Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Good Texas beer

I've tasted some excellent brews from Austin and Houston lately – two of which should be readily available to Texans, but a third which may not.

I must confess, I have previously been a bit ambivalent toward the beers of Houston's Saint Arnold Brewery. Their flagship beer, the Amber, has always underwhelmed me. However, two of their seasonal beers have forced me to reappraise their product.

If you head to the store soon, you may be in time to still buy some of their Winter Stout, a hearty stout with a bit of a bite to it that really impressed my drinking crew at the Gingerman. A slight hint of coffee and a roasted quality that reminds me of my very favorite, North Coast's Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout, but minus that beer's mind-blowing alcohol volume. I enjoyed a six pack or two of this during what passes for cold weather here in Central Texas.

I was even more pleased by their Spring Bock. If your opinion of the bock style has formed around the more famous Shiner Bock, you've been deceived – Shiner, while a decent-enough beer, is not a true bock. The real thing is more malty and distinctively German, and Saint Arnold hits it right on the mark – a perfectly balanced level of malt, quite a bit smoother on the tongue than the doppelbocks ("double bock") that you might have sampled this winter. And that makes it perfect for a transition from the cold months to the warmer weather, when you'll be craving a lighter drink. (Now I'm certain my taste opinions are completely objective, but I suspect I may have been swayed by the Bock's packaging, with pictures of our beautiful Texas bluebonnets.)

Unfortunately, whether you get to taste the third beer is up to the whims of brewmaster Ty Phelps at Austin's North by Northwest brewpub. On the last Wednesday of every month, NXNW brings out a keg of specially crafted cask-conditioned brew ("cask-conditioned" means that, rather than having carbon dioxide injected, it undergoes a second fermentation and carbonates naturally in the cask). This time, it was a special rendering of their Pyjingo Pale Ale — already a pretty good beer in their normal lineup, but this special batch was loaded with even more hops. Now, in this era of the microbrew revival, good beer is pretty easy to find, especially in a beer town like Austin. I'm pretty hard to impress nowadays. So let me tell you, it is only the most
special beer that, on the first sip, makes my eyes pop wide open, my head spin with delight, and cause me to utter, "WOW." This beer did just that. Sadly, the cask tastings only produce 11 gallons of beer — once it ran out, we were forced to switch to the regular Pyjingo. I hate to knock the regular, but after the special batch, it was a little like shifting from filet mignon to hamburger.

The next NXNW cask-tapping – which, alas, I will be forced to miss – will be February 28 at 7pm and will feature an Irish stout. (Don't be late, and I recommend you carpool — NXNW is very popular, its parking is limited, and the 11 gallons disappears very quickly.)

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