I’m pretty sure every homebrewer and beer geek has at least one personal story about how they surprised – and perhaps even converted – some non-craft drinker they know with the awesome power of real beer.
Maybe one night in college you handed an Imperial IPA to your malt liquor chugging buddy, and he quickly commended it before twisting open another 8 Ball. Or maybe you once convinced a co-worker to try a fruity wheat beer at a happy hour instead of a hard lemonade, and she now stocks her fridge with lambics. Or maybe you triumphed over decades of wine supremacy by pulling off a really successful beer pairing with a dinner, to the amazement of friends and/or family. My latest such story is a variation on that theme: a 3-course dinner with beer pairings, served in my own dining room.
The day was Thanksgiving (November 22 for those reading outside the U.S.) and the objects of my proselytization were my wife Lisa’s family: my mother-in-law and father-in-law in town from New Orleans, and my sister-in-law and her husband visiting from the United Kingdom. To set the stage, let me introduce them instead as: a coffee drinker, a whiskey drinker, a Bud Light drinker, and a foodie/pub manager from the south of England.
Out of everyone in attendance, Lisa was the only person who was as convinced of the greatness of this idea as I was. She co-envisioned this event with me but couldn’t join us in the beer tasting thanks to an unfortunate medical condition called “expecting our first child” that isn’t expected to clear up for several months. This toast is for you, X.
The dinner itself was rather unorthodox. We haven’t done turkey on Thanksgiving in my house for nearly ten years, and saw no good reason to start now. We decided to build an utterly un-Thanksgiving-y menu with several commercial Central Texas beers from my cellar as inspiration, while also giving everyone in the family a chance to cook something. Here’s what we came up with.
I should disclose at this point that I don’t usually cook. Brewed beverages and the occasional steak are all I make that’s fit for human consumption, so most of the actual cooking (except for the steak) was done by Lisa and my brother-in-law. But I did choose the beer, so I’ve snatched the right to bill myself as director of the whole production.
Salad Course: Romaine with blue cheese, pecans, dried cranberries, and homemade mustard vinaigrette paired with a bomber of South Austin Brewing Company Saison D’Austin. As a longtime fan of this ubiquitous local saison, I had been dreaming about this pairing for a few days beforehand. This is a very light and refreshing saison, and everyone at the table enjoyed it (especially my sister-in-law the Bud Light drinker). But I found it lacked the backbone to stand up to the bold flavors of the blue cheese and mustard. Something with a bit more spice and/or funk would have served the dish better, so next time I’ll go with something a little more intense – a more phenolic Belgian or something with some Brett – and save the Saison D’Austin for a cheese course.
Main Course: Grilled sirloin with a coffee-chipotle rub served with a relish of tomatoes, tarragon and mustard; dill-roasted tricolor potatoes and oven-roasted asparagus paired with a bomber of Jester King / Mikkeller Weasel Rodeo Imperial Oatmeal Stout. The rub and the steak were the only food items I prepared myself, carefully trying to match the flavor profile of the beer, which features chipotle and kopi luwak coffee. Coffee and pepper were more pronounced in the steaks than the beer, if I do say so myself. But the pairing was a match made in heaven, and the in-laws enjoyed it all so much that we actually drank not just one bomber of Weasel Rodeo, but also the second bomber I had chilled just in case.
Dessert: Pecan pie from the Salt Lick paired with a 12-ounce bottle of Real Ale Sisyphus Barleywine Ale from 2011. Okay, so we didn’t actually make the pie, and I had no idea how it was going to pair with the 2011 Sisyphus, which I had never tried. As it turned out, the rest of the family were stuffed and satisified by now, so the barleywine was shared by me and my brother-in-law alone; 6 ounces for each of us was more than enough. The beer was robust and nutty with toffee overtones, and I thought quite a good match for my favorite pie in the Austin area, though I found myself wishing I had some good vanilla bean ice cream to complete the ensemble. I wasn’t disappointed for long, though, because I soon found myself satiated and … well, let’s just say “sleepy”.
