Should Texas wine be made with 100 percent Texas-grown grapes?

Miguel Lecuona for American-Statesman. William Chris Vineyards makes wine from 100 percent Texas-grown grapes and supports a House bill that would require all wineries to use state fruit for a Texas label.

Far fewer people now doubt that Texas can make wine on par with California, France and other top winemaking regions of the world. With the reputation of the state’s flourishing wine industry secure, a small but growing group of winemakers believe the next step should be authenticity — a law establishing that wine can only be granted Texas appellation if it’s made from 100 percent Texas-grown grapes.

Others in the industry, including the main organization Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association, are against the proposed bills, House Bill 1514 and Senate Bill 1833, that would seek to make this designation a reality. They argue that the state’s grape growers haven’t yet established they have the yields, year after year, to fully supply the winemakers, especially when vineyards are so often at the mercy of the weather.

But for Chris Brundrett, arguably the biggest proponent of the bill and the co-owner of William Chris Vineyards in Hye, a small town on the road to Fredericksburg, there’s one irrefutable reason to support what he calls greater transparency with Texas wine: because it will lend more significance to the notion of Texas wine, especially to many of the state’s own consumers who expect their wine to have been grown here, too, and not just made or processed here.

“We want to grow this industry and want our consumers to know that if we put Texas on the label, it means as much as Washington or California,” Brundrett said, citing two states with more stringent labeling guidelines.

Like other states besides California, the Texas wine industry currently follows federal labeling regulations. Wines can have an appellation of origin (a geographical indication given to certain products derived from a specific place) if they’re made with a minimum of 75 percent grapes grown in that state. The other 25 percent can come from anywhere.

HB 1514 and its Senate counterpart would seek to change that: to guarantee that wines with a Texas label be made using entirely Texas-grown grapes.

The former bill is currently pending in committee and, with so little time left for the 85th Texas Legislature, might not even be considered on a wider scale. But the passionate feelings on either side — with winemakers straddling both ends of the debate — nonetheless provides insight into the state of the Texas wine industry and whether it’ll be ready in two years, the next legislative session, for a decisive labeling law.

For Brundrett, the problem isn’t that many Texas winemakers still make a lot of their wine with out-of-state grapes — it’s that they aren’t clear about it. That’s something fellow Hye winemaker Benjamin Calais, of Calais Winery and nearby distillery Hye Rum, has also noticed. Both of their wineries make wine with 100 percent Texas-grown grapes and say they have earned loyal customers because of it.

“We’re a minority right now,” Calais said. “A lot of Texas wineries are using 25 to 30 percent of California juice to blend with Texas juice, and when you tell people that, they are unhappy about it. It’s like the craft beer movement, when breweries get sold, and people decide they won’t support those breweries anymore. For wine drinkers, there’s an expectation when you’re visiting a small winery in the Hill Country that the person in front of you is being truthful, and it’s just not always the case.”

Brundrett also said that a stricter labeling law won’t disrupt anyone who still wants to produce wine with out-of-state grapes; they just won’t be able to label it as Texas wine anymore.

“We get a lot of hailstorms and freezes and other weather situations that can damage our grapes, so Texas wineries have the choice not to take the risk of using Texas grapes. We’re not trying to take that away,” Brundrett said. “All the bill does is respect the sense of place of Texas wine.”

But other winemakers — many of them the biggest producers of Texas wine — think more regulation on the industry would stunt the growth of it so early in its development.

Messina Hof, the largest and one of the oldest wineries in the state, makes approximately 60,000 cases of wine a year in comparison to William Chris Vineyards’ 25,000 cases and tries to get as many grapes as possible from Texas. That’s just not always possible, Messina Hof CEO Paul M. Bonarrigo said, citing a loss of 25 percent of the winery’s crop last year due to hail.

The son of the original founders, Paul V. and Merrill Bonarrigo, he is not in support of HB 1514 for reasons beyond the availability of Texas grapes. He sees other issues as more pressing to the Texas wine industry, including new herbicides that he fears are unintentionally killing whole vineyards in the Texas High Plains as they drift in the wind from nearby cotton fields. The Texas High Plains produce a significant number of grapes for wineries around the state, and Bonarrigo sees the herbicides as a real threat to Texas wine.

“Our industry is in a delicate position,” he said. “My concern is that if we focus our energy on something like (HB 1514), we’re going to lose support legislatively on things that are very important for us to survive.”

The Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association, which represents winemakers like Messina Hof and William Chris Vineyards, ultimately opposed the bill as well and wrote a letter to the sponsoring legislator, Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, about its decision made after “considerable discussion” about HB 1514.

“While we appreciate your interest in this issue, we feel that the regulations imposed by your bill would not benefit the industry or consumers at this time,” according to the letter signed by president Dusty Timmons. The association “has formed an internal committee to work on this issue and hopefully over time we will find a reasonable solution that will benefit everyone involved.”

Whether that solution will come in time for another proposed bill in the Texas Legislature in 2019 is still a big question. Brundrett, like other small winemakers who have worked hard to guarantee wines made only from Texas-grown grapes, is already confident the state is ready.

“Growing grapes in Texas is not easy. There are windstorms, hail and late freezes. A lot of uncontrollable variable. But there is so much technology and technique that has taken us out of the dark ages at the same time,” he said. “Now you’re seeing much more consistent crop levels. We’re growing an agriculture product with integrity, and we need this to take the industry to the next level.”

Inaugural Index Fest successfully mingled music, beer and art in Austin

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. The very first Index Fest rocked by combining music, art and craft beer.

The first rays of the incoming summer sun were blisteringly hot at times, but the beer, at least, was good and cold at the debut of Index Fest this weekend.

Also coming to Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Dallas throughout this year, the festival is a slightly spruced-up version of the now-defunct Untapped Fest — offering games, art installations and a small roster of food vendors in addition to the usual focus on music and craft beer.

But make no mistake: Index Fest still kept the spotlight squarely on the latter two, with brewery booths scattered across the lawn and parking lot in front of the Austin American-Statesman and a large stage erected in one corner for live performances from Austin City Limits Music Fest veterans Local Natives of Los Angeles, as well as electronica duo Frenship, indie-rockers Grizfolk, local stage-spectacle Calliope Musicals and DJ Mark Markus.

The setup of the festival kept those there for the music partitioned, for the most part, from those drinking beer out of 2 oz. taster glasses. I can’t say how the music was — I was not an active listener as I made my way down the lines of brewery booths with friends — but I appreciated that sound levels from the stage never reached an overwhelming level.

Implementing electronic wristbands that kept track of how many pours each person had gotten of beer (tickets allowed for a certain number, though you could purchase more) was also smart and efficient.

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Fredericksburg’s Altstadt Brewery launched only a couple of months ago, so Index Fest was likely many beer lovers’ introduction to its light, easy-drinking beers.

Here are some of the standout beers from the festival, many of which are available in larger quantities around town.

From Austin:

  • Pinthouse Pizza’s Zappy Squid IPA (which was exciting to try for the first time in part because I’d just published a story about the brewpub’s stellar IPA program)
  • Hops & Grain’s Pellets & Powder IPA
  • Independence Brewing’s Illustrated Man Dark Sour
  • North by Northwest’s Mr. Rogers Imperial Pale Lager

From Texas and around the country:

  • Peticolas’ Velvet Hammer Imperial Red Ale
  • Firestone Walker’s Luponic Distortion, a rotating hop series
  • Jolly Pumpkin’s No Ka Oi Wild Ale
  • BrainDead Brewing’s Idle Playthings Belgian Golden Strong Ale

Isla, the sister bar to Peche, has now closed in Austin’s Warehouse District

Laura Skelding / American-Statesman. Isla, once home to Caribbean-style cocktails, is closing down.

Once a rum bar and restaurant serving up Caribbean-style food to patrons, Isla made the switch late last year to Peruvian cuisine and cocktails but couldn’t seem to find its groove. The sister spot to French-focused Peche announced this morning on social media that Isla has closed.

The announcement came through Chef Julio-Cesar Flórez, a Peruvian native who helped the restaurant redirect its culinary program to the flavors of South America.

“Isla closed,” he wrote in a Facebook post that was then re-posted on Isla’s Facebook and Instagram. “It was my pleasure and honor to bring Peruvian food of this quality to this city. I hope to do it again soon, it has always been my mission, and I know I won a lot of hearts during this short period.”

Owner Rob Pate, who opened the city’s first absinthe bar with Peche, took over the short-lived Pleasant Storage Room next door to Peche in late 2014, when the rum bar styled after a popular Cuban watering hole abruptly closed. He decided not to change the focus of Isla from its former incarnation, creating a menu of tropical drinks and food.

