Even if you’re a regular at one of Pinthouse Pizza’s two Austin locations, chances are good that you’ll be able to find a new house beer on tap to try at each visit, thanks the brewing teams led by Joe Mohrfeld. The brewers are forever playing with and tweaking their recipes.
The ones they spend perhaps the most time on are a Pinthouse specialty: IPAs — India pale ales with hazy color; a full, round mouthfeel; lots of flavor and aroma; and a dry, crisp finish. Perhaps most notably, these brews are made with a high amount of hops but lack the bitterness that has come to be associated with American-style IPAs.
These are the beers that have earned Pinthouse a reputation among IPA aficionados across the country and have contributed to the brewpub’s success since the Burnet Road location opened in 2012 with a focus on pizza and beer in a kid-friendly atmosphere (a success that is leading to a third pub in Round Rock, with plans for the groundbreaking this summer).
Creating flavorful, aromatic IPAs that take it easy on the bitterness has been the goal from the beginning for Mohrfeld, formerly of Colorado’s acclaimed Odell Brewing.
“From day one, we wanted to do IPAs that were noteworthy coming out of Austin because no one had done it,” he says. “Even with Man O’ War (Pinthouse Burnet’s flagship IPA), that was a pretty big departure from what was available in the town when we started.”
But Man O’ War didn’t electrify beer drinkers the way the aptly named Electric Jellyfish did. When Pinthouse’s South Lamar spot opened three years later, in October 2015, Mohrfeld and his team of brewers — Trevor Kelly leads the Burnet Road operation, while Jacob Passey oversees Lamar — were taken aback by the immediate enthusiastic reaction to Electric Jellyfish’s juicy profile. The beer is now available outside the pub, and Passey has to make a lot of it.
Beers like Jellyfish might be considered Texas examples of the flourishing unofficial style that brewers are calling, among many other names, New England IPAs. They’re low on bitterness despite the high amount of hops, and as a result, they taste, thanks to all that flavor from the hops, almost like juice.
Mohrfeld, however, hesitates to use the terms “New England IPA,” “Vermont IPA” ” or “Northeast IPA” when referring to some of the hop-forward beers that Pinthouse prefers.
“We’ve done a couple of true New England IPAs where we’re using a lot of the processes, the yeast and techniques that those beers have, and we’ll call those out,” he says. “But as a whole, we’ve kind of defined that a lot of what we make is a Pinthouse IPA. We’re not trying to copy someone else or copy a style. This is what we like to drink.”
Instead, he says, you could define a Pinthouse IPA as a hybrid style between a pilsner and one of those New England IPAs: something perfect for the hot Texas climate.
“We’re trying to make a traditional pilsner as far as drinkability and that bitterness profile but as an American IPA, so it’s really refreshing, really flavorful, really aromatic, but you can drink a lot of them,” he says. “It’s crisp. It’s dry. I think some of the New England IPAs might not always have a dry, crisp finish. They tend to be a little heavier on the palate.”
He notes that even Man O’ War, modeled after a far more bitter West Coast-style IPA, was sometimes clear, sometimes hazy in its early days at the Burnet brewpub simply due to the higher-than-typical amount of hops. The haze — the result of not filtering the beer, as is often done — simply became more common once he, Passey and Kelly realized it was actually contributing mouthfeel and extra flavor to the beers.
“This is how we can get our IPAs to taste as much like a hop cone as possible,” Passey said, noting that the low bitterness levels are the result of an earlier step, pre-filtering, when hops are added post-boil in a process called dry-hopping.
Mohrfeld, Passey and Kelly are as organized as a business can be with two locations and supplies and personnel spread across both of them. They communicate often (“‘Hey, can I come over to your pub and get those extra pounds of hops I thought I had for dry-hopping?’” Mohrfeld says can happen) and share a plethora of ideas for the beers, only a small percentage of which end up coming to fruition.
Having multiple minds thinking about the recipes and the processes they can use to achieve the flavors they want — anyone at Pinthouse can contribute — has helped the brewpub achieve its reign as arguably the best IPA producer in Austin.
The brewers have figured out, for instance, how to “use the Austin water profile to our advantage,” Mohrfeld says. “We get a perceived kind of sharpness that comes from the mineral content in the water, and we use that when we’re calculating the IBUs” — International Bittering Units, or how a beer’s bitterness is measured.
They also aren’t afraid to venture away from Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe, which they joke is the “holy trinity” of hops. While those dependable, sought-after hops imbue beers with desired notes of passion fruit, tangerine and citrus (among other characteristics), other hops have become essential ingredients in Pinthouse beers as well, such as the Azzaca and El Dorado hops in the current This Is Juice! IPA at Pinthouse Burnet.
Electric Jellyfish, the mainstay at the south location, contains Citra as well as newer varieties like Equinox, Calypso and Galaxy. The result is so irresistible that many customers stop by the brewpub simply to fill a growler or crowler (a recyclable version of the glass container) of the beer to go.
“It’s still so exciting to see, in the pub and in the market, all the excitement people have for it,” Mohrfeld says. “It’s an IPA that I think in a lot of ways is defining what the IPA for Austin is. It’s been a fun beer.”