Sunday, April 27, 2008

Texas' Taste in Beer

More so than any other state in the Union, Texas constitutes a unique subculture above and beyond simple state borders. With a colorful history, a strong independent streak and even today isolated by long distances from our nearest neighbors, Texas culture has grown up with its own unique and regional tastes and preferences.

Until just a few years ago, Texas consumed more beer in total volume than any other state. (California now holds that distinction, with Texas a close second.) Of course, this is not a reflection of the craft beer market; the bulk of what is consumed are macro products, with their multitude of light lager styles and alcopops. But it does show that Texans have a particular taste for beer, and the local craft beer market also reflects that.

Basically, Texas is hot. Not the type of desert heat like Arizona, with temperatures of 120°F during the day and dropping into the cool 60s at night. Texas heat is a stagnant, humid heat that hangs in the upper 90s, usually crossing the triple-digit mark in summers, and that heat is retained with a perpetual +70% humidity so that overnight the mercury barely budges by ten degrees. Perspiration is an uncontrollable fact of life for everyone, and the humidity can sap your energy in mere minutes.

The heat alone tends to preclude certain cold-weather beer styles from gaining a foothold. With their heavy flavors, stouts of all varieties are rare; in fact, only one stout is commercially produced by any Texas craft brewer, and that one merely a seasonal, the Saint Arnold Winter Stout. Likewise, high-gravity beers like barleywines, wee heavies and old ales are rare, although a few are produced on a limited basis.

The German and Czech immigrants to Texas at its formation infused the state with a taste for their native beers, particularly the maltier bock and dunkel styles. Although no longer a “true bock” (it is now classified as an American dark lager), the hundred-year-old Spoetzl Brewery produces the ubiquitous Shiner Bock that is amazingly popular with native Texans from cowboys to Chicanos, and has grown to be distributed through about a third of the US. So popular is Shiner Bock that brewing giant Anheuser-Bush produces a similar beer named Ziegenbock specifically to compete in the Texas market.

But if there were a single style to declare as a “state beer,” nothing slakes the thirst of Texans like the wheat ales. Texans have embraced all manner of wheat styles, from Bavarian weizen to spicy Belgian witbier to the standard American wheat. So popular is this single family of beers that every craft brewer in Texas commercially produces some variety of wheat ale, and local brewpubs are foolish not to have one of their own on draught. Even clear, filtered varieties of wheat ales such as kristalweizen are developed ahead of the massively popular IPAs.

Standing out from this family of wheat ales is the German hefeweizen, or weizen mit hefe (“with yeast”). Texans adore their hefeweizen in all its creamy sweetness filled with estery traces of clove, vanilla and banana. The acknowledged leader in the state is the Live Oak Hefeweizen from the tiny brewery in Austin, one of the oldest craft brewers in Texas. Once only a spring offering, demand for this Live Oak beer was so great that the brewer now produces it year-round. So distinct is its quality that it continually appears on “best of” beer lists and websites, beating out other national craft beers and even native Bavarian products of the same style.

As the Civil War general Philip Sheridan said, “If I owned Hell and Texas, I'd rent out Texas and live in Hell.” As long as we had our hefeweizen, I think we could get by.

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