Isla became the place to go for almost exclusively tiki-style cocktails paired with island fare. It then transitioned to more of a Caribbean cantina until Flórez’ Peruvian influence. And for Pate, through all of his project’s changes, Isla remained a special place because of the people who worked there to make it what it needed to be.

“It is never an easy thing to close something that so many people have put a great deal of effort into,” he said in an emailed statement. “We were blessed at Isla to have a great core of employees, and I think that is what hurts the most. We will take a couple of weeks to figure out our next step and go from there.”

Isla’s last day was Sunday, when it hosted a final brunch.

The Austin Winery celebrates move to South Austin with grand opening party

Contributed by the Austin Winery. The Austin Winery’s new location is finally open and will celebrate with an all-day party this weekend.

The Austin Winery will continue to be an urban destination with its move south to the mixed-use industrial complex called the Yard, where St. Elmo Brewing, Spokesman Coffee and others like a forthcoming whiskey distillery are also situated.

Founded by three young entrepreneurs — CEO Ross McLauchlan, VP and winemaker Cooper Anderson, and chief of operations Matthew Smith — the winery is officially open in its new location and wants to celebrate with you tomorrow at a grand opening party.

There, the small food menu with light bites like meats and cheeses is debuting for the first time, as well as new releases of some of the winery’s staple wines: Euphoria, Work Horse, Quarter Horse and Rosé. Bottles will be 15 percent off all day.

McLauchlan is excited to expose more locals to the Austin Winery with a more central location and has made sure that visitors have plenty to explore. The Austin Winery has a barrel room, a tasting room, a mezzanine and even an on-site kitchen that will allow the winery to play host to guest chefs and supper clubs.

“There will be much more room, so it’ll be nice to have an expanded presence and options for people to relax, engage and enjoy the space,” he said last year, when the winery was still in the process of constructing the new facility. “Wine is great on its own, but it’s always better when paired with other things, whether that’s food, music or shopping.”

The bigger space has big benefits in other ways, too: being able to produce up to 20,000 cases per year of wine.

Tomorrow’s celebration will run from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Regular tasting room hours are 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and 12 to 7 p.m. Sundays, during which there will often be live music, DJ sets, food trucks on weekends, trivia nights and trunk shows. The Austin Winery also has plans for a set of wine classes for both novices and professionals.

The Austin Winery is located at 440A E. St. Elmo Rd. For more information, visit theaustinwinery.com.

Austin brewpub Pinthouse Pizza to open third location in Round Rock

After finding a niche in Austin as a family-friendly brewpub selling beer and pizza, Pinthouse Pizza is moving a little north of the city for its newest location in Round Rock. Construction will start this summer at a plot of land at Old Settlers and Interstate 35.

It might take longer to get this third brewpub up and running because Pinthouse is starting from the ground up, erecting an entirely new building rather than simply retrofitting an existing one, as with the first two on Burnet Road and South Lamar Boulevard. The team behind Pinthouse, which includes Director of Brewing Operations Joe Morhfeld, is excited to put their stamp on the project from the start.

“We’ll have more space to do what we want,” he said.

Deborah Cannon / American-Statesman. Pinthouse Pizza will be making many more beers at an upcoming Round Rock location.

And why Round Rock? The town is appealing because it’s become an outpost of other Austin chains like Hopdoddy and the site of new restaurants from established Austin chefs like Jack Gilmore, who opened Salt Traders Coastal Cooking there last year to strong reviews.

“It just kind of made sense for us to move there, looking at the other restaurants around there and how they’re doing and the demographic,” Mohrfeld said. “With the population shift and everything, it seemed like a natural fit for us. And there’s still open land that we were able to grab.”

For his part, Mohrfeld plans to approach the brewing program there in the same way he has the other two: offering new and different beers at it with Pinthouse’s indelible balanced style.

“You’ll never find Man O’ War (Pinthouse Burnet’s flagship beer) at the south location, just like you won’t find Electric Jellyfish (Pinthouse Lamar’s flagship beer) at the north location,” Jacob Passey, head brewer at the South Lamar brewpub, said. “We might make similar beers with some crossover recipes, but for the most part, if you always go south and you want to go north, we want you to be able to try new beers. Or vice versa.”

That will be the case at Round Rock: Morhfeld is considering making Training Bines, another Pinthouse IPA, the flagship at Round Rock. People at the Burnet pub have already gotten to try it, as he and the brewers work to perfect it.