So. A fantastic dinner that we had fun preparing together, and a great opportunity to demonstrate for visiting family why I’m so excited about the Central Texas beer scene. Hopefully I even got them thinking about beer in new ways. Would I do it again? Hell yes. And since there’s nothing “Thanksgiving” about this meal, I may do it again before next year’s holiday season. I hope it inspires you to try something similar.
Fiesta Gardens in East Austin was the hoppiest place in town on October 6 as about two dozen breweries from all over Texas gathered for the annual Texas Craft Brewers Festival, sponsored by the Young Men’s Business League of Austin. Featuring over 115 beers, the event promised to be a carnival of discovery. I walked through the gates holding my tasting glass eagerly, like an explorer taking his first steps on a newly discovered shore with a trusty saber in hand.
The format was a familiar one: a booth from each brewery in attendance (arranged in alphabetical order, wow) offering pours of their most popular and/or most interesting beers. $20 bought admission, a 4 oz. plastic tasting glass and six tickets, with additional tickets available for purchase at two for $3. Most of the pours cost one ticket, with some of the rarer/higher-gravity offerings going for two.
I sprung for the $65 VIP pass. It didn’t come with any additional tickets (bummer), but I did get a T-shirt and imperial pint glass along with noon entry, two hours before everyone else. The early entry was worth it, because the place got nuts at 2:00 when the gates opened to general admission. VIP’s also got a “meet-and-greet” round robin tasting in the main pavilion from 1:00 to 2:00. Brewers and brewery representatives walked around the pavilion with pitchers, pouring samples and answering questions.
I love talking to brewers who have a real passion for brewing. The ones who are visibly energized by talking to kindred spirits. The ones whose eyes light up when asked why they chose one yeast strain over another, or who get excited when you taste something subtle in the beer that they were specifically trying for. They’re the stewards of our community, the true shamans of our tribal craft brew culture. I’d especially like to thank Jeff Stuffings of Jester King Craft Brewery, Diane Rogness of Rogness Brewing Company, Jud Mulherin of Circle Brewing Company and Grant Wood of Revolver Brewing Company for stopping for a few minutes on a busy day to talk to me – one of many admirers clamoring for their time – about their ingredients, their craft, and why they do what they do.
The beers themselves presented a fascinating snapshot of where Texas craft brew is today. Several things became apparent over the course of the day:
- Sour beer no longer a thing? The event website boasted “at least four sours”. That’s a much smaller number than I would have predicted a year ago, when sours were seemingly the next big wave in craft brewing. But now it seems Texas brewers are looking elsewhere for innovation. Real Ale Scots Gone Wild and Austin Beerworks Einhorn Berliner Weisse were on tap along with some sours from Jester King, but I didn’t see anything on the menu that I hadn’t tried before. I made a beeline to the Jester King booth for what I thought was a new sour – the Viking-inspired Gotlandsdricka – and got a surprise. Jeff Stuffings informed me his Gotlandsdricka was intended to be a modern interpretation, not a historically accurate recreation of the ancient ale, and was clean-fermented with just Saccharomyces cerevisiae. I’m a sucker for anything Nordic, and I liked it a lot, but I’m still curious to taste the sour version they may release in a few months.
- Flavorings are where it’s at. For a region so rich in German heritage, Texas brewers sure don’t know the meaning of Reinheitsgebot. Spices and fruits abounded. Rogness OST Porter with coffee and coconut and Yogi Amber with chai spice, Thirsty Planet ChiGoatle Amber with peppers, Revolver Blood & Honey Wheat with blood orange zest and spices, and Jester King Gotlandsdricka with sweet gale and juniper all made impressions on me. Even Reinheitsgebot champions Circle Brewing have jumped into the flavor fray with Smokin’ Beech, a refreshing Rauchbier with a bacony character from malt beechwood-smoked according to a traditional Bamberg process that Jud Mulherin described to me in reverent detail.
