Hops to It

The gospel of good beer is spreading

Hops to It

It's springtime. For Austinites, that means a drive out into the Hill Country – over the rolling hills, crossing the picturesque creeks, and admiring the beautiful brewpubs popping up all around.

OK, maybe wildflowers more readily come to mind. And maybe I've already used this metaphor.

Almost two years ago, I wrote "Beer in Bloom" (June 18, 2010), a celebration of the exploding Austin beer scene. At that time, the number of breweries in or near our city was set to almost double – mostly production breweries (those that only produce beer for distribution to stores and bars).

Now, a second flowering is occurring a little farther out of town. Craft beer has come to the Hill Country, but this time in the form of brewpubs – restaurants or bars that brew their own. In little towns that have been – and truth be told, mostly still are – the provenance of Bud/Miller/Coors Light, the offerings have gotten more adventurous, and the gospel of good beer is spreading.

If you're a craft brew lover, that road trip (provided you have a designated driver) just got even more tempting. Some intrepid companions and I ventured west recently and hit six oases that are making a beautiful part of Texas even better.

The Root Cellar
The Root Cellar (Photo by Lee Nichols)

The Root Cellar

215 N. LBJ, San Marcos; 512/392-5158
Tuesday-Sunday, 7am-10pm

Our first stop stretched the definition of both "Hill Country" and "brewpub," but like Aus­tin, San Marcos does sit right there on the edge of the hills, and the Root Cellar is a restaurant technically brewing its own. What you should not expect is the wall full of taps and giant mash tuns and brewing kettles on display. Instead, the Root Cellar hires a brewer to run a nanobrewery out of one of its storage rooms.

Until shortly after our visit, that brewer was Silas Parker, who operated his 15-gallon setup as Darkside Fermentation, cooking up Belgian-inspired creations only available by the Champagne-sized bottle. Unfortunately for Root Cellar patrons – but good for the wider world of beer drinkers – Parker has decided to strike out on his own and take Darkside solo. He's been replaced by Robert Brushab­er, whose work I haven't had a chance to sample yet. Since Darkside presumably will be available in stores and bars at some point, I decided to go ahead and review its beers here.

The day we arrived, two options were available, both on a sour-beer theme. First I sampled Mark of the Yeast, a powerful, pull-no-punches drink with an abysslike blackness. Some online reviewers described it as a quadrupel, but the brewer himself calls it an "imperial lambic stout." Whatever it is, it's not for the faint of heart. Strongly flavored with raisins, elderberry, sage, and wormwood and using Brett yeast, it's not just a good effort by an obscure brewer, it's world-class. It's also a challenging beer for a road trip at 11% alcohol by volume.

Next, I sampled the red, which was a bit of a mistake – not because it isn't a great beer, but because after the roundhouse kick to the mouth with the Mark, my palate had to adjust to the more easygoing (but still quite sour) Flemish-style red aged in oak barrels with sour cherries. Best of luck to Brushaber – Parker will be a tough act to follow.

Oh yeah, the food: It's quite good, a really nice dining experience for what some might just think of as a college town. We sampled a couple of sandwiches: the Holy Aioli, tender citrus-marinated chicken breast on ciabatta with a cilantro aioli, lettuce, tomato, and provolone cheese, and B-Luv's Black Bean Bur­ger, a very lively flavor for simple black beans, also served on ciabatta. I also tried the shepherd's pie, which had a nice texture thanks to coarsely ground beef laid over scallion mashed potatoes, corn, and cheddar. The best surprise was the soup of the day, carrot ginger. The carrot base was uplifted by the ginger tang, complemented by sesame-poppy crackers that tasted like a high-quality version of Sociables.

Middleton Brewing Company
Middleton Brewing Company (Photo by Lee Nichols)

Middleton Brewing

9595 Ranch Road 12 #4, Wimberley; 512/847-3435
Wednesday-Friday, 2-9pm; Saturday, noon-9pm; Sunday, noon-5pm

In terms of professional experience, Silas Parker is a veteran compared to Dennis Middleton, who's only been in business since July. But like his San Marcos colleague, Middleton has already jumped up to world-class talent. He's not really a newbie – he has 20 years of home-brewing experience. And when you taste his beers, you'll wonder what took him so long to go pro.