“It’s same thing we did with Lamar,” the second Pinthouse location to open, he said. “We had been working on a lot of the beers for Lamar for a year plus leading up to it. We just took the stuff that worked and took it down there. So it’s not like we’re starting completely fresh. We’re able to incubate the beers at the two locations and see what works.”

One thing you can count on at the Round Rock spot: lots more exciting IPAs, Pinthouse’s specialty style. The brewpub was founded in 2012 and quickly established itself as the place to go for fresh takes on the beloved beer.

For more information about Pinthouse Pizza, visit pinthousepizza.com.

In Texas Senate, craft brewers fight for off-premise sales, try to ward off taproom tax

Kyser Lough for American-Statesman. Texas breweries with financial backing from other larger breweries, like Independence Brewing, pictured here, might have to pay distributors for every beer they sell in their taprooms under a proposed law making its way through the Senate.
Texas is the only state in the U.S. that doesn’t allow its breweries to sell beer directly to consumers for their enjoyment off-site. Texas also ranks 46th in breweries per capita.

Those two facts were repeated often during a morning Senate committee hearing in which a number of people involved in the brewing industry — brewers and distributors alike — voiced their thoughts on Senate Bill 1217 and Senate Bill 2083, two craft beer-focused bills with very different aims.

SB 1217 would allow breweries to join Texas wineries, distilleries and brewpubs in selling their products for off-premise consumption, while SB 2083, the companion bill to House Bill 3287, would seek to limit breweries that grow beyond a certain size or become owned by a larger beer company. To sell beer in their taprooms, these breweries (which include Austin’s Oskar Blues and Independence Brewing) might have to first sell the beer to their distributor and buy it back.

The Texas House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly this weekend not to legalize taproom beer purchases for off-site consumption and also voted in favor of the limitations on larger breweries, those making 225,000 barrels or more of beer per year.

Proponents of the latter bill, namely distributors through the trade groups Beer Alliance of Texas and Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, argue that it prevents large multinational breweries from “gobbling up” Texas’ small craft breweries and having “access to multiple taprooms across the state,” Rick Donley, representing the Beer Alliance, said during the committee hearing this morning.

That would be in violation of the three-tier system, Keith Strama, counsel for the Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas, added in later testimony, a system that “has allowed for an incredibly competitive marketplace and allows smalls breweries to thrive in a way that other commodities can’t do because of the inability to get to market without a distribution tier.”

In that way, SB 2083 protects small craft breweries in the state, according to the bill’s author, State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo.

But that’s not how the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, the organization representing these brewers, or the Texas Association of Manufacturers, the organization representing the state’s small businesses, see it. Both came out against SB 2083 at the hearing, along with numerous brewers, including Chip McElroy of Live Oak Brewing and Amy Cartwright of Independence Brewing, one of the directly affected breweries.

They argue that SB 2083 and the already-passed HB 3287 — which at the moment directly affect only a small number of brewers, mainly those owned by larger breweries like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors — would discourage investors and limit their businesses’ growth.

Josh Hare, owner of Hops & Grain Brewing and board chairman of the guild, spoke out against the proposed payment larger breweries would have to make to distributors for their taproom beers, calling it a tax. His brewery is in the process of opening a new location in San Marcos.

“If we exceed the collective 225,000 barrel limit, we would be forced then to sell our beer to a wholesaler, buy it back to sell in our tasting room, and it would dramatically cut into our margins and ultimate profitability. I would also like to emphasize here that the beer would never leave our brewery. It would just be paper moving around,” he said. “The wholesaler would place a dock bump tax on that transaction, receiving payment for no added value to what we’re doing on-site.”

Sweeping 2013 legislation allowed, among other things, for production breweries to sell up to 5,000 barrels of beer to consumers for on-site consumption. Breweries aren’t asking for that number to increase but do want to be able to also sell a six-pack to a customer to take home. That’s where SB 1217, from State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, comes in.

The bill restricts monthly purchases to 576 fl. oz. per consumer, the equivalent of two cases of beer. Brewers are in support of it; distributors are not.

“Data from other states shows that off-premise sales leads to more brewery openings, more beer tourism and more retail sales across every tier,” Michael Graham, co-founder of Austin Beerworks, said.

Donley, representing a wholesalers’ group, did not outright discuss why the group is against the bill but pointed out the issue of off-premise sales will be resolved in court because of an ongoing suit Deep Ellum Brewing, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, has raised against the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

The question of taprooms selling beer to-go “involves some intricate points of federal law, including commerce clause issues, equal protection clause issues, but it also strikes at the very core of the 21st Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Donnelly said, referencing the amendment that repealed Prohibition and gave the states total control over alcoholic beverages.

