The Austin Chronicle

Top 10 Austin Breweries

Power ranking the local leaders in craft beer

By Eric Puga, June 23, 2017, Food

It's not a deliberate choice, but Texas is a bad state for craft beer. We don't mean that in the sense that craft beer isn't wildly popular and fully sustainable, because it is; just take a look around. What we mean is that Texas is an unfriendly state for craft beer, led primarily by the nefarious duo of Big Beer and Big Distribution who make it working branches of their business plan to choke the growth of small beer in Texas. Despite that, there have been plenty of positive – albeit insular – changes for craft beer, with a heavy dusting of new breweries throughout the region, brewery expansion, and brewery improvements. Longtime beer recipes have been reimagined while longtime tap-only beers have been packaged for the first time. Bottles have become cans and cans have become crowlers. Heck, we even saw the TABC get their hands swatted like schoolchildren a few times for good measure.

So, we put together a list to determine who was leading the crusade for craft beer in our region – an area that covers 52 active breweries (with 11 more on the way) and, exactly, a 48.9 mile radius so as to include adopted pals Real Ale Brewery in Blanco, seeing as they culturally align with Austin's beer scene, as much of their brewing talent decamped from Austin brewhouses in the late Nineties anyway. For the sake of this list, each brewery was analyzed by its current relevance and contributions to Austin beer: ideological fluency of their core beers, interesting seasonal releases, developmental impact on the local beer scene, buzzy accolades, and up-to-the-second innovations. Based on the competitive strength of one brewery vs. the others, it is assigned a power ranking for this period (we won't even give demerits for hosting yoga in your brewhouse). While there are certainly more breweries than this list that excite us, these 10 are setting the bar very high for Austin-area craft beer. After all, local beer is as good an argument as any that we can make for the value of our city.

Last Three Out (in no order):

Zilker Brewing

Hi Sign Brewing

Independence Brewing Co.

10) Friends & Allies

Current Hit(s): This rated rookie debuted a glossy new taproom in the spring of 2017, moving brewing operations from the groomed beard/yoga pants/warehouseland of North Austin (co-opted with 4th Tap Brewing) to the scruffy beard/tight jeans/warehouseland of East Austin. Great fit, lads! Naturally, the space features both inside/outside funday drinking access, with optimal proximity to the Austin Bouldering Project to regale others post-workout with your legends of scaling manufactured steel and aluminum.

Seasoned Stat: F&A rapidly debuts new beers in their taproom to complement their core four: Springdale White Ale, Urban Chicken Saison, Noisy Cricket Session IPA, and Fresh Coast IPA. If you are on the quest to conquer even more aluminum with your bare hands at home, F&A recently released their complete lineup of flagship beers in cans.

Added Value: Go for the beer, stay for the gear. F&A's beer merch looks like a mash-up of New Era and H&M, providing for some sleek caps and plunging vees that allow you to look less like a friendless beer goof at the next beer festival. Think of the whole F&A thing as more of a lifestyle brand.

9) Hops & Grain

Current Hit(s): Inspired by H&G founder Josh Hare's 1980s beer crush, Coors Original, the brewery pays homage to every sneak sip of Paw Paw's can of "yellow belly" with River Beer Premium Lager. While every stooge in beer is carrying on about Northeastern-style beers and blah blah blah, Hops & Grain is keeping it Dirty South, or at least Dirty San Marcos, with the official beer of summertime tubing.

Seasoned Stat: Hops & Grain's ever-evolving taproom beer wall is worth the repeated visits, in particular to coax their bright and thoughtful IPAs into your face. Their Greenhouse IPA series of rotating hop varietals will help diminish your "should I drive or take an Uber?" ulcers (note: not medical or legal advice). Impressively, H&G's up-and-coming lager program might be even more thrilling.

Added Value: Not only is Hare notably active with his current Austin brewery gig, but also a forthcoming expansion to Bobcatlandia in San Marcos (the river beer practically sells itself). Hare is also the chairman of the Texas Craft Brewer's Guild, pivotal in battling odious proposals introduced to the Texas Lege by nefarious dickheads from the wholesalers groups of Texas. Thanks, Josh! Plus, H&G is home to one of the standard-bearers of Austin beer: The One They Call Zoe.

8) Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. (the ABGB)

Current Hit(s): ABGB continues to get great gas mileage out of their 2016 Great American Beer Festival Best Large Brewpub award from last October in Denver because the degree to which award-winning breweries are better than their contemporaries cannot be overstated. That's right, when you drink the pilsners of ABGB, you are drinking the beer of the almighty. Take that, Pitbull! Anyway, you get lifetime street cred with that kind of win.

Seasoned Stat: Apart from keeping their lager hand strong with award-winning Rocket 100 Pilsner and Industry Pils, ABGB's pizza game should win a dozen Michelin stars for food pairing. Nothing (OK, maybe medium buffalo wings) pairs better with slick, palate cleansing lagers than the umami fattiness of a nice ABGB pie.

