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With focus on land, Live Oak joins Jester King as destination brewery

On a recent afternoon, two visitors to Live Oak Brewing’s new taproom carry their tall glasses of golden Pilz outside to the sprawling, multi-level beer garden, where benches are positioned among a grove of the tall, leafy oaks that grow plentifully on the brewery’s 22-acre property perched off the Colorado River.

It’s only a few days after the grand opening weekend that drew thousands to the taproom for the first time. Now, the brewery is much less crowded, with chatting friends and workers with laptops spread among the benches outside.

The long taproom also has communal seating, perpendicular to the curved bar that was carved, fittingly, out of an old live oak tree on the property. Visitors, however, only seem to come to the bar to grab one of the primarily European-style beers —the tart Berliner Weisse, the smoky Lichtenhainer — from a bartender pouring from bark-handled taps. The afternoon is too glorious to spend in an air-conditioned room.

This outdoor scene — save for the occasional roar of airplanes overhead, taking off from the Austin airport across Texas 71 — brings to mind the setting of another beloved local brewery: Jester King, in the Hill Country, whose draw is not just the farmhouse ales but the scenic land around it. Although the breweries focus on making very different styles of beer, they’ve both worked hard at cultivating the kind of outdoor drinking destination that Austinites love.

“We’ve situated ourselves for volume, while still having efficiency in service and plenty of areas to sit down with a beer,” Live Oak’s sales manager Colin Ferguson said. “In the beer garden, we’ll have disc golf, horseshoes. We’ll add an outdoor station for canned beers and nonalcoholic options. It’s pretty nice sitting out there and watching the planes go by.”

Being able to expand into a 22,000-square-foot brewing facility with surrounding land has been a longtime dream of the brewery’s founder, Chip McElroy, who had to make do with Live Oak’s former small industrial space in East Austin despite increasing demand. The new space is more than twice as large and able to produce beer three times as fast, an upgrade that paid off last month when the much-anticipated cans of Live Oak Hefeweizen finally hit the market.

McElroy hasn’t been the only brewer who values having an alluring outdoor area for visiting beer drinkers, however. The land around Jester King has become a big part of its identity, in more ways than one.

Shortly after announcing the purchase of 58 adjacent acres to prevent development, Jester King founder Jeff Stuffings revealed that the brewery will release a blend of its first 100 percent spontaneously fermented beer later this year — a beer that’s been turned from wort into alcohol entirely by the native yeast and bacteria of the Hill Country, carried in by the cold night air.

“For us, spontaneous fermentation is the ultimate partnership with nature when it comes to making beer inextricably tied to a particular time and place,” he said.

That process is done in a coolship — an open copper tank that can hold about 950 gallons of wort — installed in one of the upstairs crannies of Jester King’s barrel room. Open windows near the coolship and the wood ceiling above it bring in the microorganisms necessary to fermenting the beer, although they can only do their jobs when the temperature abides. Because Texas gets so hot, Stuffings says spontaneous fermentation is only possible in the winter months.

The first batch of spontaneously fermented brew from Jester King is “a blend of beer inoculated in our old coolship” from the winters of 2013, 2014 and 2015, Stuffings says. A new coolship acquired earlier this year will allow the brewery to increase the amount of these beers produced in the future, up from the 90 barrels out of a projected 2,500 total barrels this year.

Like Jester King, Live Oak Brewing isn’t done expanding even though it’s finally up and running in Southeast Austin. In the springtime, a nine-hole disc golf course extending all the way to the back of the property will open, and taproom hours will go to seven days a week, with daily food trucks. Eventually, a restaurant will be built on the land with another beer garden or two. Live Oak, one of Austin’s first breweries, is becoming one of the largest.

“I guess the live oak metaphor is particularly apropos,” McElroy said during Live Oak’s ceremonial groundbreaking in December 2014. “Hopefully we’re past the acorn stage. I would say we’re at the shrub stage right now, and we’ve got a long way to go before we’re a full-blown live oak, but with this, I think we’re getting there.”

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