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, asked for clarification about the amendment — how allowing Texas breweries to sell beer to-go, something 49 other states do in some capacity, would “strike at the core” of the U.S. Constitution.

“We repealed Prohibition and extended the right of every state to regulate our alcohol,” Donley said in reply.

“Right. And so we’re the only state that doesn’t allow this, though, right?” Estes said of off-premise sales.

“That is correct, but that’s a policy decision made by you as a legislature,” Donley said.

Neither of the bills have moved out of committee yet.

This post has been corrected to reflect the spelling of Donley’s name. 

Orf Brewing finally arrives, making ‘hybrid’ ales in East Austin

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Chris Orf is slowly getting kegs of his beers to local bars and will open the tasting room of Orf Brewing very soon. His brewery has been a long time coming.

Chris Orf might have the smallest professional brewing system in town, but that hasn’t stopped him from opening Orf Brewing after 11 years of dreaming and planning.

The former homebrewer, comedy writer and chemistry teacher wanted to start a brewery since moving to Austin in 2006 and seeing the potential for his own operation. Although there are far more breweries now than there were then, he believes he’s maintained a niche by offering what he calls hybrid ales — beers that don’t stay true to style — and pairing them with live comedy shows in Orf Brewing’s modest taproom at Burleson Road and East Ben White Boulevard.

“That’s why I say ‘creativity in ale forms,’” Orf said, pointing to the pun on his branded Orf Brewing T-shirt. “That’s my goal, to be part of that community of both beer brewers and entertainment comedy. Combine them so that you can enjoy my beer while you’re having a good time at maybe my show or somebody else’s show.”

For now, he’s just wanting to introduce locals to his beers. The four that he makes are slowly going on draft at bars and restaurants like Craft Pride, Tamale House East and the Whip In, and they’ll also be available when he opens the Orf Brewing taproom for the first time on May 20 for tours and tastings.

Orf said he’s lucky to have gotten the 1,500 sq. ft. warehouse for his brewery — they can be hard to come by in Austin nowadays, and his has plenty of room for growth. He acquired it more than two years ago, demolished the interior (which formerly housed a very illegal hotel) and rebuilt it into a brewing facility. Although he’s had help from friends, he’s done most of it all by himself.

“This is pretty much a one-man DIY operation,” he said. “I’ve been working on this idea for years and years and finally just started doing it for real, slowly as it goes, because when there’s one person and no money, it’s just what you have to do.”

He brews using a 55-gallon system, which is “really, really sweet for a homebrewer and really, really tiny for a professional brewer,” he said, and has bootstrapped together other aspects of the beer-making process that require technology he hasn’t been able to afford yet. He’s hoping for investors who will help him purchase a bigger system and better equipment.

In the meantime, the former University of Texas chemistry instructor — who said he gets joking comparisons all the time to Walter White in “Breaking Bad” as a result — continues to spread the gospel of hybrid beers. He started making beers purposely off-style after growing tired of the likes of pilsners, hefeweizens and pale ales. Orf Brewing take elements from these and other styles and combines them to make beers that he said aren’t quite like anything else on the market.

Here’s what he has to say about each of the four Orf beers.

  • Salutation Ale: “I would consider this one, a golden ale, to be my flagship. It’s got the grains of a pilsner, the hops of an American pale ale, and the yeast of a German kolsch. So it’s not quite any of them but somewhere in between.”
  • Honey Roast: “Honey Roast is exactly what it sounds like: I wanted something not as sweet as an amber but not as smoky and toast-filled as a black schwarzbier or black IPA. So this has a little bit of roasted barley and a little bit of honey, and it’s somewhere in between the two styles.”
  • Hoprocker India Irish Red Ale: “Hoprocker is my response to IPAs getting more and more bitter. I can’t handle this peel-the-enamel-off-your-teeth bitterness. And I like Irish reds. So I took an Irish red and hopped it like an IPA, giving it the malt body of the red with the hops of an IPA. It comes out a little more malty than an IPA does, but it’s a lot more hoppy than a typical red.”
  • Oocheemama Asian White Ale: “This is the one getting the most attention because it’s the most distinct. Oocheemama is what I call an Asian white ale because it’s a hybrid of a Belgian white and an Asian or Thai rice lager, specifically spiced to go with Asian food, like sushi. It’s got wheat and rice in the grain bill (usually you get one or the other), and then I spiced it. Instead of spicing it like a Belgian wit, which is usually coriander and orange peel, stuff like that, I used a little bit of orange peel, nutmeg, a bunch of ginger, and then I dry-hopped it, for lack of a better term, with jasmine flower petals. “

He got the idea for Oocheemama, he said, after talking to a former beer buyer for Uchi, who was frustrated about not being able to find a beer that would pair with Uchi cuisine.

