Southern Heights Brewing Co. Ascends Into the Austin Beer Scene
Local brewpub reaches for the highest heights
If you asked a few years ago, the first law of small beer was that the best breweries were those that had confidently tinkered on their tanks and fermenters for decades. The most fearless and reliable grand masters of craft beer sold pale ales and amber ales in volumes using pallet jacks, not sampler glasses.
But if you look at the recent trend toward the hyperlocalization of the national beer scene, it is the regionally appropriate, palate-friendly, quantity-curated experiences that beer fans are currently craving. Set within the theatrical scenery of an intimate yet bustling taproom, it is the nouveau brewers (who are likewise the brewery's co-founders, HR managers, sales reps, brand ambassadors, bartenders, janitors, and social media interns) who are providing these specific community experiences. In a place like Austin, where the drinking class complains about commutes and heat waves and a constant need for self-indulgence, a brewery like Southern Heights – that provides top-flight, small-batch IPAs and low-ABV pub ales in an eclectic taproom – is precisely the Austin culture gap that requires filling.
"[Co-founder/co-brewer Chris Rich and I] had our first serious conversation about opening a brewery six years ago," says Southern Heights' other co-founder/co-brewer Austin Russell. "You think about it for years, you talk about it for years, and eventually it's like 'put up or shut up.' You create an LLC, get a separate checking account, a credit card with your business name on it, [and] you think that you're really getting somewhere. But all you really did was create a brewery on paper. When we finally got [financed] three and a half years ago, it took us another two years after that just to find a building. [But] we really wanted to build a brewery, not just open one."
To do that, Russell quit his large corporate job in Round Rock, where he and Rich met a dozen years prior, in order to move back home to North Texas and live a more economical lifestyle. (Lesson one on creating a business in the beverage industry: You're poor!) He volunteered his time at a number of regional breweries while learning how to choreograph a large-scale brewery of their own, at least one larger than the homebrew setup where Russell and Rich originally sank in their teeth. "We weren't naive to think we could just open a brewery without working at one first," asserts Russell. "We knew we were legitimately going up against some of the best breweries in the world right here in our own city."
Rich primarily attributes a 2009 trip to Fort Collins, Colo., as inspiration for their 15-barrel brewery. "[We] took a business trip [there] for a week and visited a bunch of breweries. We were already into craft beer by then, [but] within two months we were homebrewing every single week so that we could eventually open [our own business]," Rich acknowledges. The pair hopes to emulate some of the easy-drinking spirit of Colorado's world-class breweries, specifically Odell Brewing Company. "Back then, there weren't any breweries in Austin with that kind of taproom. Of course, that's different now, but our idea was to have a taproom-centric microbrewery, and we want to be behind the movement that changes the Texas [beer] laws to allow something similar to the Colorado beer scene right here in Austin. You should be able to go to a brewery and buy a six-pack or a growler. There's a whole different mentality in Colorado, where you always have a clean growler in your car because you know you're probably going to go to a brewery at some point. There's so many to choose from and it never gets old."
Currently, Texas law discerns brewpubs and manufacturing breweries as different licenses. A brewpub license, which Southern Heights holds, allows for retail sales, like growlers and packaged beer to-go. The holder of a manufacturing brewery license on the other hand, like Austin Beerworks, allows for larger production, but is legally limited to taproom-only sales. Currently, the Texas Craft Brewers Guild and their recently formed PAC are fighting to align this discrepancy between the license definitions, as Texas is the only state in the country to partake in this dipshittery. Southern Heights intends to add a Crowler (a 32-ounce aluminum can, filled and sealed on-site) machine in their taproom as a method for fans to transport their beer off-site.
Even as Southern Heights stays somewhat occupied by lousy beer politics, the brewery intends to spearhead other revivals, like brewing an oft-appearing, low-ABV extra special bitter pub ale called Where's My Flannel, while also emphasizing their eagerness to be a rotational brewery without a typical "core four" of mainstay beers. Instead, Southern Heights intends to loop their entire roster of beers in and out of their lineup as the season dictates. Currently, Southern Heights is winning loyalties with their heavy arrangement of bright IPAs, like Tahitian Dreamin', a tropical-leaning IPA brewed with Citra, Centennial, and Simcoe hops, and pine-resiny Evergreen Terrace, which, along with its brewhouse, sounds a lot like a very nice subdivision in Summit County.
Neither Russell nor Rich, however, will admit to being an IPA-dominant brewery. "We just keep saying that we're trying not to do so many IPAs, but then we keep doing all these IPAs," admits Rich. "I look forward to times when our beers come around [seasonally], but then go away again. You get to appreciate them and they don't wear out."
"If we could have seven beers and four distinct styles on tap, I'd be happy with that," adds Russell.
It should certainly be easy to re-enthuse the masses when current (but retreating) tap wall inhabitant and thirst annihilator Extra Crispy pale ale comes back around. Drinking an Extra Crispy is the same exact feeling as dunking on a three-foot swimming pool basketball hoop: refreshing, satisfying, and empowering in every single way, like living in an upgraded world where any fantasy is possible – even a Vince Carter honey dip dunk. At 5% ABV and a hop profile of Citra, Cascade, and Amarillo, Extra Crispy was Southern Heights' calibration beer on their new brewhouse. As Rich explains, "[It] was our first beer and one where we needed to ride a fine edge to know what our malt was doing and what our hops were doing [on the system]. The one wild card was how far it attenuated, which is why it came out really crisp and dry [hence the name]. It's not a flaw in the beer or the process, just something we had to learn about our system. Extra Crispy was our toe in the water to see what we were working with and making sure we were doing everything with a purpose."
As for Southern Heights' future plans, they're currently brewing a German pilsner, which lends to the brewery's geographical heedfulness, as well as building an outdoor patio area because Austinites fetishize drinking in the full sunlight like little florets wearing trilby hats. "We'd also like to brew a sour," envisions Russell. "And maybe have a barrel program at some point. I'd also like to brew just a really simple, amazing saison."
"More IPAs would be good," adds Rich.
Regardless of their beer style directions, Southern Heights is a significant addition to Austin's beer scene (though your mileage with Extra Crispy may vary from mine).
"I don't know if there is a niche for us to fill, but we do want to keep making rad beers with great quality and make coming here [to the taproom] the best experience possible," Rich explains. "There's nothing really missing in the Austin beer scene, we just hope that we can add to how great it is."
The Chronicle is hosting a party at Southern Heights to celebrate our Pet Issue, Sunday, Feb. 18, 1-3pm. 6014 Techni Center Dr. #2-101, www.southernheightsbrewing.com