(With guest contribution by Noah Johnson-Greenough)
Austin, Texas - Some say Austin is the Portland of Texas. A city known as a liberal stronghold in a conservative state that birthed George Bush. Known for its diverse music culture and festivals like SXSW, a growing film community, and more and more craft beer. I flew into the city last Saturday night for the first time to see what it was all about.
|Flying over Utah|
What makes it even more unique, though, is its status as a customer-owned and employee-run brewery.
When you are choosing a pub or brewery to enjoy a craft beer at, there are many decisions to be had. Most often these factors include proximity, quality, selection, service, food, working conditions, & ownership...? Okay, working conditions & ownership, you're probably saying, "What the hell does that have to do with me?!?" Well, in Austin, an ambitious group of individuals have created the ability for patrons to consider that factor. Not only do you have the option to be a patron, but also an owner and a supporter of workplace democracy!
Black Star Cooperative Pub & Brewery is the first known consumer-owned/worker-run brewery in the world. Consumers can become owners by purchasing a "share" in the company. Now, this isn't Wall Street, so each consumer is only eligible for one share. The Workers' Assembly, the management structure at Black Star, is similar in that each worker has an equal opportunity for voice-and-vote about operations of the business. As a co-op, workers benefit in many ways that aren't often seen in the service industry. Each worker is entitled to a living-wage, health benefits, and, most importantly, democracy. These are principles that craft beer lovers should all get behind, as it's a model that's built for a stronger community.
The tap lineup at Black Star was diverse and avoided the typical brewpub pratfalls. They had 5 of their own beers on draft, plus a cask version and 2 nitro versions of their house beers, in addition to a number of guest taps and bottles. (I noticed while in Austin everyone has guest taps, even breweries). Their 5 main beers--which apparently rotate--were split not into style categories, but "Rational" and "Irrational", which to me read "English/American" and "Extreme". It was both comforting and slightly annoying to not be able to obviously know the style of the beers, and when I ordered a taster tray of them the bartender helpfully ordered them from lightest to darkest; however, with no names clearly marked and in a dubious order, it makes it harder to keep track of what you are drinking. Rover, the first beer on the tray, was a Belgian Golden Ale. It accomplished its goals of being a very light blonde with lots of esters and phenolics and a pleasingly crisp (not sweet) finish. Solid, if not overly fruity. High Esteem was obviously a Pale Ale with an addition of honey that added little to the flavor but did add a dry crispness. It was balanced and easy drinking. Vulcan, their most west coast beer geek-friendly beer, was clearly an IPA with the addition of the ever popular adjunct rye. Probably the tastiest and crowd pleasing of the bunch, it has a distinct NW piney hop character and spicy rye with a crisp finish. You are perhaps recognizing a theme here--all of these beers were well-fermented, clean, and polished, with a crisp finish. The next beers were two variations of the same base--Recalcitrant Dockhand and Rebellious Dockhand. Recalcitrant was a solid, creamy, malty porter, the fullest bodied of the bunch with slight coffee notes. Just a well-made porter, very much to style. The Rebellious Dockhand was the same beer with the addition of raspberries. I do not know, but I would suppose that it uses a real raspberry puree, and it has a very strong fruity and distinct raspberry flavor in both the nose and flavor. It overwhelms the beer a lot and probably makes for a love it or hate it entry. I enjoyed it in a small dose, but couldn't handle a pint of it.
Black Star Brewery made for a prototypical brewpub of the local and NE movement with a menu that consisted of lots of beer pairing snack food like cheeses, meats, and pickled veggies. I very much liked the option to tailor-make your plate for both the number of people it was for and ability to choose your own varieties of each category.
Overall, the beer was well-made (though perhaps overly polished), the staff was friendly, the vibe pleasant. If it was in my neighborhood I would make it a regular stop, but the beer itself is possibly not interesting enough to make this place an entry for a beer geek's must visit list.
Early on in my beer drinking adventures I stumbled upon the ubiquitous 'Spring Austin Beer Guide', a small full color and well-produced booklet on the Austin craft beer scene. I was immediately impressed by its well-designed color and high quality, but you could be fooled by such publications, as Beer West appears the same way. It turns out this handy guide would indeed serve to inform us on our further adventures. From well-written articles on seasonal beers to the growing gastropub movement, the booklet is full of information, opinion, reviews, interviews, and even maps around the local beer scene. In other words, it is everything that a good beer magazine should be, but with the more focused approach that most lack. It immediately struck me how we really have nowhere near this quality of publication specific to Portland. Sure, a free publication like NWBN is great, but that's nowhere near this high quality of a production or with so much content focused on one city. With a beer culture as great as PDX's, it is a marvel that a city such as Austin (coming from way behind in a beer geek perspective) is so advanced.
While I had received dozens of recommendations from experienced friends on where to go in Austin, the Spring Austin Beer Guide proved more up to date and with even more info that I could easily pull out of my pocket to reference. I found especially useful its guide to gastropubs with a number of new establishments recently opened that my friends had not yet experienced. These guys are doing a great job and even found me on twitter to send recommendations and tips. Best of all, the booklet is free and available at pretty much all establishments that support craft beer.
Probably one of the better-known Austin beer stops, or at least one I had heard about numerous times, was The Ginger Man, a tap house and pub located right in downtown Austin. Its location is a bit scary after stumbling upon the bustling nightlife district full of clubs and thousands of people drunkenly streaming out of them on a weekend night. Half-dressed young women flashing passersby while stumbling down the street, bros in button-up pressed shirts and crew cuts macholy strutting, and bouncers shoving everyone out and into the traffic jammed streets packed with drunk drivers, taxis, and tons and tons of bicycle pedicabs.
Luckily I wandered into the Ginger Man on a Monday afternoon. It could not have been more dead, just a few middle-aged regulars at the bar and one in a back corner reading The New York Times. The vibe here at first reminded me of the Horse Brass, but on second thought it was more of an old boys gentlemen club. It's very dimly lit, but warmly so, with lamps, mahogany wood, dartboards, leather benches and alcoves, bookshelves, old beer signs, and dartboards. I imagined the mayor sitting in a back room booth, smoking from a pipe, discussing politics, and sipping on an ale. It has a much more polished, refined feel to it inside than outside. Opening up from darkness into the bright light is an old wooden deck reminiscent of the original Produce Rows. From here you may feel like an ant in the big city. It appears as an old divey biker bar deck, but you look up and see huge modern office buildings and condos strutting above you.
Oh, I nearly forgot the beer. These guys have a very extensive tap and bottle list. You might expect to find scotch and wine here, but a funky old bottle of merlot suggests otherwise. I only had the pleasure of enjoying one beer here, but the nightly specials, pint nights, and brewery nights suggest this would be a regular beer geek stop.
Consider this post 1 of what will likely be a 3-part series on the craft beer scene and even some of the food of Austin, TX.