Listening to Josh Watterson, Vista's head beermaker, talk about his craft is like taking in a TED talk about the virtues of traditional European brewing. Graduate of the World Brewing Academy in 2007, trained by German brewmasters in a "very technical and regimented" sense of the trade, and winner of 2014 Great American Beer Festival "Brewer of the Year," Watterson has transformed into a 400-year-old Trappist monk, in the metaphorical sense, of course. Then again, maybe not.
Opened in spring of this year by wedded duo Kent and Karen Killough, Vista Brewing is a 21-acre fairy tale of high-end architectural composition pressed into the folksy ambience of oak-scattered Hill Country. Walking up the wide pathway of crushed granite through the split between Vista's brewhouse and its tasting room is a classic Central Texas welcome, with an open-air stage, picnic tables, and musicians intoning something festive, like bluegrass, gospel, or a Glen Campbell cover. There is a farm on-site, and an orchard, and an apiary, and anything else foragable and interesting that serve as supporting actors to Vista's dazzling farm-to-table menu.
Vista features two discernible beer gardens – one for the adults and the other for the adults who are allied with their progeny, observing the ways of responsible drinking and enjoying an atmosphere that genuinely caters to families looking for pizza joint respite. Around the beer garden hover at least a half-dozen tree swings that make the outdoor stretch feel like some sort of Pulitzer-winning set design from a William Faulkner novel. And just a bit further is their custom-built playscape, ground zero for the moms and dads who actually like to be active with their kids.
If you stop and take in the whole scene, everybody at Vista seems to have their own personalized niche, customized by their own unique experiences and entertainment preferences. Vista is really less a brewpub and more of a spontaneous food and beer festival out past the Uncle Grampy's general stores and used tractor lots.
And then, of course, comes the culmination of Vista's ultimate bewitching experiment, Watterson's full slate of Central Europe-inspired beers, the way a 400-year-old monk might make them if such a holy man was assigned to a farmhouse brewery in the middle of Texas in the 21st century.
"We are cultivating a beer program that is very Belgian- and German-centric," Watterson explains. "[But] we also want to be a place that does a well-rounded collection of beer and one that does excellent versions of each style."
Vista indeed boasts an impressive array of styles in their taproom, from a German kölsch which uses 100% noble hops, to a Belgian tripel that presents as spicy and floral and very, very good at kicking a soccer ball. In between those traditional smash-hit beers, is Watterson's tribute to the French farmhouse ale bière de garde, a Wallonia-inspired saison, and even a dark-malted schwarzbier that Vista ironically dubs as a black pilsner because, presumably, they understand how Austinites go batshit for that particularly refreshing lager. It's true.
"I don't consider myself a huge English-style brewer, so you're not gonna see a ton of IPAs from us, although we do make some great IPAs," Watterson discloses. "But we do have a [British-favorite] extra special bitter that I absolutely love. Every year, no matter what, I'm going to brew that ESB. [That style is] one of those delicate, nutty beers that have such great balance to them – a great spiciness to their hops that fill the entire palate."
"But mostly we're known for our Belgians," he quickly adds. Apart from their impressive selection of everyday house beers that Vista dubs "Beer Garden Beers," the brewery presents two additional in-house beer programs: "The Barrel Program" and "Collaborations."
"We are curating a large barrel program [and] right now we have about 60 barrels," notes Watterson. "What's unique about this program is that by creating relationships with local Texas wineries themselves, we are able to utilize their freshly dumped wine barrels instead of going through barrel brokers where the barrels are typically dried out by the time they get from the winery to the brewery."
Watterson explains that freshly dumped wine barrels harbor intense wine notes that can impart themselves on Vista's beer in a superior way. "[We are] using a fresh barrel where wine was dumped either that day or two days before and it's getting fresh-filled with beer, which caters to the wine notes that I think I'm going to get out of the wine barrel. We want people to be like, 'Oh yeah. That's a Vista [barrel-aged] beer,'" Watterson says.
Vista's third branch of their beer program "Collaborations" sees the brewery partnering with specialty vocations who aren't necessarily in the beermaking industry.
"It's important for us to be able to work with other people who are passionate about their craft, but who work outside of beer," Watterson says. "So, we've done collaborations with apiaries, with foragers, and for our latest collaboration, we partnered with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on our bière de garde which uses a native spice called papaloquelite. We like to exchange knowledge with our collaborators and fuse it together into a beer product. It makes us think about beer in a different light because of what [our collaborators outside the beer industry] have to say about it. You will always see one collaboration on our tap wall at all times."
By all accounts, Vista has put themselves in a position to call themselves not only a great brewery but a great destination landmark. Beyond the jingly keyboards and the folksy steel-string guitars, the old-world beer styles and hand-harvested honey, the handsome architecture and the rustic brush of Hill Country, is a customizable narrative for each visitor. And with murmurs of imminent A-frame cabins debuting on the property at some point in the future, Vista envisions extending the day's plot well into the night. It appears that the "Vista" moniker isn't only the company's promise of notable Texas countryside views, but also an overall shared vision of a well-rounded experience.
"The people, the property, and the product are all [great]," Watterson affirms. "The intent is for us to make all of those things as best as possible with a completely rounded portfolio using whatever we can from our own property. We want to provide a full spectrum of the beer world so when you and your family or you and your friends come out here, hopefully everyone can find something to really enjoy. It's an escape."
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