Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Keep Austin beered

At the Austin Beer Garden Brewery, a country band is playing. Sillhouettes of the occasional cowboy hat stand out amongst the crowd. Behind the stage is a row of large fermentation tanks, crowned by a lit-up sign that reads ‘Pils! Pils! Pils!’ Outside, in the sultry evening heat, long communal tables are just as likely to seat families sharing pizzas as groups of friends enjoying Friday night beers.

The above scene encapsulates much of what is great about Austin; the live music, the warm, welcoming vibe and the lager. Lots of delicious lager.

There are ales on the menu at the ABGB, but on a night like this, straying from the broad selection of bottom-fermented beers is unthinkable. Industry Pils is superb, with a depth of malt flavour that’s rich and hearty, followed by bitter, grassy hops that make it lively and vital. If Industry is a homage to German lagers, Rocket 100 filters that influence through American tradition. Described as a ‘pre-prohibition’ lager, it uses corn in the grist, a practice now associated with bland beer from large breweries and, more often than not, a cost-cutting exercise. It wasn’t always this way; when lager was first brewed in the US, indigenous barley was harsh and needed softening out with rice or corn. Rocket 100 certainly has little in common with the Budweisers of this world; it’s robust and full bodied with notes of toasted, bready malt, but the real draw is the gorgeous floral, herbal hop profile which suggests orange and sherbet. 

Austin Beer Works is the most present brand across the city. They don't necessarily specialise in lager styles, but do excel in this area. Pearl-Snap is, apart from anything else, a wonderful name for a beer. It seems to suggest so much of the flavour you can expect without actually describing it; the smack of fresh, grassy, orange-like hops in the bitter finish was just what I was expecting and exactly what I craved when I ordered this at Easy Tiger, a venue which ingeniously combines a specialist beer bar with a bakery. That means oven-warm pretzels with your German-style lager. I should have drunk Czech Yourself before Pearl-Snap; it's more softly spoken, less brash, and suffered from following the assertive hop character of the previous beer. A shame, as it's a great example of the style.

Of all Austin's breweries, Live Oak Brewing's influences are the most emphatically European. Making your flagship beer a Hefeweizen is a statement of intent, and especially such a straight-up, unapologetically traditional example of the style. If I wasn't such an anxious ticker, I'd happily have drunk nothing but Live Oak Hefeweizen for the entire trip - it is superb. Need I describe it's flavour? Am I capable of doing so without falling back on the same descriptors we still borrow from Michael Jackson to evoke these beers? Banana, clove, etc. It's just pure class - easy drinking, but with such richness and depth of flavour.

Perusing the board at Craft Pride, the Hefeweizen tempted me once again. This log cabin pub, which feels like it could have had a sawdust-strewn floor in a past life, plays old-time country music and has a draught list of over 50 beers, all from Texas. Broadening my horizons but staying with Live Oak, I plumped for Live Oak Gold, a seasonal pilsner for spring. The malt flavour is crisp and the hop character delicate and minty-herbal - it was a great way to celebrate the sun coming back out after an unseasonable cold snap the previous day.

A veritable glass of sunshine came next; Hazed & Confused from Pinthouse Pizza. Pinthouse is a brewpub operating out of two Austin locations; I didn't make it to either, but their opaque, juicy pale ales and IPAs are easy to find elsewhere. Hazed & Confused is extra cool because it's brewed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of local director Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. It seems weird to describe a beer as 'succulent', but that's the word that springs to mind; drinking this beer is redolent of biting into a chunk of perfectly ripe mango. There's a lot of pineapple in there too, and whilst the near total absence of bitterness might make it sweet for some tastes, it was fine by me.

At Wright Bros. Brew & Brew, I had my pick of several Pinthouse IPAs. As the name implies, this is both a beer bar and a coffee shop. These two functions bleed into one another; visiting at around 9pm, both espressos and pints of porter were pouring; around some tables, punters chatted animatedly whilst at others, people worked on their laptops. The result is a markedly relaxed atmosphere which I like a lot (oh, and don't visit without grabbing a Korean-inspired taco at the Chi'Lantro truck around the corner). Electric Jellyfish departs slightly from the intense fruit salad flavours of Hazed & Confused, balancing the juice with a certain dank, savoury quality.

A less conventional IPA came next; GAMMADELUXE, a collaboration between Jester King and Michigan's Jolly Pumpkin. It's inspired by the New England-style IPAs brewed by Monkish and looks the part, pouring semi-murky and with a distinct yellowish glow. There's a strong tropical fruit component to the flavour, too; juicy pineapple and grapefruit. The twist is in the use of Brettanomyces, which accentuates the fruity notes but adds a gentle musty note. It's gently tart and finishes tannic and dry, with not a hint of its intimidating 7.5% ABV.

A common bumper sticker and tourist T-shirt reads 'Keep Austin Weird'. Known as the live music capital of the world, it's the town that spawned Daniel Johnston, Roky Erickson and the Butthole Surfers, amongst a long list of other glorious oddballs. None of the above venues are especially 'weird', but the Austin's beer spots are consistent with the general vibe of the city. Like Brighton, my home, there's a chilled, live-and-let-live spirit that allows beautiful weirdness to thrive. Places like this make great drinking cities.

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