Although this year was a bit of a stinker in many ways, it’s worth remembering in at least one regard: Austin’s booze makers have created the kinds of experiences we’ll want to relish again and again.
And we will. The drinks they’ve crafted are paving the way for coming trends or deepening current ones, demonstrating where our tastes are headed on a culinary and cultural level.
In Austin, these were the most memorable alcoholic beverages created or released this year — suited, of course, for our nine-month-long Texas summers.
The apple of our eye
Although breweries outnumber cideries nearly 10 times over in this city, the four cideries in town are nonetheless making a big splash with their products. Two of the year’s best local drinks are ciders, and both are slightly unusual examples of one of the beverages that has seen a huge surge in production around the world.
Austin Eastciders Pineapple sold out quickly at its debut party and has proved an elusive can to find ever since, buoyed by its harmonic blend of apple and tropical pineapple. Like other Eastciders offerings, the cider goes easy on the sweet, using specific types of bittersweet apples from abroad mixed with American dessert apples for an approachable result.
This year’s release of Texas Keeper Cider’s Grafter Rosé was easily the best local beverage of 2016: dry, but with a mild intrinsic sweetness from the apples and balanced by the tannic backbone of wine. The cider features primarily heirloom Rome Beauty apples, but a small percentage of it is Texas tempranillo grapes to deliver a slightly riper fruit finish.
A small cidery in far South Austin, Texas Keeper created the Grafter series to show off the best characteristics of both wine and cider (one of the co-founders has a winemaking background), which the Rosé does beautifully. It’s a quintessential summer sipper even for beer aficionados, but beware the high alcohol content of 8.1 percent ABV.
These ciders and others like them suggest we’ll see more slight but thoughtful twists on what cider traditionally has been.
Bourbon isn’t the only kind of U.S. whiskey making waves in the spirits world. A promising Blanco distillery, Andalusia Whiskey Co., recently debuted two aged single malt whiskeys and is proving with one of them that Scotland hasn’t cornered the market in the malt spirits category.
In fact, the Stryker Smoked Single Malt is intended to have a distinctly American character because Andalusia relies on wood like mesquite, oak and applewood to smoke the malt, rather than the peat used for Scotch. Upon sipping it, Stryker brings to mind a cozy night spent in front of a crackling campfire.
Increasingly, producers of American spirits want to imbue their creations with a flavor profile reminiscent of where they were made — and that’s certainly the case with the well-done Stryker.
Full circle suds
Craft beer, those in the industry are now saying, has started to grow up, which in many ways means the people who make it and the ones who drink it are returning to our roots.
We’ve begun going back to the way people used to make beer before the modern craze for craft meant brewers had to push the limit on outrageous ingredients, differentiating themselves as much as possible from the Budweisers of the world. They’ve done that now, so they’re coming full circle.
As a result, lighter but no less flavorful — and somewhat more difficult to make — styles like helles, pilsners and kolsches have increasingly dominated our palates. But don’t worry, hop fans: The brash king of craft beer, the IPA, hasn’t yet been toppled from its throne.
Two local beers that debuted this year show why styles seemingly similar to macro options are taking off: Blue Owl Brewing’s Czech Czech Sour Pilsner and St. Elmo Brewing’s Carl Kolsch.
Blue Owl created the Czech-style sour pilsner as another example of how just about any style of beer can turn to the tart side, even if it’s not typically that way. The seasonal Czech Czech has pilsner malt, lots of floral Czech Saaz hops and a Czech lager yeast, and coupled with Blue Owl’s signature souring method, the beer delivers a slightly sour punch to the traditionally refreshing pilsner profile.
Although St. Elmo only opened in November, the two co-founders had already gained their brewing chops from Austin Beerworks and are starting strong with a trio of core brews, including the Carl Kolsch.
A German-style brew fermented like a lager but with ale yeast, Carl is the best kind of everyday beer: full of fruity ester notes from the yeast that are tempered by the lagering process, keeping the flavors subtle but fully present in the dry, low-alcohol beer. It’s well-suited for a state that stays hot for a majority of the year.
Texas, like other wine regions, has shown no signs of extinguishing its love affair with the versatile and easygoing rosé, a formerly derided wine that novices and experts alike simply can’t get enough of now. This state in particular excels at making rosé and has actually begun to set aside acreage specifically to make the wine — which is fresher and lighter than a red wine but with structure and complexity.
It’s fair to say that rosés are some of the Hill Country and the High Plains’ most promising wines from the 2015 harvest.
William Chris Vineyards 2015 Cinsault Rosé: Made with a grape that’s showing promise in Texas, it lures you in with notes of berry and orange and keeps you hooked with fresh sage.
McPherson Cellars 2015 Les Copains Rosé: The Lubbock winery knows how to make a consistently good rosé, with crisp acidity and delicate fruitiness balancing out herbal notes in this one.
Brennan Vineyards 2015 Dry Rosé: Light-bodied and crisp, the salmon-colored wine is multi-layered, compelling first for its delicate berry and pomegranate notes, then for its finishing characteristics of floral honey.
Lewis Wines 2015 High Plains Rosé: The wine within, a blend of grapes including cinsault, is just as lovely as the rosy label, full of silky notes of cantaloupe, jammy strawberry and fresh peach.