When Austin was in its craft beer-loving infancy – let's call that the early Nineties – Shiner Bock was the perfect bottle to hold. It represented the city's shrug toward its inevitable ascendancy into alt-culture dominance. Its potable stability was the constant that stitched the fibers of Austin's bloated evolution, holding taut the tethers of nostalgia: Warm sips between gigs at Steamboat. Liberty Lunch. La Zona Rosa. The old Maggie Mae's and the porch of Shakespeare's. A genuine beverage to engage in during the lengthy summer wait when Salt Lick was the barbecue scene and West Campus houses still had warped steps on which to drink all afternoon.
Shiner Bock was an icon in this state, not only as a consumable, but as a tutorial on how to be a Texan – and an Austinite, for that matter. If someone handed you a cold one today, you would no doubt drink it. There is a reason why it is still stocked at Longhorn tailgates, historic taco joints, and other Austin institutions. But something happened in the early Aughts: Austin genuinely learned how to appreciate beer.
As smaller breweries began dissolving around town, a second swell of beer makers, like Real Ale and Live Oak, began popping up. Suddenly, Shiner Bock wasn't as exhilarating or refreshing as that candy-red bottle of Firemans #4 Blonde Ale that could lower the triple-digit heat by at least a full degree. Beer walls became much more localized to suit the curiosity of the city, and Firemans #4 organically became the latest official beer of the city; something to sip during Voxtrot's microcatalog gigs and "Keep Austin Weird" parades. But as desires often do, Firemans #4's draw eventually faded, leaving us as an established and nationally respected beer city without an iconic brew.
The Chronicle assembled a tribunal of seven beer experts to undertake the unspeakable burden of determining the new face of the Austin beer scene. The only caveats were that the beer had to be reasonably accessible to all Austinites either on the tap or in the store, and that the beer had to be available year-round.
After a thorough vetting process, five exceptional beer candidates emerged from various Austin-area breweries, and were nominated to represent the city's eclectic post-Aughts culture, its continually developing beer palate, its cruel climate predicament, and its preference for quality.
Hops & Grain The One They Call Zoe Pale Lager
Real Ale Hans' Pils
Live Oak HefeWeizen
Jester King Le Petit Prince Farmhouse Table Beer
Austin Beerworks Pearl Snap Pils
Jake Maddux: Former beer program director at Salt & Time; brewer, formerly of Thirsty Planet, New Belgium, Anchor. Opening the Brewer's Table in Austin in 2016.
Tre Miner: Assistant operations manager at Craft Pride and Certified Cicerone
Anna Toon: Beer and Food Journalist, Austin Chronicle
Jessica Deahl: Contributor to the Bitch Beer blog; graphic designer for Blue Owl Brewing
Sahara Smith: Operations and training manager at WhichCraft Beer Store
Chris Troutman: Editor-in-chief & co-founder of Austin Beer Guide; Draught Punk podcaster.
Tony Drewry: The "Beer Pedaler"; captain of the NXNW Beerliner; promotions for Untapped Fest
Hops & Grain's Zoe has the opportunity to challenge beer palates in Austin that are used to the amateur ranks of American pale lagers, like Bud Light and Lone Star. Zoe represents an absolutely note-perfect beer, like a Jenny Lewis album, full of enthusiasm and moxie. There is nothing ostentatious going on; Zoe is just good, solid lager.
Sahara Smith: Zoe has so much effervescence, a very lively mouthfeel. I think that makes it a great beer for those 100-degree Texas summer days. It sits lightly on your palate and it sits lightly in your stomach.
Jake Maddux: It's so user-friendly.
Smith: If I'm going to a party where I don't know what people drink and I don't know their level of familiarity with craft beer, I will hands-down take a six-pack of Zoe with me.
Jessica Deahl: You can take it anywhere.
Smith: I feel that Zoe does a great job of hiding the lesser-accessible qualities of German malt. It is so extensively dry-hopped, and you get a lot of that hop character out of the Zoe.
