IH takes the “Lupulin Lamp” Road Show to Austin, Texas
AUSTIN, TX. Back in The Day, circa 1980, living in an un-air conditioned sweat box a few clicks west of the UT campus, my roomies and I drank beer to get drunk and hydrate. We didn’t sip, we slugged. We didn’t taste, we chugged. The brand didn’t matter – Texas Pride, Pearl, Lone Star, Buckhorn – as long as it was cheap and very, very cold.
But in time this herd animal began to aggressively seek new pastures. It was Austin and punk rock was the rage. Conformity had become the enemy. So I ventured out and tried Shiner Bock, a darker beer, brewed with artesia well water and a darker malt in the tiny town of Shiner about 70 miles south of Austin.
Shiner back then was reputed to be a low-grade beer. “The dregs from the kettle.” It tasted fine to me – had a bubbly mouthfeel – but looking back it became my beer of choice mainly because it became associated with the Austin counter culture. Ok, Shiner was also kind enough to sponsor the first bike racing team I ever joined (10 kegs a year!).
I just returned from Austin, 30 years after my first Shiner Bock. Shiner’s no longer considered the beer of choice among deviants, nihilists and nutjobs. It’s gone mainstream. It’s been replaced by a bevy of beers that are being brewed right there in the heart of Austin by an expanding coterie of edgy, creative craft microbrewers.
Talk about a delight. Craft is everywhere – in the bars, restaurants, liquor and grocery stores. Texas got a late start in the revolution courtesy of the capitalism-hating, monopoly-loving Texas legislature, which to this day forbids microbreweries from selling beer directly to the public.
It’s not all surprising that craft – the little engine that could – would take off in Austin, a progressive college town which brought us Whole Foods. In a town of about 800,000, Austin boasts three microbreweries: Live Oak (the grand daddy, established circa 1993) and newcomers Independence Brewing and (512) Brewing Company.
Other microbrewery upstarts include Black Star Co-op, Thirsty Planet Brewing, and Jester King (spanking new). Brewpubs include Lovejoys, North by Northwest Brewing and the Draught House Pub, which has been offering an impressive variety of beers since 1968 (try their Hop School IPA, which showcases Citra hops).
I spent a couple of days visiting with the brewers at Live Oak, Independence, (512) and Black Star. We tested out Indie Hops coarsely ground, ¼ inch Type 90 pellets against the pellets they’re using, a fun little test which by now you’ve read about.
I have to give a shout out to Justin Rizza, the brewer for Independence. He studied the way our pellet particles slowly fell and then slowly burbled back up to the surface, creating a self-perpetuating loop. “It’s like a … lupula lamp,” he observed, wondrously, referencing the iconic lava lamp which, to this old dog, in combination with a few Shiner Bocks and Willie Nelson’s “Star Dust Memories” on vinyl, proved to be a strong aphrodisiac to the one maybe two ladies brave or desperate enough to venture into my lair over there at Radkey Manor back in The Day. But that’s another story.
I called Justin a week later. He was intrigued enough with the experiment to store the pints of hops in his fridge to see whether his supplier’s hop pellets would eventually separate. They did break up eventually, he reported, but the differences between the dispersion, oil suffusion and aroma remained stark.
“The pint was no longer crystal clear – you could see some yellowing, but it wasn’t nearly as rich as yours,” Justin said. “I could smell the hops from your pint, but the other gave off only the slightest hint of hop aroma. It smelled like water.”
Without belaboring the point, it’s this budding hopmeister’s opinion, based on field experimentation at four breweries in Austin, that my brewery friends in the Violet Crown City are not getting the best hops from Yakima. In general, the pellets were rock hard, shiny, powdery and insipid.
In short, there’s big room for big improvement. The craft revolution in the Lone Star State is gaining speed. Texans are less motivated to choose a beer based on price and temperature alone. Austinites, in particular, are beginning to demand farm fresh quality. They’re unlearning their habit of washing down that plate of Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas with a generic hopless Mexican beer.
Hey, this is personal. Austin is an oasis in a desert of industrial lite beer drinkers. It’s the epicenter of the movement, and to fan out eventually towards El Paso, Beaumont and Lubbock, it’s got to be driven by game-changing taste. The revolution cannot be won with rock hard, dull and dried out hop pellets.
This hopster, who was raised in Corvallis, Oregon but schooled in Austin, Texas, stands ready to help lift the quality of all Texas craft brewed pints with the finest, oiliest and fattest hop pellets from that green little state in the Northwest, where they’ve been growing the finest aroma hops and brewing some of the finest craft ales for decades. Getting better at football, too.