Top 15 Austin Breweries
Our semiannual power ranking of local brewhouses
By Eric Puga, Fri., Nov. 16, 2018
Here at the Chronicle we'd love to just make every brewery in the city (or breweries just outside the city who wanna flex like they're Austin locals – hey, that's cool with us, Drip!) tied for first place but that would be so boring and dumb and bloodless. Local beer is all about the microaggressive rivalries (it isn't) and the beefy feuds (nope) that breweries have with one another over our semiregular power rankings. And that's exactly why we're here to give you our updated fall brewery takes that are so hot it makes all your boiled tap water seem like a nitrogen slushy.
As always, our selections are made based on the quality of the company's core beer, its seasonal releases in the spring through fall, as well as their limited releases that dunk on all those amateurs still tinkering away at their college homebrew kits. Beyond that, we think it's important to also recognize any recent national or international accolades from our city's most-acknowledged breweries, their investments in making a charming taproom/biergarten with which to waste away entire weekends, as well as their overall influence on Austin-area brewing scene in general. And because there are about 58 brewhouses currently online in this region – with another 26 (!!) in various stages of evolution – we decided to expand our power rankings to the top 15 area breweries. This list remains a fluid roster of the most innovative beermakers in this area and often change from season to season. With that said, these are the top 15 Austin(ish) breweries hittin' dingers like Alfred "Big Al" Delia.
Dropped from rankings: Independence (10)
Others Receiving Votes: Lazarus Brewing, Texas Beer Company, Celis Brewery, Red Horn, The Brewtorium
15) Hi Sign Brewing (NEW)
Despite Hi Sign's unfortunate geographical setting amidst the city's enduring Highway 71/183 construction dirt pile, the brewery is quickly gaining a reputation as attentive beer makers. Violet, Hi Sign's canned blueberry blonde, has been a refreshing tailgating debutante, while Hi-C IPA is the perfect ratio of juicy, hazy, and hype. Their woodsy beer garden is like a scene out of a Robert Eggers flick where lardy beer nerds get bewitched by forces of evil who force them to make big dirt piles on 183. It's cyclical.
14) Hops & Grain (-6)
H&G is very happy to accommodate anyone in search of celebrating experimental hops because this brewery's main philosophy is to flavor their beer the way Europe flavors their potato chips, with as many amazing-sounding palate novelties that no one back home would even believe! H&G's strength is definitely in their taproom-only beers, with a stable backbone provided by city legends The One They Call Zoe and Haze County (even if a regular tweaking of recipes alters consistency over time). However, with a recent big move into South Texas centerpiece and second-place taco town, San Antonio, quality control will be a primary focus for such a large market footprint. Also, we just gotta ask: Where the hell is Alt-eration?
13) Pinthouse Pizza Lamar (-9)
Everyone's favorite hop-humping brewpub is still making the best IPA in Texas in the form of year-rounder Electric Jellyfish, and unless that delicious residency goes away, PHP Lamar will likely have residency on the Chronicle's power rankings as well. But beyond Jellyfish, PHP Lamar continues to rack up awards at the international level, winning a bronze medal at the 2018 World Beer Cup in the American Style IPA category in May, which as you might imagine, included almost 400 entries of IPA bros wanting you to try their IPA, bro.
12) The Brewer's Table (NEW)
Last month, Men's Journal magazine stormed into our fair burg and riffed on TBT's Vor Ort pale lager, calling it "One of the 50 Best Craft Beers in the United States" and by default "The Best Beer in Texas" like they were some kind of expert beer knowers, but you know what? They may have been right. Vor Ort is the baseline to the creative calisthenics performed under head brewer Drew Durish and founder Jake Maddux, where TBT's entire program of incredibly creative, food-inspired beers sparkles like a beacon to lager lovers. Likewise, TBT's interior and exterior design (including a bank of foudres) reflects upon the scope in which this brewery wants to blow you away through your eyes and through your palate. TBT's Common Lager is life everlasting and an homage to Maddux's (and America's) craft beer roots at Anchor Brewing.
