I Love Austin, TX

Most of my favorite American cities are those that take their food seriously. Quite often, a locale with a vibrant arts scene also plays host to innumerable great restaurants and bars. This is why I love visiting Portland but would never wish a trip to Houston upon anyone. Yet, a few hours to the west of that bland sprawl in Texas’ Gulf Coast sits a town that rivals any when it comes to arts, culture, and food. I had the pleasure of visiting Austin this weekend with my girlfriend Victoria for a quick getaway and spent 48 hours in gastronomic and zymurgical bliss.

We flew in late Friday night, with just enough time to check out Sixth Street, the bar destination of poor college kids, working adults, and tourists alike. The bars lining both sides of street, nearly all of which were leaking live music out of their doors and into my ears, were full to the brim and the closed-off street was bursting with people as well. It was actually a bit too overwhelming and we were tired from the flight so we decided to turn in early to enjoy a full day on Saturday.

The following morning began with a trip to JuiceLand, a small chain of juice bars peppered throughout Austin (and one location in Brooklyn). After a strawberry-banana-peanut butter-chia seed-apple juice smoothie there and an hour wandering around the giant, flagship Whole Foods in the center of town, Victoria and I headed west with our friends who were visiting from Dallas. Fifteen miles down the highway, houses become scarce, trees become abundant, and the ranches of hill country reveal themselves. Out this way lies the best one-two punch of beer and pizza I have experienced in America so far: Jester King Brewery and Pieous pizza.

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These people are about to receive 500 mililiters of beer after 3 hours of waiting in the sun.

My first encounter with Jester King was about four years ago when their beers still made it out to California regularly. I picked up a 750ml bottle because of its artwork and name: Black Metal Imperial Stout. It was (and still is) badass. A year later, Jester King had changed their recipe for this beast of a beer by fermenting it with yeasts native to the ranch the brewery sits on instead of pre-packaged cultures from White Labs or Wyeast. Just after this change took place, I visited Austin and happened to meet the owner of the brewery, Jeffrey Stuffings, who graciously gave me a tour the following day. Jeffrey capped the experience by opening a bottle of a raspberry sour beer called Atrial Rubicite, which instantly blew any framboise or other raspberry beer I’d ever had completely out of the water. It was extremely sour, yes, but what I couldn’t comprehend was how fresh the raspberries tasted. After sitting for months in a barrel and a few weeks or more in a bottle, it seemed like the fruit had just come off the bush.

Fast-forward a couple years and Atrial Rubicite is one of the most sought after beers in the world. Any beer trading forum you view will have at least one post (if not many) with the title “ISO: Atrial; FT: You Name It”. ISO is beer trading shorthand for “in search of” and FT signifies what the poster has “for trade.” People love Atrial Rubicite. And luckily enough, of all the weekends I picked to go to Texas, July 24-26 was the one that the brewery decided to release this year’s batch of their sour nectar. Needless to say, it was packed. My previous visit saw five cars in the parking lot and this one saw north of 500. The line for bottles of Atrial Rubicite was about three hours long. Did I mention it was 95 degrees outside? It’s an outstanding beer, but I wasn’t going to risk heat stroke, a terrible sunburn, and my precious time on a short trip for 500ml for a beer I’ve had before. Yes, it would be an outstanding addition to my cellar but I was happy enough with enjoying it fresh from the tap on that sunny Saturday.

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I forgot to take a picture until I was almost done. It was that good.

The beer pours a beautiful rosy pink color, with a white head of foam that dissipates fairly quickly. From five feet away you can smell the fresh Washington raspberry aroma volatizing and finding its way into the pleasure centers of your brain. The taste is quite tart, though slightly less sour than previous batches, with raspberries front and center. I detected a bit of acetic acid (vinegar) and a tinge of oak, but to a far less extent than the berries. The beer warmed up quickly, given the temperature outside, but it retained all of its desirable characteristics even as it passed 75 degrees. Victoria loved the beer, as did my other two friends, one of whom was a wine drinker skeptical about trying it. After purchasing enough bottles to fill my suitcase, we departed with rumbling stomachs clamoring for pizza.

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Sopressata decided to meat in the middle.