Maddux: That's a good point. Hoppy beers are the leading category in beer right now. And that seems to be what everyone is into. Going from Shiner Bock to, say, Firemans #4, we went from a malt-forward, German-style lager to a very light-bodied blonde ale. So going something brighter and crisper makes a lot of sense.
Smith: I would say that Zoe sells the best in our store [WhichCraft].
Hans' Pils is the official liver-softener of dadcore, and at least partially responsible for all the terrific dad bods in Austin. Spicy, herbal, and hop-bittered, Hans' won a silver medal at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival for German-style pilsners. If Texas is to become as synonymous with Czech- and German-style beer making as Kentucky is to fried chicken, then Hans' will be the standard by which it is measured.
Tony Drewry: [Hans' Pils is a beer] I've been championing for several years now. It even has its own fan page on Facebook. To me, it embodies what everyone likes about a good drinkin' beer. It appeals to the Bud Light guy and it appeals to a beer snob that will pick out every single hop in there. It's balanced, it's accessible, and [sales are up] 900 percent in El Paso! That's a big deal; they sell a lot of Bud Light out there. To me, this is a beer that bridges the gap for session beer drinkers and those who shotgun at a tailgate and, basically, anybody. It's a beautiful beer.
Maddux: Hans' is a great gateway beer.
Drewry: It's a northern German-style pilsner; it's very hop-forward. Way more IBUs (International Bittering Units) than a regular pilsner. So, it also helps bridge the gap between the guy who loves an IPA and someone just getting into beer looking for something adventurous. This is a beer that when they drink it, people say, "I always thought pilsners sucked – Miller Lite is a pilsner – but this takes it to a whole new level."
Maddux: Zoe, Hans, and some sort of Jester King are the top 3 sellers for me [at Salt & Time].
Considered Austin's first (and for many years, only) world-class beer by several online review sites and renowned experts of beer, Live Oak HefeWeizen is the only legacy beer that made the panel's short list of candidates. This gentle-drinking hefeweizen is a spectacular, chewy, fruity accessory to Austin's 300 days of sunshine.
Maddux: Now, hefeweizens are a rather divisive style. It's a fruity beer, a fruit-forward ale, it's bananas and clove.
Drewry: ... with a hint of bubblegum.
Maddux: It's a beautiful beer. [Live Oak's] is well executed, but it's just not a style that I tend to drink a lot of.
Anna Toon: The longevity of the brewery matters to me. I would hesitate picking something so new in the marketplace. [Live Oak has] been around a long time.
Maddux: This is one of the top-ranked hefeweizens in the entire country.
Drewry: One of the top 3 in the world, actually. There is a proprietary malt in this beer that only two other breweries in the world use. It's a very special malt that's just for Live Oak and only used by a couple of other breweries in the whole world – and out of the style that the Germans originated, brewed, and perfected over hundreds of years, there's a brewery in Austin that does it better than all but two. Now that is amazing.
Chris Troutman: And that malt doesn't even come [to the brewery] on pallets, they have to move it bag-by-bag inside from the truck.
Deahl: To try to do this style and do it this well is super ballsy.
Drewry: And bars all over this town sell the shit out of it. It is the beer that people in DFW and Houston associate with Austin. It's a beer that put Austin on the map as far as the beer scene goes.
Smith: Live Oak is so solid. They just really make top-quality, world-class beers.
Drewry: I've been in bars before and I've actually heard people say, "This is so much better than a Blue Moon!"
Tre Miner: But a reason [Live Oak HefeWeizen] stays on the beer walls so consistently and sells well is because they don't have a packaged product out. If they did, it might be a different story.
Maddux: By the end of the year, Live Oak is going to be canning their beer and it's gonna be pretty kickass. Live Oak Hefe in a can! But it not being a packaged beer is something that people might be concerned about when it comes to deciding the official beer of Austin.