11) Vista Brewing (NEW)
Vista makes every effort to remind you of the fact that their aesthetically top-shelf Hill Country brewery and taproom, along with their 21-acre agricultural showpiece, is truly a sight to behold. IT'S RIGHT THERE IN THE NAME, MAN! Recently, we called Vista less a brewpub and more of a spontaneous food and beer festival, where revelers participate in classic Texas-isms like dancing to really good Old 97's cover bands and drinking heat-slaying lagers near a big tree. It's a real party over there. Josh Watterson, Vista's head brewer, curates a beer program featuring three branches of his kickassery: Beer Garden Beers (the refreshing year-rounders), The Barrel Program (beer they throw into freshly procured wine barrels that make it taste fancy), and Collaborations (collaborations).
10) Oddwood Ales (NEW)
Oddwood – Austin's best new brewery of 2018 – should also win a Pulitzer for the poetry that is their base saison. These are the FACTS. Strangely enough, however, you will most likely see us in their cozy, wood-embellished taproom sternly demanding a circus act of their effervescent pale ales for which Oddwood has become widely known. Small beer is a crazy business, and Oddwood has discovered a way to harness an imbalanced menu of beer styles that makes all those other normal-beer-having breweries look like puritans by comparison.
9) Southern Heights (SAME)
Now that "What IPAs do you have?" has basically become America's biggest beer cliche – even in shitty dive bars and gas stations with bulletproof glass – we exclusively only visit breweries with nothing but amazing in-house IPAs to feel less like normcore bingo hall grannies and more like Saudi princes ordering solid-gold Lamborghinis. Pound for pound, Southern Heights is the hardest-working brewery in the city, nailing one hop-wrangled recipe after another with basically a crew of two manning every pipe, hose, and spout in the house. And now that some of these hopped-up Lambos like Tahitian Dreamin' and To the Cloud are available in limited, to-go four-pack tallboys, they can finally kick us out of their rad taproom for the night.
8) Live Oak (-5)
Back in 2016 and 2017 when Live Oak was being so extra by opening the doors to a gorgeous new HQ and canning those striking aluminum beer-babies like the industry-renowned Hefeweizen, Pilz, and Primus, we crowned them as Austin's beer royalty. And though Live Oak appears to be taking a small sabbatical with regard to the bounty of new canned offerings compared to the last few years doesn't mean they are no longer incumbents of the castle. They most certainly are. Live Oak's bye week means recalculating distribution strategies, focusing on accessibility to as many Texans as possible, and setting a distance-running pace for the brewery's future. Boring stuff to you and me, but essential for quality control, it's Live Oak's most extraordinary feature. Meanwhile, they knighted Grodziskie as their newest (and riskiest) year-rounder in April while they wait for the rest of the world to catch up to their love of smoked lagers. And we're here for it.
7) Zilker Brewing (NEW)
We're pretty sure Zilker has given a grand total of zero shits what people think of them; they just grind, baby. You gotta respect that. As it stands now, Zilker is the most underrated brewery in the city. How can this be? They were one of the first urban storefront breweries in the city and have pounded out fantastic beers like Marco IPA and Honey Blonde in a roustabout-style taproom that engages the street life of the coolest neighborhood in the city. They should be swimming in solid gold bullion like Scrooge McDuck. Quietly, Zilker has maneuvered Coffee Milk Stout into one of the city's beer icons, and found time to add another exemplar of a pale ale to the core lineup in Parks & Rec. Somehow, Zilker has also found the time to specially can a hazy festival beer for Utopiafest. And if you missed their Oktoberfest Festbier or their Third Space Anniversary IPA, then you missed two of the best beers made in Austin in all of 2018. It's fuckin' Zilker Time, man.
6) Real Ale (SAME)
Real Ale has reinvigorated our passion for the mix-pack in an era where curating your own is 1) pricier than an average sixer and/or 2) frowned upon at many beer retailers who don't offer that type of customizable service because they're too lazy to sell the five remaining stragglers. Well, Real Ale gives those goofs the double birds by offering themed samplers of everything from their classic core lineup to mixed IPA and Belgian beer samplers to their latest iteration of mixed pale ales featuring their lit-ass Swifty pale ale. Why don't more breweries love us like this? Oh, and Real Ale swiped another GABF medal in September for Real Heavy for the fourth year in a row, with the last three all gold.
