The IPA might be the most sought-after beer style in the country right now, but the brewers at the ABGB can’t stop brewing — or drinking — the pale lager known as a pilsner. The brewpub has a single house IPA on the menu and a total of five lagers, three of them pilsners.
Their love of these subtle, easy-drinking beers is paying off. For many well-regarded breweries, winning a medal at the Great American Beer Festival held annually in Denver just doesn’t happen every year. Or even at all. But lightning struck the ABGB twice in a row in October when the festival announced the Austin brewpub had won two gold medals as well as the Large Brewpub of the Year nod, an award earned for the second year running.
“We did it, man. We won the beer Super Bowl two years in a row,” Amos Lowe, one of the ABGB brewers and co-owners, said with an elated smile recently while nursing the ABGB’s Industry Pils, served in one of the tall, lean glasses characteristic of the pilsner style.
Calling the prestigious festival the beer Super Bowl is a pretty accurate description, and so is saying that the ABGB’s two big festival titles makes the brewpub one of the best in the country.
Not that Lowe or his two fellow brewers, Kim Mizner and Brian “Swifty” Peters, would say so outright. But they will tell you their success has come from a lot of hard, sweaty work and a stubborn desire to constantly be learning something new about their craft — including pilsners, of course.
It certainly seems like the ABGB has already mastered the style. The two gold medals this year were for the Rocket 100 American-Style Pilsner (which has won before) and the Velvet Revolution Bohemian-Style Pilsner. Last year, Industry Pils also took gold. There are three pilsner categories at Great American Beer Fest, and the ABGB has won gold in each one. Achieving such a hat trick, to continue the sports metaphors, is the ultimate prize.
“To me, there isn’t a better beer than a well-made pilsner,” Lowe said. “It’s the best beer can be. I love the skill level that’s involved because you’re working with lager yeast, which is more difficult to deal with (than ale yeast). A pilsner is just elegant and subtle, so precise and so clean, and you can’t hide a mistake in it for that reason. The subtlety of the beer is a challenge. I think I love drinking it because I love making it.”
After so many years working in the industry, he and Peters — who are perhaps best known previously as the brewers at Uncle Billy’s Brew and Que — aren’t willing to compromise on the techniques and procedures that have gotten them to this point. And Mizner, they said, has only made them better thanks to her attention to detail.
One of the most notable things the ABGB does in its lager program is to let each of the beers ferment and condition for six to eight weeks, an unusually long time that many other breweries don’t follow. Taking two months to produce a single lager is worth it to the ABGB brewers, however. The lager yeast is a slow eater and needs that time to work its magic, Lowe said.
He, Peters and Mizner are also fiercely careful about the other ingredients. They prefer to use German malt — because the Germans have been “making beers this way forever. For a thousand years,” Peters said — and monitor the quality of their water, to make sure the yeast is happy. Yeast doesn’t perform as well if the water is not up to snuff, Lowe said.
“I would say yeast is the most important ingredient, but if you don’t do the other stuff, yeast won’t do what you want it to do anyway,” he said.
For many of the lagers, the ABGB also sticks to using noble hops, or the traditional varieties of hops relied upon to make early European beers. Because pilsners like the Industry and the Velvet Revolution are done in homage to their classic German and Czech counterparts, respectively, the brewers want to stay as true to Old World tradition as they can.
“The Germans have made this level of quality beer that is just so high,” Peters said. “We are trying to get there, to where you could go to any German brewery and try their beer and we are at their level. That’s my goal, that you could confuse us with one of the best German breweries you’ve ever been to. That takes awhile, but we have some ideas.”
Then there’s the American-style Rocket 100, which they created a couple of years ago as a tribute to pre-Prohibition pilsners that were made with corn (a decidedly New World product) in the mash bill. Although macro brewers like Miller and Budweiser turned corn into an undesirable ingredient in craft beer, the ABGB unabashedly created a pilsner recipe featuring corn the way brewers used to make it: ground fresh, rather than transformed into corn syrup.
As Peters noted last year, Rocket 100 has a “sweet corn roundness” to it that appeals to both people who love lagers and those who have never had them. It’s now a mainstay on the menu, just like Industry.
For brewers who want to emulate the ABGB’s success, Lowe, Mizner and Peters can’t offer up some revolutionary secret. They don’t even have particularly high-tech brewing equipment, Peters said. But they can say they now make world-class beers because they never stopped trying to learn.
“You have to be hungry and try to be great. We won’t stop ever trying to get better,” Lowe said.