Take one state capital, add 30,000 or so college students, stir in a rich football tradition and—voila!—you’ve got a can’t-miss recipe for good times. Take Austin, for instance. It’s the home of the University of Texas, ranked by Princeton Review as one of America’s top 10 party schools. It won’t take you long to find out that U-T’s ranking was richly deserved.
When I visited, I discovered that after a cool, wet summer at home, my system wasn’t prepared for temperatures in the 90s, with humidity to match. Fortunately, there’s a cure for that: don’t exert yourself; stay out of the sun; and, oh, yes, drink plenty of liquids. Austin was ready to oblige; it’s home to dozens of bars and clubs; and by day it operates the “Dillos,” free motorized trolleys that shuttle office workers—and the occasional Beer Traveler—around the city center.
My first stop was Opal Divine’s Free House (700 West Sixth St.). Named for co-owner Susan Parker’s saucy grandmother, it’s a Texified version of an Irish country pub. This 125-year-old structure sports a huge outside deck, with misting machines to combat the weather. Inside, half a dozen air-conditioned rooms accommodate a range of moods. After looking around, I found my way to a downstairs room and sat across from a tiny bar decorated with foreign currency stapled to the walls. The rows of taps, nearly 30 in all, included the local Live Oak, Real Ale, and St. Arnold’s breweries, as well as imports and national micros. The atmosphere was traditional, with one notable exception: free Wi-Fi, which is taking the town by storm.
From Funk to Romance
Downtown is home to three brewpubs, and visiting them provided an interesting exercise in compare and contrast. Copper Tank Brewing Co. (504 Trinity St.) is located just south of Sixth St., one of the liveliest strips in college-town America. It’s a huge establishment that attracts students who watch football games, find new friends on the dance floor, and, of course, drink. The house beers, brewed behind the bar that runs the length of the south wall, include Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, a blonde Belgian-style ale; Big Dog Brown Ale; Firehouse Stout; and Whitetail Pale Ale. It gets noisy here, especially when there’s a game on the big TV screens, but there’s a mini beer garden in back and a couple of side rooms to which you can escape.
A few blocks away is Lovejoy’s Tap Room and Brewery (604 Neches St.), where the operative words are “funk” and “grunge.” First-timers might find it daunting. From the outside it looks closed, and the interior resembles Delta House after a troupe of artistically inclined Goths swept in. It features, among other things, a blasphemous depiction of cherubs and a coffin pressed into service as a table.
Lovejoy’s draws a mixed, older crowd, some of whom look like leftover extras from “Slackers,” which was filmed in Austin. When I walked in, a man at the bar was denouncing a local architect to everyone within earshot. But don’t let the clientele frighten you. This is a corner tavern reserved for people who, as the sign by the men’s room proclaims, refuse to live the way Madison Avenue tells them. Besides, that man with a pierced nose just might be the next winner of the National Book Award.
On the bartender’s recommendation, I had a pint of Splendor in the Grass Mild Ale, a good example of a hard-to-find style. Lovejoy’s brews its house beers on a four-barrel system, the likes of which you’ve probably seen in a friend’s basement. There are also two dozen micros and imports on tap; a large, well thought-out selection of bottled beers; and wine and espresso. The jukebox is said to have Austin’s most eclectic music selection; and comfy, lived-in, couches and chairs welcome groups of friends.
Downtown’s third brewpub, the Bitter End Bistro and Beer Garden (311 Colorado St.), is the consensus choice as the best in town. It’s located in the Warehouse District, which draws a somewhat older, and more well-heeled, crowd than the bars near Sixth Street. The owners have done a lot to soften this ex-warehouse’s industrial look and feel. It’s divided into several dining areas, with a few private alcoves; there are soft pastel colors throughout, a light sculpture above the bar, and modern furniture—with soft music to round out the mood. The Bitter End is also home to the B-Side Tap Room and Lounge, which was named Austin’s most romantic bar.
Bitter End’s beer, like its decor, is first-class; it’s earned several medals at the Great American Beer Festival. The lineup includes Austin Pale Ale, an unfiltered version of the style; E-Z Wheat; Poindexter Pils; nitro-dispensed Sledgehammer Stout; and Bat City Lager, named for the colony of Mexican freetail bats that fly out from under the Congress Avenue bridge at sunset. There are also specials and seasonals, including high gravity beers and a banana flavored ale served in 8-ounce glasses. The Texas-and-beyond fusion menu features such offbeat items as fried antelope and trout fritters, along with Pacific Rim and Caribbean cuisine.
More Not to Be Missed
If you’re an avid beer hunter, or a devotee of great beer bars, Ginger Man (304 West Fourth St.) belongs at the top of your Austin to-do list. It’s part of a “close-knit family” of four establishments in Texas and New York City. The name comes from J. P. Donleavy’s cult novel describing the adventures, which can’t be described here, of an Irish-American layabout in 1940s Dublin.
The Ginger Man is a throwback to the British Isles, with a dartboard off to one side, library-style chairs, and even a few snugs like those found in Irish pubs. You can literally lose yourself in a book here—audio distractions are kept to a minimum—or mingle with the after-work crowd on the patio in back. But the main attraction is an ever-changing selection of some 70 drafts and 100 bottled beers, including several lambics, a cask selection or two, and even a few South American labels. New arrivals are announced on the beautifully drawn blackboards above the bar; and, if you have questions, the staff is glad to help.
I couldn’t leave town without a visit to Scholz Garden (1607 San Jacinto Blvd.). Austin’s German community has preserved its culture here for generations; the property is still owned by a German singing club. The beer garden—the only place to be on a warm, clear night—was a little slice of Bavaria, with shared picnic tables; German draft beer; and a 33-piece oompah band, complete with a big bass drum and blue Alpine backdrop behind the musicians. There was German comfort food, of course, as well as local favorites like chicken fried steaks and peach cobbler, which were added during the near-beer days of Prohibition to keep the customers coming.
A national historical site, Scholz Garden is rich in political heritage. Lyndon Johnson was a customer, most Texas governors have eaten here, and legislators from the nearby state capitol have parleyed over beers. The state constitution was once rewritten at its tables. According to one local pundit, conservatives prefer the air-conditioned quarters inside, while liberals gravitate to the beer garden. Unfortunately, he never explained why.
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher who travels as much as his budget permits, visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.