ICE Cold Beer

June 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Probably one of the most-uttered phrases of the Texas summer, at least in certain circles, which is how we generally stand or sit.

Yet Austin and most of the rest of Texas didn’t have ice-cold beer until after the Civil War, except in the winter. Galveston was a different story. The great sailing ships from the north brought huge blocks of ice packed in sawdust to Galveston, where it was unloaded and managed to make it into at least few drinks and perhaps cool a few kegs before it melted from the relentless Texas heat.

Austin got its first ice factory after the Civil War, but ice was much too dear and precious to waste on cooling beer.

Back in 1876, Mechanic’s Saloon would sell you a drink or mountain grape wine for a dime and a “city beer” for five cents. Or you could buy 12 pint bottles of Austin lager for buck. Finally, 125+ years later, we in Austin can again speak in terms of “a city beer,” although they cost much more than a Tommy Jeff these days at an Austin bar — more like an A-Link’n, what with tax and tip.

The first ice cold beer came to Austin a year later, spring of ’77, from St. Louis, as the Austin Statesman reported. “The International Depot was the scene of life and activity yesterday forenoon, many people having been attracted there to see the first refrigerated beer car ever bought to Austin. The ceiling, floor and sides of the car are all double, and the ceiling and walls are interlaid with Indian rubber which makes it almost airtight. The car was filled with keg and bottled beer for Mssrs. Brueggerhoff and Heidenheimer, and these gentlemen had a keg tapped and having taken the precaution to have dozens of glasses convenient, they were inviting people up to sample the beer.

So, when did “ICE cold beer” enter the Austin lexicon?

By 1880 Austin was awash in cold beer; it was no longer a novelty, it had become a necessity for both drinker and seller: The following ad ran in the Statesman on May 7, 1880: Bock! Bock! Bock! — Schlitz Milwaukee, ice cold, on draught, Monday May 10 at Charley Cortissoz, Simon’s Beer Hall, John Canovas’, Bell’s Saloon, A. Raggio’s, Jules Bornefeld’s Palace, the California store.

A month or so later, the amiable Charley Dyer, a long-time Austin beer-jerker, had taken over management of Pressler’s Garden (west of downtown on 6th Street) before you get to the river). He was advertising “ICE COLD Beer” and “secluded nooks for spooning” (we’re not talking ice cream or coke here).

So there you go. But ICE cold beer would not make it into the central Texas hinterlands until decades later. Even into the 1970s, old Bohemian farmers in the Czech country east of San Antonio took their Shiners “warm.”

All of which is a long introduction to the meat of today’s matter, a random, staggered (in time, not gait) sampling of, and comments on, the latest in “city beer” (now that Austin stretches nearly to San Antonio, Houston, Waco, and Fredericksburg).

Here comes Lost Gold India Pale Ale, hopping down that pink rabbit trail. It was Easter Sunday, and I was sweating over a pit full of pork butt, Meyer’s Elgin sausage, wild-caught Gulf shrimp and ground-chuck patties. ‘Twas manly work that required manly beverages. I had a smorgasboard of area-crafted brews with Hill Country themes to slake my thirst. Thank the Lord for HEB’s mix-and-match six-packs. I started with Independence IPA, brewed (for now) by Real Ale out of Blanco. I popped it with much anticipation, since every one of their offerings has been a real winner. But as many a newly liberated country has discovered over the centuries, “Independence” ain’t all its cracked up to be. And Independence IPA wasn’t. How could you, Real Ale? Or, rather, couldn’t. it did not step up to the plate, at least not to what I was going to be dishing out.

But the next day I discovered that Real Ale is only brewing Independence under contract for a San Antonio entrepreneur, until he can get his own kettles boiling. So, Real Ale, all was forgiven.

With hours to go before the feast began, I was feeling a bit peckish, so I decided to assuage my hunger with some liquid bread, Independence Brewery’s Convict Hill Oatmeal Stout, so thick and rich you could practically stand a spoon in it. A brew that would have made the Scottish stone masons imported to dress the great granite blocks used to build our current state capitol right at home. But there were no Scottish stone masons at Convict Hill (Oak Hill), which supplied the limestone used in the capitol’s basement and foundation, and the convicts who did the quarrying got anything but stout on their near-starvation diet. While I enjoyed it, one was enough; it’s not a summer brew, unless you happen to be in Antarctica or Tierra del Fuego.