- Tea is the new coffee. Coffee porters and stouts remain popular, but Texas brewers are starting to notice coffee’s hot stepsister from across the ocean, with very different takes on the concept. Live Oak poured an Oaktoberfest infused with lapsang souchong China black tea, lending a vegetal smokiness tailored for slow sipping. Jester King poured their kombucha farmhouse ale Buddha’s Brew. Rogness Yogi Amber doesn’t actually have tea in it, but recreates the experience of chai tea in an amber beer with chai spices and unfermentable sugars. Diane Rogness called Yogi “her baby”, and she should be proud of it. I enjoyed drinking it and have thought about it a lot since Saturday.
- Dallas-Fort Worth is growing. Lakewood Brewing and Revolver Brewing are two names from the Metroplex that seem to have made their Austin debut at the event, alongside DFW stalwarts Deep Ellum and Southern Star. I didn’t get a chance to try Lakewood (sorry!) but Revolver’s Blood & Honey Wheat is a surprisingly complex lawnmower beer with blood orange zest and savory spices. Head brewer Grant Wood invited me to guess which spices he used. I guessed incorrectly, and when I pressed him for the correct answer, he said smiling, “We’ve gotta have some secrets.” Touché.
Finally, the day brought great news to the mead lover in me. I had a chance to speak to Eric Lowe of Meridian Hive Meadery, a new Austin company getting their brewhouse (meadhouse?) assembled currently, and who will hopefully be releasing their first meads in early 2013. There’s a mead gap in Austin, and I welcome them with open arms and a thirsty palate.
Photos of the event are below (including one of your friend and humble narrator in a yellow shirt), courtesy of Roy Moore and Control Images. Thanks to the YMBL and all who made the event what it was.
On a beautiful, cool Saturday afternoon wedged between days of thunderstorms, Jester King Craft Brewery released their new Buddha’s Brew ale during their weekly open house. Beer hipsters (and garden variety hipsters) descended on the brewery for a turnout that scuttlebutt suggests was the biggest the brewery has ever seen on a “non-event” Saturday.
The new ale is a collaboration between Jester King and Austin kombucha company Buddha’s Brew. It’s Jester King’s first beer fermented entirely in oak. The wheat ale wort was pitched with bacteria and fermented in the barrel, then aged for nine months before blending it with Buddha’s Brew Classic Flavor Kombucha. Buddha’s Brew was also on location Saturday giving out free kombucha by the sample and cup. I’ve been a fan of their kombucha for years, so I was excited about the collaboration.
I haven’t been to Jester King in several months, so I was surprised to find a new system in place for the beer tasting. In the old system, $10 bought you a tulip glass and three full pours of whatever you wanted. Now, for $10 you get a card listing the day’s menu with a check box next to each of the 7 beers available:
The bartenders poured 5.5 oz of whatever you ordered and marked the box next to it on the card. If you tried them all, it would equate to a little over two pints of beer and a keepsake glass for $10. So it’s not the steal it used to be, but it’s still a great value, especially if you can get there early enough to go back through the (very long) line 7 times during the 3-hour window they’re open. Even though this new system effectively raises the price per ounce over the previous system, it encourages beer flights instead of pounding pints as quickly as possible. The limited-release selections du jour are thus available to more attendees, and fewer frat boys are stumbling around drunk from too many Black Metals. I’m not sure if the new system was just for this event or if this is how they do it every week now, but I’m a fan of it in theory … if they can get the line moving a little faster.
I started with Buddha’s Brew, the hot new starlet on the set. It was straw-colored with little head and smelled like a Berliner Weisse: lactic, light and wheaty, though I was hoping for more fruitiness on the nose. It tasted like a Berliner Weisse too. Tart, refreshing and wheaty with some vinegar notes and a pleasant mouth-puckering tartness. My only complaint was that it was less complex than I expected. The kombucha didn’t add much flavor; no fruitiness, no earthiness. Nor any oakiness or vanilla from the barrel aging. It could have been any sour wheat ale, albeit a well-made one. Note that I would gladly drink it again if there weren’t more interesting beers available.