With the Oocheemama, he found one. Its use of a dry English ale yeast mixed with a Belgian-style wheat beer and Asian-style spices makes the beer perhaps the best example of the sort of hybrid beers that Orf likes to make, but you won’t particularly notice the science when appreciating the art: the alluring aroma of the jasmine flowers followed by the earthy, sweet and spicy flavors of the other ingredients.

“Because it’s a lighter-than-normal wheat beer, that kind of lets the spices come through in a way that pairs really well with the food,” Orf said, noting that he hopes to have it at the Whip In so that people can enjoy it with Indian cuisine.

Orf Brewing will be open 1 to 6 p.m. May 20 at 4700 Burleson Rd., F. For more information, visit orfbrewing.com/home.

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Orf Brewing has a small beer garden outside, tucked around a massive oak tree that owner Chris Orf estimates is 250 to 300 years old.

This post has been corrected to reflect the beer buyer who helped to inspire the creation of Oocheemama.

Thirsty Planet’s IPA now in bottles, with new brewery slated to open this fall

Thirsty Planet is celebrating the launch of Buckethead IPA in bottles with a special 7-pack of beer in a bucket-shaped container.

The six-pack bottles of Thirsty Planet’s Buckethead IPA and Yellow Armadillo Wheat that are currently hitting store shelves are an alluring taste of what’s to come: many, many more Thirsty Planet beers.

Thirsty Planet is currently moving into the former Central Texas Food Bank building on South Congress Avenue, a little north of Slaughter Lane, that will nearly quadruple production from 11,000 barrels to 40,000, with considerable room to grow from there. The brewery will start brewing and bottling in the new space before opening an accompanying taproom to the public this fall.

In the meantime, Austinites who miss the old tasting room — it shut down in early March to keep brewery staff completely focused on the transition — can at least console themselves with the new bottles of Buckethead and Yellow Armadillo that now join their behemoth brother Thirsty Goat Amber, previously the only Thirsty Planet brew that was packaged for retail sales.

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Towering fermentation tanks at Thirsty Planet’s new facility signal a major expansion for the South Austin brewery.

Plus, in a nod to the brewery’s approaching seven-year anniversary, Thirsty Planet is also releasing a limited number of “Damn-7 Packs”: a special 7-pack of Buckethead beer in a bucket-shaped container.

“Why not seven?” Thirsty Planet owner Brian Smittle said about the limited release that will start going into stores later this week, on May 12. “We’re turning seven this year, and that many beers can fit into the bucket. Nice proportions. And then you can stick it on your head.”

You might be able to get your hands on a Damn-7 Pack early with Thirsty Planet’s Buckethead Launch Party tomorrow at Black Sheep Lodge, where the brewery will take over the taps and offer free bites of food, a photo booth, Thirsty Planet swag and even free branded tattoos. Or look for it at the many HEB locations that are already selling six-packs of Buckethead IPA and Yellow Armadillo Wheat.

Buckethead IPA is no ordinary American-style IPA — at 8.9 percent ABV, it’s “beer you can feel,” as Thirsty Planet phrases it.

Smittle and the brewing team are still making all of the Thirsty Planet beers at the old location on Circle Drive, on the way to Dripping Springs, but are hoping to make the total transition this summer to the new space, six times larger at 60,000 sq. ft.

The South Congress building, because it was formerly the food bank, comes already equipped with a packaging hall with the necessary high ceilings as well as a very large freezer. Thirsty Planet will additionally have a lab for quality control, a 60-barrel brewhouse and a connected 10-barrel system that will be used for experimental beers, and a handful of towering 22-foot-tall fermenters. Smittle is excited in particular to have an entirely automated system.

“It’s definitely been a change in mentality to think how to scale up to the 40,000 barrels we’ll be able to immediately do,” he said. But the brewery’s ultimate goal is much bigger: “Eventually, we think this building could do 100,000 barrels.”

That’s a lot of Thirsty Goat.

