Top 10 Austin Breweries of 2018
Power ranking the local leaders in craft beer
By Eric Puga, Fri., March 16, 2018
We know what great beer is, and last year we power ranked local breweries based on a bunch of criteria. We also know our loyal readers love to crush those rankings, citing our federal offense of omitting their favorite brewery – that makes just. the. best. Candied Horseflesh Grissette – from our list.
So, you fancy little shits, we've updated the list for 2018, knowing full well we'll probably end up pissing off a whole different demographic. (There's always next year for Bumfuzzle Microrganic Farm Ales!) As before, we disclose only the 10 finalists from our big board of 52 area breweries. Selections are made based on the quality of core beers, seasonals, and limited releases; recent accolades they've collected within the industry; the appeal of their taproom or biergarten; character of service; and their overall impact on the Austin-area brewing scene. This is a flexible roster of Austin's most innovative brewhouses at this very moment – not a permanent record of nobility, like a list of crusty European monarchs.
Dropped from rankings: Friends & Allies (10), Blue Owl (6)
Just missed (in no order): Red Horn Coffee House & Brewing, Oddwood Ales, Last Stand Brewing Company
10) Independence Brewing Co. (NEW)
Overall Performance: "Independence Brewing" might be the most blatant false advertising since "Katz's Never Kloses," but we still totally dig our well-funded Austin branch of Lagunitas. Or is it Heineken? Nonetheless, Indy still stands tall on the shoulders of their own giant reputation with dependable year-rounders like Convict Hill oatmeal stout and Redbud Berliner Weisse. Indy has also reinvigorated their seasonal lineup with showpieces like the Shiny Diamonds hoppy ale, Illustrated Man dark sour with berries, and the 4.5% ABV Cowboys From Helles Munich-style lager that old dudes can drink while jammin' some Scorpions. Also, Liberty Lunch IPA remains one of the best local canned versions of its style while tweaking that golden nostalgia node.
Roster Outlook: The 14-year-old brewery has seen its share of upgrades over the past several years, and are currently working toward another large taproom makeover to be completed by late summer. Meanwhile, Indy will release its first double IPA in April and their first pilsner in June.
9) Southern Heights (NEW)
Overall Performance: Southern Heights is less than half a year old, but kicking ass like a brewery twice that age! In Austin beer, you either come out of the gate like a damn runaway mine train, or crank out boring beer meant for a Nextdoor team-building picnic. (Your choice, brewers!) Anyway, not only is Southern Heights the current Austin Beer Guide Editors Choice for Best New Brewery in town, it's also got a stellar taproom that feels like a beer bunker. (We're ready for that nuclear envoy Kim Jong-un!) Due to Southern Heights' unique practice of forgoing mainstay beers in favor of a heavy rotation of seasonally appropriate beers, we can expect a frequently fresh lineup of first-rate IPAs and sessionable seasonals. Extra Crispy pale ale is our early scrapper for Beer of the Year.
Roster Outlook: Being a fan of Southern Heights is like being a part of that corny Beer-of-the-Month club, without the letdown of two average-tasting bombers for the price of two plane tickets to Belgium. There will always be fresh, exciting beers to anticipate, as well as a forthcoming patio to enjoy them on.
8) Hops & Grain (+1)
Overall Performance: H&G's Haze County double IPA was the Baby Driver sleeper hit of 2017. Much like the film, it shifts right into a high-octane adventure, once you get past its cheeky exterior. Even better, Haze County has year-rounder status, so no seasonal depression for a thrill-seeker like you. H&G stays active with a parade of hoppy doses like Pellets & Powder, Lupulin Rodeo, and their rotating Greenhouse series. They've had to do some hand-wringing over the years, regarding Texas' antagonistic beer regulations, but H&G is now eligible for taproom to-go sales like, say, a normal brewery. So grab a sixer of Zoe in bright new packaging or fill a growler from one of their 16 taps.
Roster Outlook: H&G plans to stay super on-brand this year with more hoppy delights, including the seasonal can release of Terpene Dream – an American pale ale with Mosaic, Chinook, and Nugget hops doing some Shape of Water whirlpool playtime. Oh, and they collaborated with the Odd Duck empire on a mixed culture saison due in March.