Okay, maybe they weren’t clamoring for pizza, but we were hungry and I was keen on introducing my three companions to Pieous, home to some of the most authentic Neapolitan pizza I’ve had this side of the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived in the wake of other beer enthusiasts who had made the three-mile trek to Pieous, despite the existence of a perfectly fine pizza establishment on the same parcel of ranch that Jester King inhabits. Evidently they also were in the know. I ordered one of the most popular pizzas, the Fat Queen, which is topped with pepperoni, sopressata, and Italian sausage. Normally, a pie that loaded with meat would be a greasy, salty mess with a jumble of flavors that become difficult to differentiate—not here. The spiciness of the sopressata heightened rather than masked the fennel flavor of the house-made sausage and made the savory notes of the pepperoni more pronounced. The sweetness from the crushed tomatoes did not detract from the subtle sweetness of the fresh mozzarella and the bed of sourdough crust that the ingredients all sat upon was perfectly cooked, with bubbles that had blackened beautifully and an edge that was delightfully chewy.

As if this were not enough (and it certainly was), I insisted that we also split a pastrami plate. When the owners took over the space two and a half years ago, there was an old, high-quality smoker that they could not get rid of, no matter how unrelated it was to their idea of perfect Neapolitan pizza. Keeping it in the restaurant proved to be a brilliant move, because the pastrami they make in it is some of the best I’ve ever had. It has black crust on the exterior, but comes thinly sliced and ready to melt in your mouth instantly, like a hybrid of a smoked brisket and pride of a Jewish deli. The platter it came on also had pickled onions, two types of mustard, sourdough bread, and a pickle. All of these were quite tasty but after trying a bit of each, I decided to eat the pastrami all by itself and I’m sure I made the right call.

After a lazy afternoon spent napping and digesting, we all met up with friends, old and new, on Rainey Street—the de facto row for gastropubs, hip restaurants, and new condos. Our first stop was Clive Bar, which seemed (not unlike other bars on the block) to have been converted from a bungalow-style house into a bar with a large outdoor patio. At the back corner of the patio was a small building which looked like a small church from the old West, but it served mescal instead of the good word. On a warm Austin night, it was the perfect place to throw back a mescal mule, chat with friends, and soak in the ambience of the coolest city in Texas.

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We will be back soon!

To finish the night, I brought as many people as would listen to me down the street to Craft Pride, a bar that only serves craft beer brewed in the Lone Star State. I had a few fine offerings, but none compared to the Yellow Rose IPA from Lone Pint Brewery. I had heard about this beer, forgotten about it, and ordered it after far too much deliberation looking at the big board. It had a fine citrusy aroma and extremely clean taste full of grapefruit, pear, and honey. I sought it out the next day at a bottle shop to no avail, but will soon be asking a friend in Texas to ship bottles my way.

I could hardly believe how much great food and drink we had packed into a single, scorching day in the heart of Texas, but we pulled it off and went to sleep happy. Our second and final day in Austin was much more relaxed and involved a homemade breakfast of chicken and waffles, a trip to the Barton Springs creek, and Victoria’s first experience with queso—the dip that epitomizes Tex-Mex cuisine. Two days was not nearly enough time to explore everything Austin has to offer. With hundreds of great local restaurants and innumerable food trailers, the capital of Texas has a rich food culture, which I fully intend to explore on repeat visits.


What’s your favorite part of Austin? Where should I eat on my next trip (other than Franklin BBQ, because, obviously)?

 

SARA: More than just a great Fleetwood Mac song

Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, or SARA, is a small brewery in Capitola, CA, that makes some of the most sought after beers in the United States, with the beer trading community ravenously watching every bottle release. The reason for this is simple: they make some of the best beers in the country, or any other country for that matter. This isn’t just an opinion–according to BeerAdvocate users, their average beer rates 4.19 out of 5, behind only a handful of breweries like Cantillon and Hill Farmstead. While some could argue ratings are skewed, inflated, or otherwise flawed, it’s hard to argue with the notion that what’s brewed at SARA is nothing short of exceptional.

