Deep inside your your favorite bars in Austin, tucked away in cool, dark corners, are some of the rarest beers in the city. These brews are made in extremely limited quantities and are typically the priciest beers in a brewery’s lineup. They will be stored, or “cellared,” for years to allow time to enhance the unique qualities of each brew.
This is the subculture of aging beer—and it is big business in Austin and throughout the rest of the country. The practice of saving limited-release beer has taken off over the last few years, as Austin’s best breweries and overall distribution networks have matured.
To be clear, these aren’t your pale ales and lagers that are being aged for years at a time. If you’ve ever opened a Firemans 4 that has been hiding in your refrigerator’s veggie tray for too long, you’ll know why some beers have an expiration date. Instead, Austin’s bars store your stouts, porters and dark ales. The boozier, the better.
Don’t stop reading now. You’re about to get a behind the scenes look into the cellar programs for storing rare beers at some of the top bars in Austin.
Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden
You can’t talk about cellar programs around Austin without paying a visit to Banger’s on Rainey Street. Their anniversary party, held annually in August, easily has the longest list in the entire city of rare beers released on one day.
With over 100 taps on the wall, you can expect the vast majority of Banger’s cellared beer to be in keg form. “We will keep a few bottles around, but from a space perspective they are much more expensive to age than kegs,” head beer manager Courtney Strange shared with me.
“We like to do verticals of at least 2-3 releases at a time when we bring out the cellared beer.” Vertical tastings offer a selection of the same beer released in different years. Just this past holiday season, Banger’s released the Anchor Christmas Ale from 2013 and 2014 at the same time. Courtney noted the 2013 version got spicier over time.
Stepping into the refrigerated storage area for Banger’s massive tap wall can be a bit daunting. There is barely enough room for one person to squeeze through the maze of stainless steel kegs that are stacked nearly to the roof. As is the case with Craft Pride and Whip In, Banger’s cellar program is limited by their amount of temperature-controlled storage space. A rack is mounted to the roof of their cooler area to make room to store the few bottles they decide to cellar.
“We have three different cellars on property. Beer is stored at 38 degrees in the main cooler area, we then have a small fridge in the office running at 48 degrees, and then we keep even more in a dark closet stored at room temperature,” Courtney said.
I got a sneak peak at each of these cellars, a veritable all-star lineup of the rarest brews that get distributed in the Texas market. There was a cornucopia of St. Arnold’s Bishops Barrel and Divine Reserve series, as well as a few varieties of Prairie Ales “Bomb” releases. I also found plenty of Avery beers, as their boozier varieties (14-17% ABV) age well.
We can expect an event in the near future to highlight Real Ales’ barrel program, Mysterium Verum, where Banger’s will have up to 10 different releases.
Banger’s has some big expansion plans in the works. The lot next door that was purchased last year has been mostly used for storage and parking, but that will change soon. Specific details are still private, but once the expansion is complete they expect to have much more room for cold storage. Banger’s cellar program will benefit in a big way from plans to have a dedicated bottle menu that can be enjoyed on-site.
Whatever Banger’s has up its sleeve, you can expect Austin’s largest beer garden to get even bigger.
Recently named among the prestigious “100 Best Bars” in America by Draft magazine for the second consecutive year, Craft Pride takes their cellar program quite seriously.
“Allocation is the name of the game. How well you represent a brewery helps dictate how much you get,” Tre Miner, bar manager at Craft Pride, told me.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another bar that better represents the breweries of the Lone Star State. So you can always expect Craft Pride to have the most coveted brews on their release date, whether they are on the tap wall or for sale individually in the bottle shop. If the allocation is large enough, a small percentage will be stored in their cellar for release at a later date.
Tre and Anders Dowd, General Manager, shared news of a big improvement to Craft Pride’s cellar program. In the near future they will be revamping their storage area to raise the temperature and improve insulation, to ensure their rare brews stay at an optimal range of 50-55 degrees for aging.
They will also be expanding their Nitro program with the inclusion of two additional taps. The plan is to work closer with local breweries to try new beers on Nitro that haven’t been attempted before. Nitrogenated beers use a combination of about 30% carbon dioxide and 70% nitrogen to create smoother, creamier pours that affect the taste by ratio.
Expect events over the next two months to focus on beers from Craft Pride’s cellar program. In the next few weeks, the bar will announce a St. Arnold Bishop’s Barrel vertical tasting “that will feature a lot of numbers,” Tre mentioned. They will also be having their annual Hot Pepper beer party on March 28, 2015 that will feature casks aged for a few months with some wicked pepper combinations.
“I approach our cellar here the same way I do at home,” Anastasia Kelly, Beer Buyer at the Whip In, told me. She likes to focus on beers that clock in at 9% ABV or higher. Whip In takes a slightly different approach to their cellar program: they don’t necessarily wait for a specific date or event to release their rare brews. They have also been around a lot longer than many craft beer bars in town and have had some kegs aging for up to seven years.
Anastasia echoed the same thoughts on allocation and space concerns that Craft Pride shared. Longstanding relationships with local breweries ensure Whip In gets their fair share of the most coveted rare beers out there. “We even get some of the breweries themselves to come out and try their own beers that we have been sitting on for a few years,” Anastasia shared.
Whip In highlights a new brewery every four weeks in their Brewery of the Month program, where they feature one brew for $3 all month. If they happen to have a cellared keg from that brewery, they will release it as well. Since, Sierra Nevada is the featured brewery this month, they’ll be releasing a 2008 version of the Bigfoot Barleywine Ale during Pint Night on February 19, 2015.
Although you will see beers from the Cellar Reserve series up on the chalkboard periodically throughout the year, Black Friday is Whip In’s biggest cellar event of the year. Lines begin to form early Black Friday morning as the biggest, booziest beers of the year are released from the cellar. Some beers to look forward to in the coming years include 2011 varieties of Avery Beast and Mephistopheles’ Stout. “Personally, I can’t wait to try the Green Flash – Cigar City collaboration beer, the Candela Rye Barleywine that we have been sitting on since 2013.” Anastasia confided.
@Crafty_Ed wants to know:
What are your favorite bars or bottle shops in Austin for trying rare beers?