chronicle staff writer Lee Nichols blogs about beer at www.i-love-beer.blogspot.com.
Oops: In the print version of this review of Black Star Co-op Pub & Brewery (Jan. 28), we mistakenly described one of the dishes as veal shank. In fact, it was beef shank from Stonewall's Windy Bar Ranch.
Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.