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One of these things is beautiful…

I sojourned north to the Bay Area for a long weekend in which I would be pouring wine for an open house event at my friend’s winery in Sonoma on Saturday and Sunday. This left my Friday wide open to take the trip to Santa Cruz I’d always wanted. In the morning at Bluxome Street Winery (where my brother is the Cellar Master and I worked last Fall during harvest), I collected an empty growler, Ty (the associate winemaker), and my aforementioned brother, Kyle, and hit the road. The roads were clear and with an hour to kill before Sante Adairius opened, we stopped at a restaurant in Santa Cruz called “burger.” for, you guessed it, burgers and beers to whet our appetite. The burgers were nearly as awesome as their beer list, and I tried a double IPA from a local brewery called Hop Dogma. That beer (We All Grin for Lupulin) was an unfiltered hop bomb with no shyness about showcasing the citrus fruit flavors and aromas we’ve come to expect from West Coast IPA’s and Double IPA’s. As an added bonus, they give you a celebrity mugshot instead of a number when you order. It’s fun. After lunch, and a short drive down the scenic West Cliff in Santa Cruz, we were finally heading to Capitola.

Arriving just after the brewery opened, we had plenty of time to soak in the environment without other people there. It’s kind of surreal to know that in that moment, we could have been the only three people in the world drinking Sante Adairius beers. With such limited bottle releases, it being noon on a weekday, and their virtual lack of keg distribution, this definitely wasn’t unthinkable and made me feel rather privileged, to be honest. I had a two ounce pour of their most well-known beer, West Ashley, a sour saison with apricots, a few months ago at the Shelton Brothers Festival and was really impressed. It goes without saying that the experience set the bar rather high for my expectations, but the first whiff of their four grain saison, Little Quibble, assuaged any hesitation that I might be let down. It smelled of banana chips and toasted oats, and even though Kyle and Ty didn’t agree with me, I smelled lanolin as well. The flavor was malty, spicy, and yeasty, typical of a saison, with a hint of the banana found in the aroma. Light in color and body, this saison was incredibly complex for its drinkability. In addition to the tasting notes I have here, there were plenty of other aromas and flavors I couldn’t pin down, and I think that’s a good thing.

Little Quibble

Complexity gives beer character, and while I can appreciate beers that do a single thing really well, it’s far more interesting to me to drink something that’s not easy to unpack and figure out right away. It’s the reason a brewery like Jester King eschewed only using hermetically-sealed yeasts made in a lab for the ones floating around their farmhouse in Austin. To do things completely by the books is often safe, but it’s rarely interesting. Native yeasts impart nuance and originality to beers, making them unlike other beers of the same style or even offering variation from batch to batch. Subtlety is often lost in an era dominated by Double IPA’s and Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, but is something to be appreciated. Flavor doesn’t always have to punch you in the tongue to be awesome. In wine, the same thing often happens when people refuse to drink reds that aren’t big, bold tannin assaults or won’t drink white wine because they “might as well drink water.” I use direct quotes because someone told me this once–someone who will never appreciate the beauty of a delicate Chablis or light-bodied red wine from a thin-skinned varietal. To me, this is nearly as sad as it is frustrating; if these people dug a little deeper, they’d probably like what they found. But back to beer, and the people who acknowledge a finely-crafted one.

After the saison, I switched gears to the 831 West Coast IPA. It poured a golden, hazy, almost orange color with white grape and tropical fruit notes begging to get out, with light but noticeable honey undertones. The flavor of this IPA complemented the aroma, with juicy citrus and hop dankness on the palate. It finished cleanly with a lingering bitterness that left me wanting another sip. I was really pleased to see how well Sante Adairius handled such radically different styles, and that pleasantness extended the my next beer, Brandy Palimpsest, a Flanders Red Ale aged in brandy barrels. Flanders Red Ales were the first sour beers I encountered and remain one of my favorite styles. This beer further entrenched me in that philosophy. The aroma was mainly honey and molasses, with a bit of tart funkiness, but not much. I was amazed at how much sweetness the brandy barrels imparted, with the flavor seeming full of honey, but with detectable sarsaparilla and pluot. I was happy to arrive at pluot after a few moments of thinking out loud; oftentimes it can feel silly or like guesswork describing a beer (or wine), but the “A-ha!” moments like this make it worth it. Being a sour beer, the Brandy Palimpsest had delicious tartness and a mouth-watering juiciness to it as well, with no discernible alcohol. In case you are curious (like I was), a palimpsest is a scroll or piece of parchment that has been washed of ink so it may be reused, much like the wine barrels Sante Adairius repurposes to hold beer.

