Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Austin Brewing Phenomenon

Amid a tee-shirt emblazoned mantra of “Keep Austin Weird,” the Texas state capitol has worked to maintain its local flavor and attitude. For decades, I have watched the town grow from a barely-city positioned as a quaint, convenient college-and-government town into an almost-metropolis struggling to keep its liberal, indie identity within the corporate influx and urban sprawl.

Likewise, I have seen Austin beer ebb and flow yet always lead the state in craft brewing. With a natural water composition that chemically favors brewing, the area has attracted national and international attention from brewers, with no less than the legendary Pierre Celis once brewing here. And the local population has eagerly and thirstily embraced them all.

But something new is in the wind these days in Austin, the likes of which have not been seen since the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. This summer saw the opening of two new microbreweries in addition to the existing three (four if you count nearby Real Ale Brewing in Blanco) that have been operating for years now. And as of the time of this writing, at least that many more are under development for 2011.

With well-established breweries Live Oak Brewing and Independence, along with sophomore effort (512) Brewing, this summer saw Thirsty Planet Brewing and Jester King Craft Brewery open, with Kreuz Creek Brewing and Hops & Grain still pending. Next year should see Circle Brewing and South Austin Brewing open, and at least a half dozen more ventures are still toying with the concept. These places are popping up like weeds; if you hear of still more new brewers, please let me know.

So what has spurred this stampede of new brewers, and why now? And why Austin? Is there something unique to the area that is missing from the rest of the state? Of course, the larger unstated question that looms on the horizon is can a city of only three-quarters of a million people support six, eight, or ten microbreweries when much larger markets like Dallas/Fort Worth or Houston struggle to keep even one open?

A healthy Texas economy has been a factor for many years now, with Austin providing a high-tech boomtown and major university that attracts residents (i.e., thirsty consumers) from around the United States, especially the beer-thirsty West Coast. Golden State residents find the Hill Country’s liberal nature and lush outdoorsmanship in the middle of conservative Texas a natural environment, and the relative living expenses are equally attractive.

However, the underlying factor to the demand and ultimate success of Austin beer lies in the nature of Austinites themselves. Residents of our capitol tend to be fiercely loyal to local brands and wary of corporate products, as well as being heavily vested in the Slow Food movement—of which, as I have always maintained, craft beer is a healthy segment.

Along with brewers also come the writers and bloggers these days, with several Austin locals establishing themselves as the witnesses to the movement. Chris Troutman of Beertown Austin (who produces some great vblogs with craft brewers) says this:
People in Austin love to latch on to local products and producers. Like Portland and Boulder, Austin is a granola town, and something about the ‘rawness’ and ‘earthiness’ of beer really appeals to the market here. Of the new brewers coming on the scene we have guys brewing with rain water, reclaiming spent grains for dog biscuits, attempting to go 100% organic, and you can’t talk to any new brewer without the subject of the environmental friendliness of cans coming up.
Can a town like Austin support a dozen independent brewers? Remarkably, unlike almost any other locale in the Lone Star State, I believe they can. This is not a group of overnight millionaires from the Internet playing with beer, and the craft beer movement is no longer merely a novelty waiting to pass. Austin is uniquely a beer city, and they are about to enter another Golden Age.


Kristin Smith said...

No Label Brewing is opening this year as well in Katy, TX!

assurbanipaul said...

Houston is another article. ;)

Anonymous said...

Kreuz Creek is not in Austin, it's in Houston.....

assurbanipaul said...

You are correct, Kreuz Creek is in Sugarland. So many breweries opening at once in Austin/Houston, I'm getting my wires crossed.