A taste of local at the Texas Craft Brewers Festival
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.
Fantastic Fest 2012 in review: beer, free beer, and a movie or two
Fantastic Fest 2012 is now a happy week-old memory. I saw 33 films from September 20-27 and emptied more than a few pint glasses. My highlights from the festival are below:
Day 1 – My Fest started with Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie in 3D. But that wasn’t until 6pm, so before the show, I had lunch at Bangers Sausage House & Beer Garden, where I enjoyed two barrel-aged Texas beers: Bourbon Barrel Alt-eration from Hops & Grain, and Real Ale Shipwrecked (aged in Jameson barrels for extra deliciousness) with an antelope and venison merguez sausage in honor of the reanimated pooch. Once I got to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema for the movie, I found myself in the Shiner-sponsored theater, and enjoyed a free Shiner Bock. But my favorite film that day was Antiviral from Canadian director Brandon Cronenberg – son of film legend David Cronenberg (The Fly, Videodrome), and worthy of his father’s directorial legacy.
Day 2 – Two major highlights: The Conspiracy, also from Canada, which I watched with a couple of pale ales: an Austin Beerworks Fire Eagle IPA and a Shiner Wild Hare Pale Ale. Later that night, a friend and I got to the bottom of a pitcher of Real Ale Firemans #4 while watching Dead Sushi, the latest from Japanese director Noboru Iguchi. Iguchi’s shock/splatter/gross-out horror-comedies aren’t for everyone, but I find them great fun; and Dead Sushi is one of the better ones. Before the screening was a live in-theater eating competition between Iguchi, SFX guru Yoshihiro Nishimura and four audience members eating bull penis sushi, duck fetuses and ghost pepper tuna roll. Kudos to them; I couldn’t do it.
Day 3 – A great day. I sipped a Ranger Creek Small Batch #2 saison during Holy Motors by French director Leos Carax, a dense and symbolic film that begs rewatching. Next I saw the brutal yakuza revenge sequel Outrage Beyond by Japan’s Takeshi Kitano (a.k.a. Beat Takeshi), which went well with a Brooklyn East India Pale Ale. I watched an English-language remake of Pusher (the Danish original was the directorial debut of Drive and Bronson director Nicolas Winding Refn) with a Live Oak Oaktoberfest in hand, and I enjoyed another Firemans #4 at midnight during my most anticipated movie of the festival, the kung-fu-steampunk epic Tai Chi 0. All these movies made it into my top fifteen of the fest, and I’m still thinking about that Ranger Creek saison.
Day 4 – Started with my initial pick for best of the fest, Lee’s Adventure, a Chinese sci-fi film starring Jaycee Chan (son of Jackie) as a slacker-gamer with a disease that randomly slows and speeds his perception of time. China scored again in the evening with the aptly titled Vulgaria, a crude comedy about a Hong Kong softcore porn producer that kept me laughing out loud. At midnight, I saw the awesome British action-comedy Cockneys vs. Zombies, whose title pretty much says it all. I watched that with my favorite beer of the day, a Deschutes Obsidian Stout that was perfect for a midnight show.
Day 5 – The standout film was Black Out, a Dutch crime caper that played like classic Guy Ritchie. Day 5 is usually when I start to get bleary-eyed and need rest; unsurprisingly, I have no beer notes from this day. I recall drinking one or two Fire Eagle IPAs and at least one Hops & Grain Pale Dog Pale Ale.
Day 6 – My evening film was Vanishing Waves, a sci-fi thinker from Lithuania. There’s always at least one quiet, sterile and cerebral sci-fi film at the Fest every year, and whatever it is usually ends up in my top ten. This was no exception, and it inspired me to dig up and finish an incomplete short story I drafted last year (hooray for inspiration!). I watched it with a Thirsty Planet Buckethead IPA.
Day 7 – The penultimate night of the Fest brought me Hellfjord, by far the most fun I had all week. A new series from from a team of brilliant Norwegians (including writer Tommy Wirkola, director Patrik Syversen and writer-stars Zahid Ali and Stig Frode Henriksen) whose combined resume includes the zom-com Dead Snow and the geek comedy You Said What?, Hellfjord touted itself as Twin Peaks-meets-Hot Fuzz, and that’s pretty spot on. The complete first season screened – seven episodes – and I simply could not stop laughing during the entire three and a half hours. “Brilliant” doesn’t begin to describe this series. It was my definitive Best of the Fest. I’m counting the months until it may someday be released on American DVD, and if you have any sense of humor at all, you should look for it too. I also finished off another pitcher of Firemans #4 (with help) and had a spectacular barbecue chicken pizza with jalapenos before heading to the Hellfjord Norwegian Party at the Highball, where friends and I donned Viking helmets and drank Austin Beerworks Black Thunder Schwarzbier with samples of lutefisk and other pickled Nordic delicacies. And the mighty Thor smiled down upon us.