Situated on the same property as Brew­ster's Pizza (see below) where RR 12 makes a T with FM 32 south of Wimberley's downtown, Middleton also stretches the definition of "brewpub." It's really just a tiny little tap room with no food, and the second floor is a home-brew supply shop.

Middleton told me he just moved here from San Diego, where he lived in the middle of a golden triangle formed by the top-flight brewing operations of Stone, Green Flash, and Pizza Port. Trips to Belgium influenced him and his wife Kim greatly, so his brews offer a mix of the spiced beers of that nation and the hops bombs of California.

Everything we sampled ranged from good to great. His Cascadian Dark had a chocolatey smell and taste I don't normally expect from that style. The Quartzite Belgian Blonde seemed ordinary on first taste, but developed surprising complexity as it went further back on the palate. His rich porter had subtle coffee notes. The Spiced Golden was very smooth, a Hoegaarden-inspired beer with coriander and bitter orange peel.

The tiny little tap room was hopping on a Saturday afternoon, filling the few bar stools and two tables. There's also a couch, but it belongs to their two pugs, Guinness and Gru.

Brewster's Pizza/Wimberley Brewing Company

9595 Ranch Road 12 #4, Wimberley; 512/847-3299
Tuesday-Wednesday, 4-8pm; Thursday-Friday, 4-9pm; Saturday, noon-9pm; Sunday, noon-7pm

Dennis Middleton says he was invited into his location by Bruce Collie, the former NFL lineman whose pizza joint and microbrewery is located just across the parking lot. That's both a blessing and curse for Collie. It will attract beer lovers, but Collie's own beers suffer in comparison to Middleton's talents. On the other hand, maybe it doesn't matter – after a few at Middleton's, you're gonna get hungry, and the pizza makes up for whatever the beer might lack. We were particularly impressed by the wheat crust. And the beer is good enough for the moment – an OK IPA and red bitter, and a better porter with a nice roasted flavor. After lifting several of Brew­ster's superheavy beer goblets enough times, your biceps may get as large as Collie's. This would be a good destination after a cool dip at Blue Hole. Sit at the bar and enjoy some stories of Collie's time in the trenches with the 49ers and Eagles.

The Barber Shop

207 Mercer Street, Dripping Springs; 512/829-4636
Monday-Friday, 3-11pm; Saturday, noon-11pm; Sunday 2-8pm

This funky joint in Dripping Springs seems to have the lightest pedigree as a brewery, but the strongest as a cool place to hang out. It’s also the most accessible to Austin, just 24 miles from Downtown and only 12 from the Austin city limits.

Built in a great old building constructed in 1924 as a gas station, it later, as the name suggests, became a barbershop. You can feel the history in the building as you sit in at the bar or relax on the back porch with suds in your hand – most likely a good Texas beer. It’s definitely a small-town experience, except that beer is a Lost Gold IPA or Hops & Grain Alteration instead of Bud Light (although they carry that, too, if you prefer).

The Barber Shop brews its own, too, but only in small batches. On my first visit here last summer, I admit I wasn’t too impressed with what it served (sorry, can’t remember what it was now), and on this visit in February, it had no house beers at all. However, I’ve had others tell me that sometimes the house brews are right on the mark.

It’s not a restaurant, just a bar, so you may want to BYOF (our neighboring table shared a box of fried chicken with us). But as a place to top off a day of bluebonnet watching or barbecue-hunting, it has all you need – about 20 taps of it.

Fredericksburg Brewing Company

245 E. Main St., Fredericksburg; 830/997-1646
Monday-Thursday, 11:30am-9pm; Friday-Satur­day, 11am-10pm; Sunday, 11:30am-7pm

Here's where my wildflowers-in-spring analogy falls apart. Compared to the rest of the Hill Country newbies, Fredericksburg Brewing is the mature oak tree, having opened for business in 1994, not long after brewpubs were legalized in Texas. Since the demise of Austin's Waterloo Brewing, it can claim to be Texas' "oldest and most acclaimed brewpub."