Added Value: ABGB has a brimming calendar of live music gigs that would rival any Red River venue, and much of it is free of charge. The brewery is also taking the crowlerization of Austin three steps further by offering a takeaway trio of 32-oz. cans.

7) St. Elmo

Current Hit(s): Before the whole hazy IPA bullshit came about, one of the best compliments one could pay a brewer was that his/her beer was "on-style" and "clean," two things those dipshits from Vermont know nothing about. You hearing me, former President Chester Alan Arthur? Your state is a muddled mess, sir! Anyway, clean and flawless beer is St. Elmo's big payoff, and that is most evident in personal favorites Carl kolsch and Chico pale ale. St. Elmo is also consistently debuting new, weather-friendly beers like Gozer gose and Señor Bueno Mexican lager.

Seasoned Stat: St. Elmo definitely has one of the coolest, most stylized taprooms and biergartens in Austin, of which it has few peers, but recently, St. Elmo diverted from their original plan of keeping their beer strictly in-house and started delivering it out into the wild of local beer bars. This is notable because the I-35/Ben White interchange is a beating to maneuver for all but 16 seconds of the day, but also because it's nice to have a go-to beer at your favorite haunt (and St. Elmo is nothing if not a go-to beer).

Added Value: People will only stay at breweries as long as their hunger will allow, which is why filling the typical taproom culinary void with permanent food truck Soursop was as vital as it was imaginative. My advice is to try everything on the menu (particularly the tom kha soup dumplings) before this place becomes a brick-and-mortar with wall-to-wall Soursop truthers.

6) Blue Owl

Current Hit(s): Blue Owl's full potential as a taproom brewpub is mostly stymied by their surrounding neighborhood in that the neighbors don't want to see 239,000 millennials trod through their azaleas on the way to score some sour hooch. Braedyyn, this way through the yard, bro! However, Blue Owl accomplishes a great brewery experience by recently reformatting their tasting room arrangement: three different size choices of four pours for a scaled price. It's a little confusing, but it all works better than the previous format. For example, I recently took a half-dozen out-of-town friends on a spectrum of "I love sours!" to "Is there an IPA?," and everyone left real happy with the service and options for experimenting with their palates. That's the kind of business gymnastics that some of our urban breweries have yet to pull off, which makes Blue Owl particularly impressive.

Seasoned Stat: Blue Owl continues to ride high on a niche style without signs of backing down to the hop mafia. It's actually impressive to see their wee taproom absolutely bursting with enthusiasm on a Saturday while a single patriot in the room explains to a crowd of Chaco-wearers the difference between wild fermentation and sour-mashing.

Added Value: Since Blue Owl has switched to a brewpub license, they can now offer their beer to take away from the taproom, offering large-format bottles of beers like their Dapper Devil sour raspberry Belgian-style strong ale.

5) Pinthouse Pizza

Current Hit(s): Sure, some of us writhe and wiggle about Northeastern-style IPAs being the current trend in craft beer – and not those delicious, heat-slaying pilsners that actually make a person more virile by nature – because every third brewery in the country is trying their unskilled hand at it. Problem is, it takes a master level of understanding on how to feature trademark hop characteristics into a softer, rounder, juicier finish on the palate. We always suspected that PHP brewmaster Joe Mohrfeld's star shined brightest with his brewery's IPA program, but his ultralight beams are his interpretations of his NE IPAs, like This Is Juice, Die in a Haze, and Electric Jellyfish.

Seasoned Stat: For the purposes of this list we are combining both philosophies of the respective Pinthouse Pizza storefronts (Burnet Road, South Lamar) into a single demigod of highly stylized IPAs, but it should be noted that each respective location comes with its own special cache of treats and treasures, including a full menu of distinctive "mainstay" beers that reflect on the real range of brewing talent at PHP. Recently, the brewpub announced a third location in Round Rock set for 2018, complete with its own unique beer menu and a parking lot of third row SUVs.

Added Value: Naturally if a place has a carnival of IPA treats, you need a system for sampling them all. While Pinthouse does have taster trays, it's hard to watch your kids while draining 82 nuanced hop beers at the same time. To atone for this, PHP introduced some sweet 32-oz. crowlers to the mix, filled and sealed before your eyes while your parenting partner pries your bratty progeny off the beer aging barrels.

4) Jester King

Current Hit(s): Seeing a new blog post from Jester King about some imminent weekend beer release is like walking into third period, seventh grade pre-algebra and seeing the AV cart: Holy shit! We get to do something awesome today!? There's a very distinct thrill of the suddenness of such an action, and lately, Jester King has been churning out release after special release like Disney's run of Star Wars flicks. From Boxer's Revenge sour strong ale, to Grim Harvest blackberry sour, to SPON Méthode Gueuze, Jester King just can't stop being the most hardworking and relevant brewery in Texas.

Seasoned Stat: Apart from their constant rotation of spontaneous beer releases, Jester King keeps tight relationships with internationally celebrated breweries like Oregon's De Garde, Georgia's Creature Comforts, and Brasserie Fantôme in Belgium by collaborating on innovation and professional development that eventually results in cooperative beermaking. In many ways, this king is more the scholastic professor who references old-timey analog methods to make a person really appreciate the skill of beer artisanship.