7) St. Elmo (SAME)
Overall Performance: St. Elmo is a whole new world of innovation where tanks upon tanks of perfectly executed, flawless beer are created in a brewhouse the size of a Kia Soul. What they've accomplished in such a limited amount of time and space – with beers like Carl kolsch, Angus dry stout, and the burnt-orange tribute Darrell IPA – is a testament to their focus on quality and creativity. It's probably why they were named Brewery of the Year by the folks at Austin Beer Guide last year. With 15 unique beer taps pouring everything from barleywines to rye lagers to Flanders red, it's clear the St. Elmo crew has as much talent and range as James Harden, though, strangely, without similarly handsome beards.
Roster Outlook: St. Elmo's rapid-fire release schedule means there's always something exciting on the horizon to look forward to. There's Vaya, a holdover recipe from their original Austin Beerworks brewing gig, and Vaughn, their German-style pilsner that cools the bloodstream directly. It gets hot in Austin. People forget that.
6) Real Ale (-4)
Overall Performance: The Nineties are real cool again: Firemans #4 blonde ale – one of Austin's legacy beers – won a silver medal at last year's Great American Beer Festival. Real Ale has made a noble effort to stay relevant with its beer-making and marketing strategies – first a big branding rehab, then a stunning taproom set into the Blanco wilderness, and then updating their recipes to align with the modern drinker's palate. They continue to be innovative with new core beers, like Axis IPA, and new seasonals, like their refreshing Helles. They also keep a high level of consistency with staples like the inimitable Coffee Porter. Real Ale also returned home from GABF with gold for Real Heavy scotch ale. The newly completed brewhouse will allow them to quadruple their brewing capacity. Party on, Blanco!
Roster Outlook: Losing Brent "Schmitty" Sapstead, longtime head brewer and production manager to the forthcoming Hold Out Brewing, is a huge factor for Real Ale. Still, the nearly 22-year-old brewery rocks steady with their Mysterium Verum line and special projects like an anniversary Berliner Weisse and a seasonally rotating fruit dose of their smash hit, Gose, in grapefruit, lime, and cranberry.
5) Austin Beerworks (-2)
Overall Performance: That dusty gas station backlog is now your only remaining tether to the recently retired Black Thunder schwarzbier – Austin Beerworks' most decorated beer – due to poor sales. That's on you, Austin. But, as they're prone to doing, ABW thought up something cool to distract us from such a devastating loss: Ski Jeans, a 7.5% ABV "session" IPA made alongside Odell Brewing. That's about as sessionable as a brick of Velveeta, but did we try? Yes, we did. It was easy to find, too, thanks to ABW's thoughtful online delivery map that updates every special release in real time so that us nerds can fight each other in person. The true beauty of ABW is their attention to detail. By the way, Super Awesome helles brought home GABF gold in the Light Lager category.
Roster Outlook: ABW hired a party bus to take our needy asses to Flavor Country, a new pale ale charged with filling Black Thunder's vacated spot (R.I.P.) in the core lineup. For the upcoming seventh anniversary, they'll debut La Verdad, a Mexican-style lager in one of their cleverly branded cans. To further recalibrate their win/loss record, Heavy Machinery double IPA returns in tallboys, giving way to a barrel-aged imperial stout with chicory, vanilla, and maple syrup in – are you sitting down? – a bottle! This will be like the first time you witnessed Herschel Walker playing in a Vikings jersey.
4) Pinthouse Pizza - Lamar (+1)
Overall Performance: The Pinthouses are two separate ball games. While Burnet has some power hitters, the south location is basically the 1927 Yankees. With Electric Jellyfish IPA and Nomura double IPA acting as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in Lamar's Murderers' Row, it's almost unfair to have that much star power on one roster. Field manager/brewer-in-chief Joe Mohrfeld also oversees a constant rotation of dazzling, hazy IPAs to complement his sluggers, like This Is Juice, WTF Is Juice, and Theoretical Haze. And that's only the top of the order here. Nomura DIPA took third place in the Alpha King Challenge in 2017, in addition to their surprise runner-up placing for Fully Adrift in the 2014 competition, back when Pinthouse was still an underrated prospect.
