Three years in, ABGB finds groove as lager-loving brewpub

The owners of ABGB — short for the Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co., but no one ever calls it that — feel pretty good as they celebrate the third anniversary of the brewpub.

So far, it’s become exactly what they hoped it would be: a place that attracts all walks of life, whether they’re looking to dance to the live music, chow down on a 16-inch pizza pie or gulp down a mug of house-made beer while hanging out with friends. It’s an art gallery displaying some of the works of a friend of theirs, Tavis McLendon, and it’s often the site of potential pet adoptions when Austin Pets Alive, a frequent collaborator, brings shelter dogs to ABGB events.

Two of the owners, Brian Peters and Amos Lowe, double as the head brewers who have turned ABGB into one of the best places to grab a beer in Austin. But they like that the beers are just one part of the overall experience.

“If you just obsess over the beverage, you miss the point,” Lowe says.

That’s not to say he and his good friend Peters — who has been involved in Austin’s brewing scene for almost as long as there’s been one — don’t care about the beer. Formerly of Uncle Billy’s Brew & Que, they are among the most precise of scientists when it comes to the beer they make. They have to be: Lowe and Peters both love lagers, which are some of the trickiest beers to brew and hide no mistakes when finished.

Despite that difficulty, ABGB currently has five lagers available on the menu, which is divided into nine “always” and “sometimes” beers. The lager-heavy list is unusual for a brewery even now as beer makers across the country become more experimental.

The Hell Yes Helles, easily the most ordered beer, is always on tap, along with the Industry Pilsner and the Rocket 100, another pilsner that has so far won two big beer awards. ABGB also has the Negra Royale Dunkel and the New Style American Girlfriend, an international-style lager, as two current choices. (Did you catch that “Sixteen Candles” reference? That’s another big hallmark of ABGB — it’s very pop-culture-friendly, as evidenced by the Polaroids of famous people that you’re given to keep track of your order.)

“Having three lagers on all the time is really tough, but it’s also really awesome. We’re lager brewers,” Peters says.

For the longest time, he says, people turned their noses up at lagers because those were the beers of Budweiser and Miller. The smaller, upstart breweries of the craft beer movement wanted to distance themselves from the lighter-flavored macro options. As a result, there are some misconceptions about what lagers are and what they should taste like.

“People bash lagers because they’re so subtle in flavor. Like the helles we have,” Peters says. “They bash the beers because they can’t taste the flavors. But lagers are so precise and so clean.”

Although pilsners are being regarded “as the next big thing” in beer, that influence will be tiny in comparison to the mighty IPA and what it has done for the industry, he says. Still, he and Lowe make a good one in the Rocket 100, which won gold last year at the Great American Beer Festival and a bronze at the World Beer Cup.

As a pre-Prohibition-style pilsner, it’s not a typical example because of one particular ingredient — corn. And with rice as one of the additions in the Girlfriend beer, ABGB is doing something even more unusual than having a majority-lager beer program. Both the corn and the rice are often considered adjuncts in beer, unofficially taboo ingredients that the macro beer companies have made undesirable after using them so much.

But Lowe and Peters cite history: the days before Coors, Miller or Budweiser started using corn syrup and other shortcuts. Well before these companies became big, they say, “the German immigrants came over here and figured out how to make their beers with what was available,” Lowe says. “That was corn, grounded up fresh.”

The corn and the rice “are both four-letter words, but they’re not awful,” Peters says. “People have this kitchen-sink approach to beer, but they think those things shouldn’t go in just because of the macro guys. There’s just something about the Rocket 100 that appeals to people who love pilsners or, on the other hand, have never had them. It’s got this sweet corn roundness to it.”

Even ABGB’s sour beer program — the only time the brewpub’s beers are available in bottles to-go — is unconventional. Fermented in stainless steel with fruit like pear, strawberry and figs, the sour brews are done just as technically as the lagers, “without the high variability of barrel rooms,” Peters says. While some people think the beers thus turn out too cleanly, without enough funk, he and Lowe make no apologies about the tart result.

“When we opened the brewery, we decided we were going to make decisions based on what was good for the beer,” Lowe says.

Their open approach to beer-making is not unlike ABGB’s approach to hospitality. As a live music venue where Tejano fans celebrate Selena Quintanilla one day and country music lovers wear their pearl-snap shirts to George Strait tribute shows the next, the brewpub welcomes everyone.

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