The amber is already the top-selling draft beer in Central Texas, according to data from Thirsty Planet’s distributor Capitol Wright, and it’s not hard to imagine the number of tap handles pouring it will only go up with Thirsty Planet’s expansion. The brewery has spent the past nearly seven years in only the three main Central Texas counties of Hays, Travis and Williamson but recently signed an agreement to distribute into 11 more counties.

Depending on the progress of the new brewery, Thirsty Planet may hold early tours of the space, at 8201 S. Congress Ave., in the summer. Keep connected on the progress at thirstyplanet.beer.

South Austin’s new hangout Spokesman offers draft beer, coffee and art

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Spokesman serves draft beer out of repurposed bicycle handles, in a nod to one of the co-founders’ love of cycling.

The Yard, the new mixed-use complex built out of old warehouses off South Congress Avenue, is springing to life with new additions this month.

Following in the footsteps of neighboring St. Elmo Brewing at one end of the row are two boozy newcomers at the other end: the Austin Winery, which relocated from the east side of the city, and Spokesman, a coffee shop and beer bar from industry veterans who are finally opening their own space.

The next-door neighbors are planning to have grand opening celebrations later this month, although their doors are open now to offer locals early looks at each. (Here’s what to expect from the Austin Winery.)

Spokesman is the brainchild of C.J. West and Trey Ramirez, who wanted to create a comfortable hangout for the neighborhood that features two of their favorite things. West has helped to open and brew at local breweries like the ABGB and the south location of North by Northwest, while Ramirez developed his love for coffee working at Home Slice and the Brew & Brew.

As a result, Spokesman has opened with nearly two dozen draft beers — primarily local — and a toddy, served in a chilled pint glass sans ice and roasted on-site, that will be the first of many house coffee drinks to come. A few of the taps are also devoted to wine and cider.

Working with coffee for many years, I’ve always wanted to learn how to roast,” Ramirez said. “Getting the control and being able to shape what it tastes like is huge. It can be overwhelming at times, but it can be a lot of fun. And C.J. has been brewing beer for a long time here in town. He’s the other side of it. He’s been pulling in amazing beers from Austin and Texas. So you could say Spokesman is kind of a fusion of both our backgrounds.”

But don’t try to pigeon-hole Spokesman as the place to go solely for beer and coffee. The two co-founders feel strongly that Spokesman — decked out with eye-catching art from local painter Briks, of the Blue Dozen Collective — has more to offer than just drinks.

The name of the coffee bar, for example, comes in part from West’s passion for cycling. Spokesman aims to be “a ride-up shop where you can park your bikes inside and not have to worry about locking them,” Ramirez said, pointing out the vertical metal racks along the front garage-like wall where bicycles can hang. (Another nod to cyclists is the row of tap handles made of colorful bike handles.) 

And then there’s all that wall art.

Walk in and your jaw just might drop at first glance, like mine did, at the larger-than-life figures adorning nearly every available inch of wall space: the plump cat (or is it a raccoon?) with his arms folded, the boombox with dials and two large eyes and lips, the cheerful stork covering the Employees’ Only door leading to the back warehouse. The art is a marvel and so integral to the experience you’ll have at Spokesman.

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. When Spokesman uses its projector to play a show, the screen fits perfectly in the painted screen that local artist Briks created on the back wall.

“To bring Briks onto this project was amazing. I don’t think we could’ve picked anybody else. His art and his sense of humor reflected in his art just made this place come to life,” West said.

He and Ramirez hadn’t expected they’d renovate an old warehouse for their project. They looked for about two years at retail spaces in Austin, none of which were quite right for what they envisioned. Then, West’s friends at St. Elmo Brewing told him about the Yard.

Part of the reason the warehouse works so well is that it’s got lots of extra room to grow into — which, first and foremost, will be used for the expanding coffee program. The goal is to sell bags of roasted beans to go from the shop and to have them in retailers around town as well. But that’s largely phase two, the co-founders said.

In the meantime, Spokesman has a coffee roaster visible to customers in its nook at the back of the shop. Ramirez will continue using it to make the toddy and other upcoming coffee items until Spokesman outgrows it, he said, and needs to move roasting operations to the back warehouse.

We’re starting with just a couple of origins that we’re really excited about,” he said. “We’ve always loved Mexican coffee and African coffee, and we’ve been looking around for coffees that are just right for us and what we want to kind of mix together. The African coffee that we’re doing with our toddy we’re super thumbs-up on.”