Roster Outlook: Pinthouse has an upcoming collaboration with Bale Breaker set for April-ish that we bet will be, um, something hoppy, and Nomura returns at the end of March like a reanimated Great Bambino.
3) Live Oak (-2)
Overall Performance: We could soft-focus every article on this dreamboat brewery and because we like to keep things simple, we will. Live Oak is Austin's landmark brewery with their transcendent lagers, granddad brewing wisdom, and Chris Hemsworth jawline. From their thoughtful rotation of seasonal beers like last spring's breakout hit, Gold German pilsner, to the robust and revered Primus weizenbock, Live Oak remains the best value in town – even the heartiest brews register under $10 per sixer. If consistency and value is the ultimate target for craft beer fans, then Live Oak is Tony Gwynn. Co-founder and owner Chip McElroy also continues to be unfuckwithable when it comes to advocacy for brewers' and brewery rights. He's now a board member for the newly formed CraftPAC political action committee, and still makes time to regularly slay other frivolous beer laws.
Roster Outlook: Live Oak keeps their finger on the pulse of their fans' excessive desires, so soon we'll have the infallible Grodziskie Polish-style smoked lager in cans, which is basically a love letter to the tailgate-partiers of Austin. With that in mind, we'd like to formally submit our desire for Lichtenhainer in cans for the party before the party.
2) Jester King (+2)
Overall Performance: Armchair brewery fanboys like me voted Jester King Brewery of the Year at the 2017 Austin Beer Guide Awards, and then along came the New York Times' brewery spotlight and the James Beard Foundation's nomination of founder/owner Jeffrey Stuffings as a finalist for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional. The entire team at this Hill Country brewery hustles like they're building skyscrapers in 1920s Manhattan, riding girders and hauling pure iron. Except they're doing it with succulent fruits and mixed culture fermentation at a release rate of nearly one-per-week with standouts like Fēn Táo, Aurelian Lure, Birra di Sangiovese, and their peerless raspberry sour Atrial Rubicite. They take all of that spent fruit and make second-run beer that tastes like a boozy Honest Kids juice box. Healthy drinking! Jester King collaborates with the best – Perennial Artisan Ales, Bruery Terreux, Gigantic, and De Garde Brewing – and their spontaneous fermentation project, "SPON," is as fervent as ever with varietals like peach, apricot, and muscat grapes. The brewery hired a full-time farmer, Sean "Peppy" Meyer, to oversee their working farm (baby goats!) and he'll probably have to shoo off a few parking lot campers seeking emotional support magnums, too.
Roster Outlook: On top of the 35,000 new beer varieties Jester King releases every 19 seconds, they'll start offering farm tours in March. Jester King uses their giant influence in the beer community to promote small beer, and several other local breweries and cideries. They've become a fantastic, low-key bottleshop with an ever-evolving list of craft options.
1) The ABGB (Austin Beer Garden Brewing) (+7)
Overall Performance: A million years ago in 2013, people around the country would drag on easy-drinking lagers like it was barbecue from Brooklyn because they had been conditioned by their much cooler friends to consider light-colored beers as amateur hour. But now, brewing lagers – like pilsners and helleses – is the slick business move and people are scrambling to catch up to old news in Austin: Craft lagers are excellent! As pioneers in this style, the ABGB is widely recognized as one of the best lager makers in the country, claiming two gold medals at last year's GABF in two separate pilsner categories for their beers Rocket 100 in the American or International-Style category and Velvet Revolution in the Bohemian-Style category. That makes three years in a row that the ABGB has taken home hardware from the industry's biggest awards ceremony. That's not even the best part. ABGB was awarded Large Brewpub Brewer of the Year and also defended their 2016 title as Large Brewpub of the Year in 2017. If we can't award the same accolades locally as they are receiving nationally, then we are wrong.
Roster Outlook: We expect ABGB to keep handing out silvers to all other breweries when it comes to tasty lagers. To prove it, all three gold- medal-winning beers will be on tap during SXSW along with five straight days of showcases onstage at the brewery. If that isn't on-brand Austin, then what is?