It's the ultimate uniquely Austin experience: looking at the sun reflecting off the waters of Lady Bird Lake, the sky turning a golden hue behind the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge ... suddenly, furiously, the air swirls to life with the beating wings of 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats. There's really only one thing that could make it better: to have a nice drink in your hand.
Nate Taylor and Celeste Kemper, along with Matt Abendschein of local beer blog You Stay Hoppy Austin (www.youstayhoppyaustin.com), can make that happen for you. Chartering a boat from Capital Cruises, they bring together local microbrewers and restaurants and match them up with a sightseeing adventure.
When I joined them in September, Bats & Beers showcased one of Austin's newest suds purveyors, Austin Beerworks. Guests grabbed a Pearl-Snap Pils, Peacemaker Extra Pale Ale, or Fire Eagle America IPA, and headed up to the boat's top deck to watch the bats head out for an evening meal.
Then they got a meal of their own: Chef Jody Chancey of Frank served an antelope-rabbit sausage with jalapeño cream on a crostini topped with a reduction made from Battle Axe, Austin Beerworks' newest brew, and a maple-tart cherry sauce. We finished off with pie from Marble Falls' famous Blue Bonnet Cafe.
The cruise offered the floating beer lovers a chance to be among the first to try Battle Axe, an imperial red ale that debuted just the day before at the Texas Craft Brewers Festival.
A year and a half ago, Waco native Taylor, who works in sales for Rackspace, a cloud computing company, moved to Austin after an eight-year stint in South Africa. "I moved into that building there," he says, pointing to one of the residential towers that have proliferated in recent years along the north shore of Lady Bird Lake. "And we have a cool deck that overlooks the bridge and Downtown, and it's ideal for viewing the bats. And we said, 'This is perfect; we need to have people over here and start having bat-watching events.'
"And then I started really getting into the craft brewing industry here, and just really expanding my palate and discovering all these new things that were happening and got really excited about it. So [for] our first event, I said to all my friends, 'Bring your favorite summer ale, your favorite seasonal brews, and let's just do a beer swap.'
"And then the next event – we invited a couple of brewmasters who were yet [to start commercial] brewing, Scott Hovey from Adelbert's and Josh Hare from Hops & Grain [which finally launched last week, during Austin Beer Week]. And they said this was a pretty cool venue and a pretty cool idea and we needed to expand on that."
That was followed by cruises featuring Jester King, Austin Beerworks, and recently, a seventh anniversary party for Independence Brewery. With bat season ending, Taylor says Bats & Beers will go on a bit of a hiatus until spring, although they will put together an event in December and another for Valentine's Day at an as-yet undetermined location not on the river.
Currently, Bats & Beers is ridiculously affordable, ranging from $15 to $30 depending on the event. As such, Taylor says the monthly enterprise isn't profitable yet. "We're still working on that," he says. "Right now it's all about just bringing people together. We'll see if we can make it profitable in the future.
"What's awesome about Austin is our food scene and our beer scene," Taylor says, "and really bringing together chefs and brewmasters to bring their creativity to the table, to bring something special. Sometimes it will be a one-off – maybe it will be a seasonal; we don't know. And that's really the excitement about Bats & Beers is we don't know where it's going to take us."
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