West similarly aims to pay careful attention to the draft beer program. He said the taps will rotate out constantly (save for four always-on brews: Real Ale Axis IPA, Live Oak Brewing Gold, Hops & Grain River Beer and Austin Beerworks Peacemaker) and will primarily, but not exclusively, be from area brewers. Austin Beerworks’ limited Grinds My Gears, a hoppy ale with hefeweizen yeast, is only available at the Beerworks taproom and at Spokesman, in a nod to the coffee bar’s bicycling theme.

“We take a lot of pride in the breweries that we feature because for me, personally, this is my contribution to Texas craft brewing,” West said. “I went from the production side to this side. In the brewing industry, everybody wants to be a brewer. It’s like the star quarterback. The lead actress. Everyone wants to do it. But brewers can’t do it alone.”

For now, Spokesman is open 4 to 10 p.m. on weekdays at 440 E. St. Elmo Rd. A small menu of cafe food is to come. After the grand opening — look for that date to be announced on the coffee bar’s social media accounts — it will be open 7 a.m. to midnight daily.

For more information, visit spokesmancoffee.com.

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Enjoy local beer, like Zilker Brewing’s Murderino, while admiring wall art from local artist Briks, who completely covered Spokesman’s interior with his expressive characters.

Central Texas brewers react to AB InBev’s acquisition of Wicked Weed Brewing

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. A variety of Wicked Weed beers arrived at Jester King Brewery a few weeks ago, before news of the North Carolina brewery’s acquisition by AB InBev broke. Now, Jester King will no longer carry Wicked Weed beers.

This morning’s news that Wicked Weed Brewing, one of the country’s most lauded makers of barrel-aged sours and hoppy ales, had been scooped up by Anheuser-Busch, stunned many people in the beer industry who hadn’t seen it coming.

Wicked Weed, based in the beer-loving city of Asheville, North Carolina, joins others breweries — like Seattle’s Elysian, Chicago’s Goose Island and New York’s Blue Point Brewing — in A-B’s craft and import portfolio, High End, a position that gives the brewery a very big step up in funding and more access to thirsty markets.

“In order to innovate, push the boundaries, and grow, we’ve decided to take on the High End branch of Anheuser-Busch as a strategic partner,” Wicked Weed Brewing announced this morning. “Our founding ownership staff will continue to lead Wicked Weed in their same capacities as we move forward and into the future. This decision is a large part of the future for Wicked Weed, and will allow our brand, staff, and beers to achieve their greatest potential.”

But not everyone is happy about Wicked Weed’s decision to sell to the mega-brewer.

It was only last summer that local beer lovers rejoiced when Wicked Weed started limited distribution to Texas, bringing in beers like La Bonté, a tart farmhouse ale with plums. Already, however, one of Wicked Weed’s biggest local supporters has announced that it will no longer carry its beers or collaborate on projects with its brewers.

Jester King Brewery owner Jeff Stuffings announced the decision on social media, noting that a core principle of the Hill Country brewery is not selling beers from AB InBev or its affiliates.

“We’ve chosen this stance not because of the quality of the beer, but because a portion of the money made off of selling it is used to oppose the interests of craft brewers,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “In Texas, large brewers (and their distributors) routinely oppose law changes that would help small, independent brewers. We choose not to support these large brewers because of their political stances, and in some cases, their economic practices as well.”

Austin Beerworks alluded to the Wicked Weed acquisition on Facebook as well, quoting Modern Times Beer founder Jacob McKean to ultimately say that “selling out” is not something the North Austin brewery — which recently opened a much larger brewery and taproom — will ever be interested in, not even for a billion dollars.

“I’m not going to screw the people who made my success possible in the first place,” Austin Beerworks quoted McKean as saying. “That would be an unethical choice I could never be proud of. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to everyone in this industry, and when it comes time for me to do something else, I refuse to throw a hand grenade over my shoulder on my way out the door.”

In nearby San Antonio, Freetail Brewing co-founder Scott Metzger — who, with the aid of a master’s degree in economics, has helped change and develop some of Texas’ more recent craft beer-related laws — expressed consternation on Twitter.

“The point is that ABI will eventually push to scale all of these brands to the point of crowding out your local, friendly, neighborhood brewer who works 80 (hours per week) to follow his dream and feed his family simultaneously. Beware,” he wrote shortly after the news broke.

Presumably, the Wicked Weed and AB InBev deal is subject to scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice, which stated last summer upon approving the $108-billion merger between the world’s two largest beer producers, Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller, that it would “review any future craft beer and distributor acquisitions.”