My third pour was Mad Meg, an organic bière de provision – a high-alcohol continental style intended for extended aging. At 9.6% ABV, it was a step up from my earlier tastings but smooth enough not to be a shock. It poured a handsome red-orange I attribute to Cara-Munich malt, but I enjoyed thinking of it as an “albino amber”. The aroma was mouth-watering: floral hops and a rich mandarin-like citrus with noticeable alcohol. The flavor didn’t disappoint, either, delivering piney hop bitterness at the start and boozy, bready malt on the finish with no alcohol burn. It was smooth and brilliantly balanced, easy to drink on a fall afternoon or warm enough for a cool night.
I made my way through the tastings leisurely and only got three in my 90 minutes there, but it was well worth the price of admission. Between beers I cleansed my palate with lots of free kombucha from the Buddha’s Brew tent (thanks!). Peach and Pineapple-Super Greens flavors were on tap and delicious.
I left happy (alcohol + probiotics, mmm mmm good!) and inspired. I’ve been thinking about homebrewing kombucha for a long time, and I might start soon using some Buddha’s Brew dregs to culture a starter SCOBY. Someday I actually hope to have draft kombucha in the kegerator for those non-beer occasions. I’m not sure I’ll ever use it in a beer myself, but who knows? And I toast Jester King for their innovation. After all, that’s what supporting local business is all about.
To quote the release:
The first of our beers to carry certified organic labeling will be this year’s version of Drink’in the Sunbelt Hoppy Wheat Beer, followed by our next batches of Mad Meg Farmhouse Provision Ale and Boxer’s Revenge Barrel-Aged Wild Ale. Le Petit Prince Farmhouse Table Beer, Noble King Hoppy Farmhouse Ale, Wytchmaker Farmhouse Rye IPA, Das Wunderkind! Sour Saison, and Bonnie the Rare Berliner Weisse also received full organic certification and will be labeled as such once we run through our current stock of labels. Black Metal Farmhouse Imperial Stout, which is over 70% organic, but uses a small amount of non-organic specialty malt, has been certified “Made with Organic Ingredients” and will carry the Texas Department of Agriculture seal, the next time labels are printed.
Although I may be more organic than some, I’m not really hung up on the organic lifestyle and organic foods. Sure, I belong to a local organic CSA called Johnson’s Backyard Garden. I don’t eat at major fast food chains (or any major restaurant chain at all if I can avoid it, which I usually can – thanks, Austin!). I try not to buy packaged foods with a lot of ingredients I can’t pronounce, but that’s a long way from organic. When it comes to my own brewing, I don’t add a lot of funky chemicals if I can help it – brewing water salts and acids to keep my mash pH down are generally the extent; I don’t spend the extra dough for organic malts and hops. In other words, whether food or drink, I keep it simple for anything I can control, and I don’t sweat the other stuff too much.
But who wouldn’t want to know that the ingredients that go into the beer they drink is of the best quality possible? Whether that means organic, or locally sourced, or whatever your personal hobbyhorse is, the fact that they bother at all means that they have a commitment to quality ingredients: that they care what they put into the beer they sell. That they’re not just here for the craft beer fad, and that they want to establish (and strengthen) their identity in the ever-more-crowded local Austin beer scene.
And that is great news, and a reminder of why I love the folks at Jester King so much. As far as I’m concerned, one of the best breweries in town just got better. I like to think that each of the best local breweries in Central Texas has a knack for something (see recent post here for my thoughts on the awesome power of Live Oak Brewing to replicate classic German styles). I always thought Jester King’s knack was simply to bring European-style farmhouse ales to a market otherwise lacking in them. But now Jester King appears to be doing more: with this gesture, they’ve demonstrated they want to be a leader in quality and innovation in all ways (including taking on the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission late last year over some silly beer labeling and distribution laws) in the Austin craft beer community. If there’s a battle commencing between great beer and mediocre beer, Jester King appears to want to be in the vanguard … they may not have been the first, but they seem determined to jump into the lead.
So prosit to Jester King! I’m glad they’re here.