Day 8 – Somewhat anticlimactic after Day 7, but started with the poignant, entertaining Canadian drama I Declare War, about kids playing a game of war that skirts dangerously close to the real thing. After a couple of underwhelming afternoon screenings, I ended the day with a few complimentary Shiner Wild Hare Pale Ales at the Closing Night Party at the Austin American Legion hall.
So there you have it. Seven days have passed and I’m already looking forward to next year’s Fantastic Fest. There’s a reason we call it “geek Christmas” in my house. It’s a time to celebrate film, storytelling, inspiration, good friends, good food and good beer. And these are a few of my favorite things.
The Jester just got bester
As of this past Tuesday, Jester King Craft Brewery in Austin is now certified organic by the USDA, according to this press release on their website.
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.
One Drink Minimum: I see your Schwarz is as big as mine
Friday night was the inaugural screening of the Summer of ’82 film series at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Ritz location: John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. Yeah, that’s right. That one, with Ahnold. With James Earl Jones as the snake god and Mako as the crazy wizard, and the lamentation of the women and all that. Oh, yeah.
I’ve been stoked about the Summer of ’82 series since I first saw a teaser for it, and the badge I scored is one of my prize possessions for the next few months. To kick the series off with Conan was an absolute blast. The (apparently brand new) 35mm print was astoundingly beautiful, and despite having seen it again and again, I felt like I was watching the film for the first time. Arnold Schwarzenegger owned that role (sorry, Jason Momoa, I’d ride in your khalasar, but you didn’t teach me what was best in life) and the film is much more intelligent than most people give it credit for. It’s a wonderful clash of the classic and the new: Conan is more or less your standard orphan-turned-legendary-hero, Siegfried meets Spartacus. But Milius knows his Joseph Campbell, and he tells a story that hits all the conventional heroic journey notes while still staying profoundly modern, with a screenplay so sparse in dialogue it’s almost high art, a post-Jonestown message about kids and cults that still resonates 30 years later, and a powerful female lead character who is a warrior first and a love interest second. I rooted for those characters like I’ve never rooted before, and James Earl Jones was so terrifying as Thulsa Doom on the big screen (those eyes!) that I only laughed a little bit when he told Conan he was his father.
To go with the Schwarzeneggerian splendor unfolding on the silver screen, I ordered a pint of Live Oak Brewing Company’s seasonal Schwarzbier. When asked what sets Live Oak apart in the exponentially expanding Austin beer scene, what comes to mind first is that they do a better job of replicating traditional German styles than anyone else around. Their HefeWeizen is a true hefe, full of banana and clove flavors, not the bland hazy wheat beers now rolling off the production line of every regional brewery. Their Pilz is a real-deal Bohemian pilsner, with crisp Czech malt and refreshing Saaz hops that fill every sip with flavor. These aren’t even styles I’m all that fond of, but I love that Live Oak does them well. I knew their take on the traditional German black lager known as a schwarzbier would be no exception.
The color was the deepest black, opaque. It seemed darker than most schwarzbiers and black lagers I’ve had, but that could have been the dim light of the movie theater. There wasn’t much aroma, but what I could pick up from it was dark chocolate and caramel, with the slightest hint of banana esters. Same with the flavor, which was subtle and refreshing, though chocolatey and with a little noble hop bite tapering off into a faint mocha java aftertaste. I found the mouthfeel a little thin for my taste, but I find that with black lagers a lot; I tend to be more of an ale guy, really, and perhaps my palate is still too calibrated for stout to really appreciate the thinner, more refreshing and crisp nature of a schwarzbier. But for all that, I enjoyed it. Once again Live Oak proved that they know German beer, and play with convention as well as any brewery in Central Texas.
The next screening in the Summer of ’82 series is Mad Max 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior). Since that show is not at an Alamo Drafthouse location, I’ve no idea yet whether there will be a beer available there that will pair as nicely and thematically with that film as this one did. If anyone can get their hands on some banged-up, greasy, post-apocalyptic cans of VB from the land of Oz, I won’t say no.