Added Value: While Jester King has its effect on local Austinites, the brewery's influential reach stems nationally. When the report of fellow sour troubadours, Wicked Weed of North Carolina, stunned the industry with news of their sale to Anheuser-Busch InBev, Jester King's online denouncement of the brewery impacted everything from social media tirades from other renowned breweries to the ultimate cancellation of Wicked Weed's invitational sour festival Funkatorium after Jester King pulled out and others followed suit. Take that, too, Pitbull!

3) Austin Beerworks

Current Hit(s): Austin Beerworks are the stunt artists who perform all of their arduous prep work behind the scenes and then blow our collective damned minds when they show us the big reveal. It's positively mesmerizing how much this brewery overloads our sensory input, from beer to branding to a glossy new 16,000-square-foot taproom in which we spread out and talk about how lazy we feel in their presence. ABW absolutely has this city by the tongue ... especially since the taproom has extended from occasional hours to everyday hours, which is a damned novelty in this city.

Seasoned Stat: If everyone just agreed that Pearl Snap is the "Official Beer of Austin" as decided by this very publication, then we would have no more wars and everyone could get through I-35 in 15 minutes and find a nice parking spot on a Thursday night Downtown. But apart from offering one of the best beers in the state on a flagship basis (99-pack, lads?), the gang at ABW was also instrumental in helping push the agenda of the state's Craft Brewers Association against HB 3287, SB 2083, and the festering pustules of Big Beer and Big Wholesaler.

Added Value: What's crazy is that the bonus features of ABW is what most breweries would consider their own primary value: widely revered seasonal beers released in swanky new cans, like Sputnik coffee stout, Heisenberg kristalweizen, and most recently, Einhorn Berliner weisse, which comes in at a sass level of 13. This rotational can-blast is apart from their fantastic, rotatory IPA series Heavy Machinery, with which they ply us with a sensational double IPA and marvelous wet hops.

2) Real Ale

Current Hit(s): Perhaps no other local brewery is busier than our rural friends in Blanco, with a constant rotation of seasonal releases like Bitchin' Camaro amber ale, a callback to Tim Schwartz's recipe at the Bitter End during the laughably second-rate days of Austin brewing; their excellent Gose and Helles in cans; Pinsetter amber lager in bottles; and their latest Mysterium Verum, El Guapo tequila barrel-aged gose, in sleek large-format packaging.

Seasoned Stat: Real Ale is the longest tenured Austin-area brewery, having been established in the 19th century and turning 156 years old this year. OK, they're really only 21, but that's an eternity in craft brewery years and one hell of a commitment for the baddest brewery around. (Next on the agenda: using credit card points to get a rad tattoo of Jeff Tweedy.) In May, Real Ale was a featured cameo in Imbibe magazine discussing the trendiness of blonde ales in 2017, so grab a Firemans #4 this summer as a heat index antidote. And just when you'd bought all that stock in Northeastern-style IPAs, dammit!

Added Value: Beer is sometimes the destination, and other times it's the vehicle to a stronger type of beer: spirits! As of April, Real Ale is in the distilled beverage department of your heart, debuting a trio of house liquors: Grain to Glass gin, Texas Hill Country signature whiskey, and Texas Hill Country single barrel whiskey, all in 750mL bottles. This pet project began three years prior and complements a 12-pack of Hans' Pils in every imaginable way.

1) Live Oak

Current Hit(s): In my book, Live Oak only gets 67% of the attention it really deserves because, like Tony Romo, they just go and do the aw-shucks, quality job they're expected to do every day. They're simply not a flashy brewery, and for us, it's Live Oak's true self. Perfection. In fact, it seems to be fine with many of you, too. According to the brewery, growth trajectory of Live Oak has reached its maximum production threshold this year and they are even having to involuntarily pull out of markets to meet local demand. Sorry DFW, it's not you, it's us. Even Romo's goofy ass left Dallas. All this, despite moving into a bigger and more efficient brewhouse just last year. At Live Oak's current pace, the brewery expects to produce upward of 30,000 barrels of beer this year. That is 100% more beer than they made last year.

Seasoned Stat: Live Oak has been showing Austin the physical act of love for over 20 years, and has charmed us with its bouquet of German-style lagers. However, packaging their essential offerings, like their globally renowned hefeweizen and industry-adored Pilz, into aluminum cans has given our relationship with Live Oak a real sense of energy and freedom. Yet it's their recent release of Gold into aluminum treats that has this particular admirer smitten.

Added Value: Live Oak founder Chip McElroy is a local treasure, statesman of Austin beer, and chief inspector of Flavortown. His work with beer legislation has made this town a far more enjoyable place for beer fans, apart from making excellent beer. Plus, he delivered on a promise of canned Berliner weisse and stocks a lineup of marvelous smoked beers at the brewery, like Grodziskie and Weisser Rauch. You're the best, Live Oak!

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