Brandy Palimpsest: Hard to Say, Fun to Drink

After this, I didn’t order more beer because we planned on wine tasting at two or threes wineries after visiting the brewery. I did, however, enjoy multiple sips from Kyle and Ty’s beers, the Human Kindness milk stout and Vanilla Joe porter with local coffee and vanilla. We all agreed that Vanilla Joe was a truly exceptional porter full of depth, with a flavor that we described as undulating because it moved from roasted barley, to sweet vanilla, to roasted coffee, with a hearty finish and a vanilla aftertaste. I enjoyed the tasting room’s atmosphere more as I knew our time there was fleeting. The natural wood tables and bar help to emphasize the “Rustic” aspect of the name, and the empty bottles of other amazing beers that line the bar and the shelves let you know that they are serious about quality beer. There was a dog named Rooster who was running around the tasting room and the parking lot outside, occasionally letting us pet him. I was actually left with the same feeling that I get when I finish a really good book, which can best be described as “that was perfect and now I’m happy to be alive.” Not a lot of places can offer that experience, but if you want to know what it feels like and don’t feel like reading East of Eden, just take a trip to Capitola.

Get to Know: Alpine Beer Company

Note: This is my first post in the “Get to Know” series, which will provide you with enough knowledge to walk into the breweries I’ll be featuring like a pro. Enjoy!

Thinking of San Diego usually conjures images of palm trees, ocean breezes, beaches, and the Chargers underachieving year in and year out. However, if you are in search of the Holy Grail of San Diego beer, you must put these notions out of your head and set your sights to the East. Nestled in an old building 33 miles inland from the nearest beach, Alpine Beer Company quietly makes some of the best beers in the country in a chaparral environment more likely to remind you of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly than The Endless Summer. But that’s fine with the folks who populate the brewpub, who are either thirsty locals or beer aficionados who have made the pilgrimage in order to try the world-class ales.

Alpine Beer Company, usually just called Alpine, currently has eight beers on the BeerAdvocate’s user-rated list of the Top 250 beers. They have limited distribution; kegs sometimes make their way as far as San Francisco, but bottles are hard to come by outside of San Diego county, and when they are, they go fast. Alpine is known for their IPAs, Duet and Nelson, which are each excellent in their own respects. Duet is a quintessential West Coast IPA, employing Simcoe and Amarillo hops, which are outstanding individually but have a synergetic effect when combined. This hop-forward beer has crisp, fresh pine notes complemented by the zesty citrus flavors that the Amarillo hop provides. Nelson, so named for the judicious use of the Southern Hemisphere Nelson Sauvin hop, is on the other end of the spectrum as far as IPAs go. It pours a hazy golden-orange color and the aroma is bursting with tropical fruit—a hallmark of New Zealand hops. It is brewed with rye in addition to the standard barley malt, which adds a slight spiciness and a more delicate mouthfeel. These beers alone warrant a trip to East county San Diego if you’ve never tried them before.

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She’s not much, but she’s home.

Such a trip becomes even more worthwhile when you arrive at the brewery, which might look more like a motel if you didn’t take a good look at it. The combination taproom/restaurant and the brewery are separated by three other businesses that rarely seem to be open, and the space between them is often populated with people waiting in line to fill growlers. By the way, growler fills and bottle sales must take place at the brewery itself while it is open; after hours, bottles are available at the pub. The pub, which is nearly always packed, has about a dozen tables, a bar with eight stools, and an outdoor terrace with a handful of tables. Waits for tables regularly exceed 30 minutes, but space at the bar or outside can usually be found. Alpine keeps eight to ten taps flowing most of the time, including one guest tap that seems to be a surprise every time. In addition to the two standout IPAs, beers to look out for include Hoppy Birthday Pale Ale, Keene Idea Double IPA, Good Barleywine (and Great, the Barrel-Aged variant), and their sour beers, which are usually gone in a flash.

The menu is barbecue centric and most of it fits into the categories greasy, cheesy, or spicy. This isn’t to suggest that it’s not tasty, but be prepared for red baskets and squeezable sauces, not narrow rectangular plates and aioli drizzles. The strong presence of hoppy beers complements the overall spiciness of the menu, and the ability to order half pints of beer makes trying many of them simple and affordable. Just remember to bring a designated driver, because after visiting the brewery, it’s a (relatively) long way back to San Diego.


What are your thoughts on Alpine and their best beer(s)? Did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comments!