In honor of Kenneth Threadgill, Buck Steiner (Charlie Dunn’s boss), and all the other bootleggers from Austin’s Prohibition days, Bootlegger Brown Ale, also an Indepence flavor, was my next victim, a very malty concoction that I imagine closely resembles Kosmos Spoetzl’s original Texas Special Export (I used to have an unopened 1953 bottle of TSE, but never worked up the courage or sacrilege to open and taste it; I sold it to help finance my daughter’s birth). Hearty, but not too heavy for a hot summer day. I could have made quick work of several more of these.

As for Real Ale’s Lost Gold (Fool’s Gold), this IPA had more hop to it than a jackrabbit on crack. It left me breathless (in a happy sort of way), and I’m a hoppy kinda guy. But I cannot say I did not have fair warning, for the label (like the Bible) tells me so.

For the Memorial Day Feast, I chose the Shiner Family Reunion: two each of Bock, Blonde, Black Lager, Hefeweizen, Kosmos Reserve, and Brewer’s Pride.

Now, Shiner and I go back together the better part of 40 years. The owners of Shiner of Austin were among my best friends and introduced Shiner Bock as a year ’round brew to the world, starting in Austin. They sponsored the bike races I promoted. I came of age and courted girlfirends in the Brewery Hospitality room with Speedy Biel and Mr. Herbert Siems. We would ride our bikes down there, get as full as ticks with good old Shiner Premium (Mr. Siems ignored the wooden nickle rule with us.) and get a lift back with our designated driver, with a stop in Luling or Lockhart for BBQ. Those rides led to a chapter in my Central Texas book, The Shiner-Lockhart Pilgrimage, and a mass bike ride, the GASP, which is stronger than ever after 30+ years.

But all things must change. Carlos Alvarez, who chose Shiner of Austin to help introduce Corona beer to the USA, bought our beloved little brewery, and things began to change, and to my way of thinking, not for the better. Shiner Premium was dropped in favor of the vapid Blonde. Prices rose to boutique levels, without a corresponding change in taste quality. At $6.99 a six, Bock was not as an attractive buy as before. It was a great $3.99 beer, but at $6.99, there were more compelling choices.

To its credit, the not-so-little brewery began producing varietals meant to justify boutique prices. Bohemian Black Lager is Shiner’s darkest brew, “nearly opaque in color and yet still approachable in taste.” These are significant words, “yet still approachable in taste.” They cut across pretty much the entire line of Shiner’s brews. Pretty good, but in the end, pulling their punches. For every variety, you are going to find someone else’s brew, with a bigger set of balls, for the same price. That’s just the way I swing. I don’t want a brew that is “approachable in taste.” I shed my beer training wheels decades ago.  “Approachable in taste” is for those looking tentatively to step up from Bud Light. Except for the vapid Blonde, they are all pleasant enough beers, but not worth more than $10.99 a 12-pack, which you will on rare occasions find.

I readily admit to not having tasted every Shiner varietal on the shelves. One that I have tried and liked, that stood up the “Shiner Family Reunion,” is Ruby Redbird. Beer with Ruby Red grapefruit juice and ginger? I was skeptical. But it won me over. It is indeed a great summer brew, served ice cold on hot summer days. The Munich malt and Mt. Hood, Citra, and Cascade hops do act to balance the flavor well, to the point that the grapefruit juice flavor I so feared was pretty much lost in the mix.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare lagers, wheats and Bocks with ales, but I find that Real Ale’s products have yet to fail me when it comes to authoritative yet pleasing taste. They’re like Teddy Roosevelt in a bottle. And I’m a TR fan. He was a Republican I could vote for. Two of their newest varietals, Phoenix double ESB and Devil’s Backbone Abbey style Ale, are as advertised, “complex” and “intriguing,” just the way I like my brews and my women.

In a recent post about a trip to Fredericksburg, I mentioned the region’s newest bottle brew, Lobo Beer, available by the seis at local stores. Brewed by Pedernales Brewing, there are currently two flavors: a Lager and Negra. We chose Lager, which was hoppy pert near to an IPA. Very enjoyable on a hot Hill Country afternoon.

And a final chapeau, to Austin Beerworks, which has chose to partition its boutique-price output via aluminum can. And what’s more, they ain’t apologizing for their choice; “We make bold and clean ales and lagers and put them in cans so they’ll get cold quicker and stay good longer.” I’ve only had their Fire Eagle American IPA. Maybe a can keeps the beer fresher, but it sure tastes better from an iced, thick beer mug. Out of the can and into the stein, and I was hopping like the Calaveras County frog.

And the journey continues.

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