There's a surreal quality to South Austin's Whip In. Located near the corner of Oltorf and I-35, the vintage, neon-lit facade of the neighborhood corner store gives little indication of the spoils within. What started as a gas station offering somewhat questionable wares to somewhat questionable patrons, has since been reincarnated as an organic market, pub, and nano-brewery. Gone are the days of don't-call-them-porn B-movies, bad novels, and whip-its. Instead – and in addition to beloved Indian staples – the Whip In now serves up craft beer.
Purchased in 1986 by Indian immigrants Amrit and Chandan Topiwala, over the past 28 years the Whip In has expanded from its humble convenience-store roots and renovated the space to include a full kitchen, 72 taps of beer, and an award-winning brew house. After an Eighties recession-era deal in which the Texaco across the street abandoned its alcohol enterprise in exchange for the Whip In relinquishing its gas pumps, business at the Whip In began to lean toward a well-curated selection of beer and wine. This shifted even further toward local, organic offerings when son Dipak took the reins in 2004. Explains Dipak, "I didn't want our kid to have access to all this crappy food, so I thought, hey, let's change this into a place that's healthy."
As the kitchen began churning out Dipak's mom's recipes and the grocery shelves became restocked with sustainable alternatives, the license was then changed to serve beer. Two years ago, the brewing license was added. "Beer is the renewable resource. That's my joke, I guess," adds Dipak.
Already renowned for its Indian fusion cuisine – a harmonic union of Gujarati fare from India's Gandhi region and a flourish of native Austin – it is the Whip In's brewing side that has perhaps seen the most acclaim – and controversy – since its inception two years ago. Just last year, a battle of nomenclature made keeping the peace a bit difficult after the Whip In received a letter from Dogfish Head founder and president Sam Calagione requesting the brewery change its Namaste moniker to avoid legal action. "It was an iron fist in a velvet glove," says Dipak. Lively commentary online led to calls to boycott the Delaware-based Dogfish Head, but ultimately, the larger craft brewery had no choice but to defend its trademark for its Namaste witbier. According to Dipak, it was an unfortunate situation due to lack of due diligence on his part, but also a strange way to trademark a word that really doesn't need to be trademarked.
Up against an unfortunate coupling of trademark law and cultural appropriation, the Whip In was forced to change the brewery's name from Namaste to Kamala, Hindi for lotus flower. Despite initial consternation, ultimately the rebranding has been met with no hard feelings from Dipak. Calagione stopped by while in town for the annual Off-Centered Film Fest. Says Dipak, "We've moved on ... mostly."
Controversy aside, the brewery has churned out spice-forward, creative brews: Their Bitterama won gold at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival in the Herb and Spice category, as well as a silver medal at the recent World Beer Cup. By a stroke of literary luck, Austin author and Whip In regular Owen Egerton played a part in devising the award-winning brew; it was initially planned as an End of the World Double ESB (that's Extra Special Bitter), to be featured at an Egerton book release celebration for Everyone Says That at the End of the World. Says Dipak, "We were talking about his book and we thought, 'What does everyone want to drink at the end of the world?' If I were at the end of the world, I would want an ESB. They're easy drinking, bitter, low in alcohol, and you can pound one pint after another."
Head brewer Kevin Sykes and former assistant brewer Ty Wolosin were asked to brew the Strong ESB with bergamot. Yet unable to procure the bergamot, the pair of brewers settled on Earl Grey tea. Wolosin created the base recipe, deciding on a wild rice addition for added nuttiness and crispness; Sykes made sure the calculations were correct; and the duo started brewing on the 10-gallon Sabco system, allowing for increased experimentation and the ability to tweak as needed. Sykes, deciding to brew a batch with a higher than normal mash temperature, struck literal gold when the resulting brew was sent to GABF. Not expecting to win, Sykes considered skipping the award ceremony altogether. "When they called our name, I was like, What? I was completely dumbfounded," says Sykes. All involved were more than a bit surprised. "It evolved into this amazing beer that we're still sort of beside ourselves as to how we created it," says Dipak.
With an overall sentiment of enlightenment and peace, the Topiwala family's Indian heritage remains at the forefront of the operation. Beer names often stem from the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses, with many of the aspects of the deities themselves present in the beers.
"If you're really and truly making a beer out of natural ingredients, you can tie these aspects into them and align them with the stars and the planets. It sounds supernatural, but I'm Hindu. I believe in that shit." As an example, the Belgian-style quadrupel Ganeshale utilizes the hibiscus flowers of the elephant god, while the Vishnavitripale, a Belgian tripel, uses the rose hips of Vishnu. According to Sykes, while Dipak remains the creative force behind the brews, he gives the brewers a lot of freedom when it comes to the actual brewing. "We play around a lot. He lets us as long as we make the beer he wants. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
Currently, Kamala Brewing is serving up the Bitterama, Brahmale, Parvati, and Oud Bruin (canned), with plans to bottle and sell on-site soon. Expansion plans are also under way. Looking to purchase 100 acres southwest of the city, a production-style brewery is in the works with plans to add an 18-hole disc golf course, a hike-and-bike trail, as well as a beer and breakfast.
For Dipak, brewing beer is more than just a process, it's spiritual and a way to connect with nature. "It's a window into looking at things in a different way in a way that you can grow. It's a religious experience from the earth," he says.
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