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Heavy Heavy: San Antonio is for Dark Beer-lovers 

click to enlarge LANCE HIGDON
  • Lance Higdon
How did heavy brews come to dominate our beer scene? It seems to run counter to history and climatology both. Stouts and porters come from Ireland and England, not the German or German-via-Mexico traditions that cast the longest shadow in South Texas, and even if the Texicans were used to Russian imperial stouts, how the hell would they drink them in the near-year-long swelter of our environment? Lucky for us, our breweries have made a point of bucking expectations on every front. We make good beer here, period, but a combination of culture and science have ensured the drinking public has a real heart for darkness.

A quick glance at the stats verifies this excellence. A bottle of Freetail’s American imperial stout La Muerta brought home our first gold medal from the Great American Beer Fest in 2017. This year, Künstler Brewing earned the silver in the chili beer category for Chamuco, a porter that layers its spice in with a luscious Mexican hot chocolate-like base.

Stouts and porters are brewed with a bigger bill of roasted malts and less hops than other styles. This makes them very inviting to certain adjuncts — you can go for first breakfast (coffee, oatmeal) or post-dinner (chocolate, vanilla, damn near any brown liquor you can barrel). They’re made to last, which makes them perfect styles to mature in barrels, or let sit a spell with some fruit or wood.

San Antonio brewers have exploited this versatility well. Up in New Braunfels, Guadalupe Brewing Company has poured 60 different stouts (seventy-six if you count stout’s wee heavy kinsman, the Scotch ale) since opening in 2012. Closer to home, Weathered Souls has, if Untappd tallies can be trusted, turned out 95 stout or porter iterations. And the brewery only turned 2 last month. Those numbers are insane, but they help explain why Weathered Souls bombers have become staples of the beer mail underground.

According to Ty Wolosin, head brewer at Cibolo Creek Brewing Company in Boerne, this dark beer prevalence comes from the mouths of consumers.

“For me, it’s not so much that we do our best work on dark beers, as the trend in the greater San Antonio area seems to be a excitement for darker beers,” Wolosin said in an email to the Current. “Meaning the craft beer folks really love the dark beer releases, in particular barrel-aged and pastry stouts.”

Cibolo Creek meets this demand with a regular rotation of darks (a porter in the fall, a stout in the winter), in addition to small-batch treats like their sweet potato-marshmallow and chocolate chip cookie dough stouts.

There’s a partially scientific rationale also, welling up through the limestone of the Edwards Aquifer.

“Different styles need different chemistry,” Wolosin said. “First is the pH of the beer brewing mash. For the grain to convert properly into wort, the pH of that mash should be in the 5.2-5.5 range. Roasted malts (those found in stouts and porters, etc.) naturally lower the pH without having to add acid. So although we have alkaline water in the area, the roasted malts are enough to lower the pH to the correct range, at least in the majority of dark beer recipes.”

Three crucial minerals — calcium, sulfur and sodium — also play into the picture.

“Our water has enough of all these to make a good dark beer without adding much,” Wolosin said. “Occasionally, we add some gypsum to the mash to bump up the calcium and sulfur just a hair. When you’re brewing a lighter beer and in particular a hoppy beer, large amounts of gypsum are added, as hoppy beer needs more calcium and sulphur for hop utilization.”

Going beyond the science behind such well-adjusted worts, stouts and porters make taste sense in South Texan culture. Bold, sensual flavors characterize our food. We enjoy passing good times by shooting the breeze with our friends. San Antonians hate to eat (or drink) alone. What’s more perfect for that than a shared bottle of beer best enjoyed slowly? Maybe it’s not such a mystery how these big, beautiful brews made it to the top after all.

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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