Traditional brewers sweep across Austin

Gerald Rich

With two days left until Austin Beer Week wraps up, there’s still time left to grab a pint of some savory local craft beers that pay homage to Texas’ German heritage while creating distinct new flavors.

Rewind to 19th century Texas when the first beers were brought over by German immigrants and when the first Texas beers like Pearl and Lone Star were brewed. The reason being that Germany, commonly known for its beer, is highly fertile for the essential female flower clusters known as hops.

Like other alcoholic substances at the time, the passing of the Volstead Act in 1919 and the Prohibition forced many breweries to close, including the Lone Star and Pearl breweries. They eventually reopened after the anti-alcohol “Noble Experiment” was repealed in 1933, but the hardships of the Great Depression lead to the companies being bought out by the Pabst Brewing Company in Illinois.

Nevertheless, beer is booming and more experimental than ever before.

“Nationwide, the Brewers Association reported at midyear that there were more breweries than at any time since Prohibition devastated the domestic industry nearly a century ago,” wrote Ronnie Crocker earlier this month in the Houston Chronicle. “The overwhelming number of these 1,600-plus businesses are not major producers but either micro or regional craft breweries or brew pubs.”

That’s even after the national beer market has slumped, Crocker added. Many of these producers get their start by simply brewing at home — a hobby that Graham says costs, at the low end, $50 to start and $30 for each batch of about 60 bottles after that. From there, home brewers can turn to craft brewing.

According to the Brewer’s Association’s definition, “An American craft brewer is small, independent and traditional. Small: Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels. Independent: Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer. Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship or has at least 50 percent of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.”

Oftentimes, that will lead to flavors that vary widely from the traditional American style Lager you taste in your typical can of Bud. While it’s their job to mass produce a clean, consistent product across several million barrels, craft brewers can vary their lineup with more hoppy and bitter or malty and sweet varieties. They can even define and create new types like a Black India Pale Ale — a style whose very title is oxymoronic.

Somewhat more controversial in Texas, this definition also includes Shiner Beer and its Spoetzl Brewery even though they, like larger national breweries, use adjuncts — ingredients other than the traditional malt, hops and water like corn. However, brewmaster Jimmy Mauric’s rebuttal is that the corn is used for flavoring and to keep their Shiner Blonde light while keeping with that malt flagship.

So if you include the Spoetzl Brewery, Texas currently has a dozen craft breweries, including four in Austin: Live Oak Brewing Co., Independence Brewing Co., (512) Brewing Co. and Thirsty Planet Brewing Co.

That’s really just the frothy head on an overflowing pint. The Chronicle also found that the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission currently has nine pending license applications for breweries and two active licenses for unopened breweries. If they’re all approved, that could mean a total of 23 Texas craft breweries by sometime next year.

“Initially Texas has been behind some of the other states, like Washington, Oregon, Colorado and California, since they’ve had craft breweries and brew pubs for longer,” said Tim Schwartz, Real Ale Brewing’s head brewer and a UT alumnus. “The laws used to be more restrictive but we’re starting to catch up. We had to work at it for a while and bring them these [craft] beers, but their palate has become much more demanding.”