Jester King is perhaps Austin's buzziest brewery, hoisting the regional banner for fruited sour ales that are coveted worldwide. While Le Petit Prince is neither a fruit beer nor a sour, its fuzzy brilliance is sometimes overlooked because of that fact. Le Petit is a true-to-style farmhouse table ale that is uncomplicated, low in alcohol, and refreshing. Just as it was in those nasty, plague-y days of Europe.
Smith: Jester King is also a world-class brewery. I mean, the head brewer of Cantillon raves about them.
Miner: Le Petit Prince was one of the first beers that Jester King brewed. They use a wonderful mixed-culture fermentation that includes several different yeast strains both domesticated and wild, and bacteria to give it the nuance it contains. It's best described as a table beer and sort of like a saison. Le Petit Prince is meant to be very refreshing, very light, very low-alcohol, and thirst-quenching. To me, this beer embodies the farmhouse spirit.
Troutman: Le Petit Prince adds a good flavor component to eating as well, and has been used in interesting ways like that.
Miner: I think that, as much as I love Le Petit, it's more of a personal preference. I don't think that Austin as a whole is ready for the funk that is a wild, mixed-culture fermentation beer.
Drewry: If we're talking about the next Firemans #4, I don't think this is it.
Miner: Maybe this will be the next official beer of Austin. It isn't as approachable [as the others].
Deahl: But we can all agree that Jester King really needed to be on the list [of choices]. It's really indicative of Austin. I don't think it's as accessible as the others. I love Le Petit Prince, obviously, but I can't take it to the river with me.
Miner: I'll say this about Jester King before I rule it out, is that I appreciate the fact that they've become more and more localized, brewing everything by means of what is available to them at the time. They locally source many of their ingredients, including Blacklands Malt, which is Texas' only malthouse. They embody everything about the farmhouse spirit and, in this case, a Texas farmhouse brewery. I would not generally call this as accessible as we would like it to be, and maybe it has a flavor profile that is a little too challenging for the novice beer drinker.
Troutman: The only reason I didn't object to Le Petit Prince being on our list [of potential winners], is because I really wanted to drink some of this tonight.
[Enthusiastic "yeah"s from the group.]
The lads at Austin's eponymous Beerworks have given themselves quite a few challenges by simply being so good at what they do – and that is brewing a spectrum of high- quality ales that are in such high demand – that they've outgrown their workspace four times over. However, their lager, Pearl Snap Pils – in its striking green can – is the main reason for the grueling calisthenics it takes to run their successful operation. Austin Beerworks' bestselling beer is a sturdy, yet medium-bodied interpretation of a German-style pilsner that finishes with a bright, hopped-up confidence.
Deahl: I've only been here a little over two years, so I can read through my entire Austin beer catalog. The first Austin beer I had was a Pearl Snap, and I thought it was amazing. I loved the packaging.
Smith: The first time I saw Pearl Snap, it was at the old Cheer Up Charlies, and I saw it on the shelf, and the way that it looked, it just stood out from everything else on the shelf.
Deahl: It's a Christian Helms design, and when you're holding it, it's almost like an accessory. It's beautiful and identifiable up on the shelf. It feels really Austin to me, and I don't know if that's because of what Austin Beerworks has contributed to Austin, or what Austin has contributed to Austin Beerworks. But I think it's a real culmination of the two.
Drewry: With Pearl Snap, I take that beer up to [bars in] Ft. Worth and people want to know what it is, and they say, "Give me that one with the A on it."
Troutman: I think that Pearl Snap really fits our criteria; where the previous beers were varying in accessibility, [Pearl Snap] is very accessible, but also a bit more challenging. It's more interesting if we're talking about Austin's taste buds growing up. Going from Shiner Bock to Firemans #4, I think Pearl Snap is the natural evolution being both accessible and interesting.
Deahl: I bring six-packs to California with me in my luggage and I am super proud of it. I just know that, for me, it was a fantastic introduction to what can be made down here.
Smith: You have to consider what about Austin makes these beers unique? And I think it's more of a broader thing about Texas. Zoe, Hans', and Pearl Snap all have a heavy German malt base and that speaks a lot to our German and Czech influence in Texas.