We enjoyed a tasty, gravy-covered schnitzel and a great sausage plate in the dining room; if we had chosen to just drink, the biergarten in back would have sufficed nicely. I started with an easy-drinking Helles and took tastes of my friends' red (just enough hops to be interesting, but not enough to scare off the non-hop-head) and IPA (maltier than I would expect from an IPA).

We met up at FBC with my beer-blogging colleague and Fredericksburg resident Jeff Holt (www.homebrewer2005.blogspot.com). After years of knowing him online, it was nice to finally meet him in the flesh, and of course, he steered me to a great beer – the Giant, a superb imperial stout with a deep, bold flavor and a touch of chocolate. For dining and good beer, FBC has a lot of competition in this historic tourist town with deep German roots, but it holds its own and is worth putting on your Fredericksburg day-trip itinerary.

Pecan Street Brewing
Pecan Street Brewing (Photo by Lee Nichols)

Pecan Street Brewing

106 E. Pecan Dr., Johnson City; 830/868-2500
Sunday & Wednesday-Thursday, 11am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10pm

Unfortunately, we hit Pecan Street while still full of schnitzel from Fredericksburg, so we gave woefully short shrift to its food. How­ever, we did squeeze in a little from a menu of pretty standard brewpub grub: an enjoyable three-cheese pizza with Italian sausage. Dessert was more impressive, a fantastic pumpkin cheesecake with a gingersnap crust.

But we were here for beer: The Jackalope Brown didn't taste like a brown, which was just fine with me, since I'm not normally a brown ale fan. I liked its spiciness and noticed it got better as it warmed. The County Jail Pale Ale was a little too bitter for my liking. I wish I'd had room for more, but I had to pace myself for the drive to Marble Falls.

The venue itself is as big an attraction as the beer: Located across from the historic Blanco County Courthouse, it has a spacious dining room, a game room upstairs, a movie room in back, and a back porch perfect for a sunny spring day. If this place doesn't become the center of the social scene in tiny Johnson City, then I'd like to know what can beat it out. I definitely owe Pecan Street a visit with an empty belly.

Double Horn Brewing Company
Double Horn Brewing Company (Photo by Lee Nichols)

Double Horn Brewing Company

208 Avenue H, Marble Falls; 830/693-5165
Monday, 4-9pm; Tuesday-Thursday & Sunday, 11am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10pm

Still too full after Fredericksburg and John­son City, we gave it the old college try because the menu looked just too damned interesting not to. We warmed up with a plate of calamari, always a dicey choice, but this was good – tender, not rubbery. The marinara sauce was nice, but the green sauce was a little too heavy on the jalapeño and too light on the avocado. I went for an entrée and was rewarded with delicious, tender wild boar with a nicely crunchy walnut crust over filling garlic mashed potatoes. My only minor complaint was a slightly too-salty gravy on an otherwise fine dish. Samples of my friends' three-cheese ham sandwich and brisket cheese­steak also gave reason for a return trip.

But again, the beer: First I tried a Porch Night Porter. It seemed solid if unspectacular, but it was hard to be fair after that imperial stout back in Fredericksburg. As it warmed, it got considerably better, with nice coffee notes coming in. The Sum Dat IPA was well-rounded, a better mix of flavoring hops and bittering hops than the pale at Pecan Street. And the 1855 Pale makes a good substitute for the IPA if you're less of a hop head – in fact, I eventually decided it was outstanding, the best of the bunch. Darn fine quality considering it opened just last Memorial Day.

Also worth investigating

Unfortunately, I didn't make it out to the Dodging Duck Brewhaus in Boerne, just north of San Antonio and a bit farther afield than the above options. But since I now work for a state senator from San Antonio, I'll probably work that into my next trip down south, as well as another visit to the excellent Freetail Brewing Co. on the northern edge of that fine city.

Lee Nichols blogs about beer at www.i-love-beer.blogspot.com.

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brewpubs, Hill Country, The Root Cellar, Middleton Brewing, Brewster's Pizza, Wimberley Brewing Company, Fredericksburg Brewing Company, Pecan Street Brewing, Double Horn Brewing Company

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