Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Big news in microbrew

Freetail heralds a new era for San Antonio

Posted on Wed, Feb 4, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2009-02-04

San Antonio is a thirsty place. Unfortunately, the terrible Dos Equis commercial’s motto (“Stay thirsty, my friends”) is less a request than an observation down here (not to say that Dos Equis is terrible beer, mind you).

Consider a little history: The city’s first microbrewery, which opened in 1994 over on the St. Mary’s strip, floundered and closed after only three years. The owners blamed the lack of advertising money, but obviously San Antonio wasn’t ready. Sadder still, the Yellow Rose Brewery, which also opened in 1994, closed six years later after garnering a small, but loyal (and budding), following. It was near the tipping point when it shuttered the doors. And while Blue Star Brewing Company has been firmly established in the Southtown area since 1996, only in the last month and a half has San Antonio been blessed with another place to get a delicious locally crafted beer. 

Freetail Brewing Company, located at N.W. Military and Loop 1604, in what looks like an old limestone quarry on the fringe of the Hill Country, is a blessing and, hopefully, a new yardstick for San Antonio. I was fortunate enough recently to meet with the owner, Scott Metzger, and head brewer, Jason Davis, who met at a beer conference in Austin and reconnected in the homebrew circles in town (specifically the Bexar Brewers and a subgroup called the Lagerythmics). We talked and drank beer, and I was struck by their relationship. They obviously respect each other; each listened intently when the other spoke, which suggests an excellent working relationship — a boon to any business.

But there are reasons that microbrews and brewpubs haven’t succeeded down here. A good part of the problem is the Texas laws governing them. “We are essentially in the restaurant business,” Davis said. And so, he explained, they have to take on the overhead of a retail space while a large portion of the area is taken up by brewing equipment. While breweries like Real Ale in Blanco can sell their bottled beer in stores and restaurants, they can’t serve a drop on premise. Meanwhile, brewpubs like Freetail can’t sell their beer anywhere but on-site (aside from sending growlers home with patrons). In other words, they miss out on a potentially lucrative market. All of this, Metzger said, “really limits the growth potential both for brewpubs and for breweries.” And because of that impediment, people here haven’t been exposed to a wide range of local brews, as drinkers on the West Coast have for example. 

Metzger thinks that’s all changing, in large part due to bars serving specialty beers: “I think only in the last few years has the taste of this town become more sophisticated in terms of food and especially beer. I give a lot of credit to the Flying Saucer for changing a lot of people’s impressions about beer. Flying Saucer is packed every night selling all kinds of beer from around the world, and it’s a great thing to see. That’s kind of what gave me confidence that another brewpub could succeed in San Antonio.”

And there are more such beer havens on the horizon. The Tap Exchange in the Evans/Bulverde area is set to open this month, and the Yard House in La Cantera is about six months from swinging open its doors.

Davis has been involved in brewing companies for many years (and a home brewer for ages). He has worked at Celis and Waterloo (both Austin breweries), the Laboratory (a San Antonio brewery defunct since 2002) and, most recently, Blue Star.

While Davis asked someone to bring him a test batch, Metzger brought out a sampler of the beers they currently have on tap. We talked about “extreme” brewing as we sipped La Rubia, Rye Wit, Freetail Ale, and Torpor Porter from the list of available beers (since I visited, they’ve added 2Timer, and they will have Old Bat Rastard, La Muerta, 3Tail, and a special mystery beer coming up). Neither Davis nor Metzger agreed that
“extreme” was a goal they embrace. Metzger said they’re “a little experimental. We’re not really big on following style guidelines or adhering to rules. We’re about making good beer.”

Davis agreed, adding, “We try to leave stylistic names out of the titles of our beers. We want to leave it up for the customer to decide.” They’re not brewing crazy beers just to brew, but they’re not following the rules, either. I like that philosophy. 

As we talked, I settled into La Rubia, a blond, slightly cloudy beer, which settled wheaty on the back of my tongue. It finished smooth and light. Davis brought out a sample of a test La Rubia made with a different strain of Belgian yeast. It had more of an initial citrus burst and then settled more mildly on the tongue than the La
Rubia on tap. Incredibly, the yeast accounted for most of the difference in taste.

Next I tried the Rye Wit, a citrusy wheat-rye beer made with a Belgian yeast strain. Then I sampled the Freetail Ale, an amber beer that coursed across my tongue with a wonderful cedar taste. The final beer on tap that I tried was the Torpor Porter. It had a rich nutty and chocolatey smell that translated to the taste. It was surprisingly light, considering the aroma, but it seemed to linger delicately in my mouth.

I also got to try the test beer in the bottle, which turned out to be a Tadarida IPA (which will be called either Tadarida IDA or Tadarida Oscura). India Pale Ale is a brew originally created by the British to ship to India — it is very hoppy, which helped it keep on its long ocean voyage to the subcontinent. This one is dry-hopped with Simcoe hops and is very dark. In fact, it looks a lot like the porter. It smelled strongly of orange peel and lemon — a beautiful, rich scent — and tasted like a good, strong IPA.

Finally, I tried another test. This was a Winter Saison — a farmhouse beer made traditionally at the end of the brewing season — made with cocoa nibs. Dark and chocolatey, it was heavier than the other beers, with a delicious, strong cocoa taste.

After trying all the beers on tap plus these unusual, tasty tests, I got a brief tour of the facilities, exposed as they are to the large, open dining area; the openness is meant to encourage community like a German beer hall. The copper vessels for the mash and hot liquor — I don’t know if I’ll ever really grasp the intricacies of brewing beer — were made by Pub Brewing and are identical to the ones that Davis used at Waterloo. They came from a brewhouse in Philadelphia called John Harvard’s. Davis named the main tanks after songs and musicians from Funkadelic: Bootsy, Starchild, and Dr. Funkenstein, to name just a few. I was loving this place more and more. 

On top of the copper-tank ambience, Freetail is very much about pushing all things Texas. They always have eight Texas beers on tap, which rotate (including St. Arnold, Real Ale, Live Oak, Rahr, and Shiner). They’ve got a long list of Texas wines, too. Metzger likes to say he’s got more Texas wines than anyone else, though he fesses up that he’s not sure about that. And they buy as much local produce as possible. This all adds up, in their own philosophy of beer, and my understanding of their values, to a responsibility to Texas (and South Texas in particular) as well as the globe. The more Texas beer is showcased, the better for everyone involved. Freetail embraces the competition, knowing it will only make them better.

I said my thanks to the duo, my mind filled with information and heady suds, and sat back down at a table and ordered another porter and a pizza. One of the other exceptional things about Freetail is the stone oven where they bake their pizzas. This creates an ambient heat which seems to add to the flavor. It was a fantastic pizza. As I ate and drank (the beer prices vary, but tend to hover around $4 with 75 cent off during happy hour, Monday through Friday from 3 to 7 p.m.), I looked out at a windmill through the clear garage door behind the bar. I watched Davis finish cleaning out a tank. I noticed Metzger polishing glasses behind the bar and joking with customers. I took all of this in and saw that it was good. Let’s cross our fingers for and open our gullets to a brave new microbrewed San Antonio.

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