Drewry: This would probably be the only other region in the world where these beers were as well-made as their original region.
Smith: Exactly. Three of the most popular beers in Austin are German-style lagers.
Maddux: Lagers are crisp and clean and beautiful and not too fruity. Making lagers is like a chef making an omelet. It's very easy to do, and very easy to fuck up.
Smith: Yeah, it's harder to hide flaws in lagers.
Drewry: If you make a good lager, I'll probably like the rest of your beers.
Miner: Of the three lagers, I would say Pearl Snap is the most balanced.
Troutman: Weather is a big factor, but also being a liberally drinking city. I mean, I never was into day drinking until I moved to Austin. So I think moving from the darker, maltier beverage [Shiner Bock] to the lighter, crisper [Firemans #4] spoke to the liberal attitude of drinking in Austin. It has to be a lower ABV beer with character. Thinking about it, I really feel like Pearl Snap is what we can identify as that beer.
Miner: Being at Craft Pride, which only serves Texas beers, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly our best Austin sellers are, but Live Oak Hefe is probably our number one selling Austin beer, probably Pearl Snap for number two.
Troutman: Beer is a party beverage. And what I want at a party is Pearl Snap.
Maddux: Austin Beerworks is one of the top 5 fastest-growing breweries in the entire country, so that's gotta show something right there, that in one of the fastest-growing cities [in the U.S.], they're the fastest-growing brewery.
Troutman: Austin Beerworks is the most fun, party brewery. Not that they're necessarily a better brewery than others, but they're just so much fun. Austin Beerworks brings beer back to the everyman, that beer is for having a good time without being pretentious and winning medals. It's unapologetically a great beer. If my best friend came to town, I'd give [Pearl Snap] to him without reservations or apology.
Toon: It is very reflective of Austin.
Drewry: Every beer on our list is something I drink on the regular and that I have a lot of respect for. I look at Austin as an outsider who has spent a lot of time here over the years, and now that I live here, I think Austin will be Texas' first world-class beer city.
Deahl: We all learned something about ourselves.
Maddux: ... that we love light, sessionable lagers.
Drewry: And that pilsners were awesome all along! Before we vote on this let me get a quick panoramic of the committee. Grab your drinks.
Deahl: Where on the Internet is this going?
Miner: Quick, what beer makes me look the coolest?
A lot of the circumstances around this decision are perhaps more interesting than the decision itself, and surely, you must be thinking by now that these are truly special brewers who are all worthy of our attention and admiration. You are not wrong.
It is, after all, American Craft Beer Week, and all beer should be celebrated with perfect objectivity. But with nearly 3,500 current breweries and 2,000 new ones just in the last decade, it seems timely to identify a trend in the Austin market. Something that will establish our identity as an experienced beer town.
Austin Beerworks' Pearl Snap Pils is that beer. A beverage that characterizes Austin as a dear friend to crisp lagers and pays homage to our regional German-American influences. A beer that has hop appeal for texture, but finishes cleanly with a sturdy backbone of refreshment. Pearl Snap Pils is a cold-blooded assassin to Austin's ribaldry summer temperatures and a beer with the boisterous ethos of Texas, with the playful tenor of Austin's vigor.
No other packaging defines the exuberance of Pearl Snap, and it has become iconic across the state because of it. The boldness of Pearl Snap's exterior directly addresses its fearless interior: natural, efficient, clever, minimalist. Yet somehow assertive. Teddy Roosevelt himself would drink a Pearl Snap and then jump a mountain. After all, nature is basically a great big excuse to drink beer, and for the most part, Austinites embrace that challenge. Pearl Snap is a worthy companion.
And finally, Pearl Snap Pils is a beer with so much love for its home that it doesn't leave this city willingly – very much like the people in it. It is, however, highly desired by communities outside of our boundaries and thus, someone would have to cull our lovely, indigenous brew and mule it to the outliers. As Austin gains momentum as the brewing capital of the Southwest, this beer is a major catalyst for that benchmark, young as it may be. That is the spirit of Austin.
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