5) St. Elmo Brewing (+2)
St. Elmo has a whole routine, man. They woo you into their amazing little taproom with some social media bulletin about some new, amazing-sounding beer they just released and then when you get there to drink every single ounce of this new gift, they prescribe one dozen more irresistible brews on their menu that highlights their range. It's fantastic. St. Elmo is, without question, the most varied brewery in town, which provides all the evidence needed to validate their absurd talent as beermakers. You think having one brut IPA on the tap wall is cool and trendy? They have two.
4) Austin Beerworks (+1)
Yeah, ABW does fantastic work playing their hits, like the classic strums of Pearl Snap Pils and the electroclash of Fire Eagle IPA, but it's their B-sides and deep tracks that truly reveal all of this brewery's imagination and talent. With the return of (now seasonal) Black Thunder, ABW's GABF gold-medal-winning symphonic dark lager, comes a bump in our power ranking. And along with their old hardware arrives a new set of 2018 GABF bronzes for Super Awesome Helles Lager and Flavor Country Hoppy Pale Ale, which, by the way, is becoming the default setting as an everyday, midweek fridge beer as ABW is really dialing in the recipe for this luminescent brew.
3) Pinthouse Pizza Burnet (NEW)
Any other brewery that simply wants to make a nice IPA in Austin is probably sick of PHP's bullshit. I mean, PHP didn't invent the style, no, but they are damn well perfecting it by doing whatever goblin-y magic happens behind the scenes that makes PHP the best IPA program in Texas. PHP's original location on Burnet recently struck gold at both the 2018 Great American Beer Festival and the 2018 World Beer Cup in Nashville for their Green Battles IPA, while also roping an additional silver medal while in Tennessee for This Year's Crop Wet Hop IPA, the fresh-hop version of Green Battles. But perhaps most impressively, PHP Burnet took first place in the 2018 Alpha King Challenge for Fully Adrift Double IPA, which is like Talladega for the lupulin-headed wingnuts of bitter beer.
2) Jester King (SAME)
Why, in my day, going out to Jester King meant going out to the farm to watch their brewers go all A Beautiful Mind on some sour Texas terroir funky hay lychee breadfruit beer and everyone was orgasming at once because perfect farmhouse beer used to unite us all. Well, Jester King is still doing that, except everyone has kids now presumably because of those perfect farmhouse beers that united us, and so now everyone just oohs and aahs along with their spouses and kids. That family atmosphere makes Jester King the best user experience in all of Austin. Their worldwide recognitions and awards are too many to list here, but by far their most crowning achievement has been the self-preservation of their property, ensuring that Jester King will be just as pristine a narrative in the future as it is now. To wit, Jester King has recalibrated the beloved Stanley's Farmhouse Pizza into more of an elevated kitchen, hiring Damien Brockway, formerly of Counter 3. Five. VII and Uchiko, to curate dishes like tartare, house-made breads, a charcuterie board, and aged pork loins to go along with those buzz-healing wood-fired pizzas.
1) The Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. (ABGB) (SAME)
ABGB obviously lives by the Nick Saban maxim, "If everyone gets to be special, then no one is special," and then proceeds to dogpile some crappy waterboy team by 591 points. This is why ABGB just keeps racking up huge achievements – just to let you know how special they really are. And they're right. For an unprecedented third straight year, ABGB has been recognized as GABF's Large Brewpub of the Year. You wanna know what else was unprecedented? When they won it twice in a row – last year. It's not at all an exaggeration to say that nobody else in America is doing what ABGB is currently doing by their elevated standards. By the way, ABGB also managed 120% effort by bringing home two more 2018 GABF gold medals for Rocket 100 pilsner and Hell Yes Helles, which brings their grand total of top honors to six golds (for four different lagers), one bronze, and three Brewpub of the Years in only their fifth year of existence. That's just utter domination, folks. It seems obvious to us that they want 'Bama.