The craft beer scene in Austin is blowing up. For every new brewery that opens, there are at least three bars that pop up, eager to serve you the best local beers that Austin has to offer. Continuing the tradition that Eric started with his Best Burger Joint in Austin series, I’m profiling and reviewing the best craft beer joints in Austin, with the occasional stop or two at bars that have room for improvement. I’ll take into consideration everything from beer selection to ambiance to overall value, and everything in between. Please join me as I try to catalog your favorite watering holes in Austin, and let me know what you think in a comment below.
First Impressions: Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery
An Austinot walks into Black Star and orders a craft beer…stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Dustin did a great job reviewing the Black Star concept almost two years ago right here on the Austinot. But in light of recent news out of the Great American Beer Festival, I thought it would be a good time to revisit these guys, add them to the series, and finally check out a craft beer joint a bit further north.
As a perfect segue into Austin Beer Week that just concluded another successful year, Black Star Co-op returned from Denver with a bronze medal for Elba, the brewpub’s first member-owner beer recipe collaboration.
So what exactly does brewing collaboratively mean? And what the heck is a member-owner? Quick recap on what makes Black Star Co-op so unique: they are the world’s first cooperatively owned and worker self-managed brewpub.
Essentially, you pay $150 to own a piece of this restaurant/brewery. This entitles you to one share in the co-op and as equal a say as the thousands of other members in any major decisions. You also get special member-only discounts and invitations to events, as well as Tuesday night pint night discounts.
Part of the democratic process allows members to provide input on upcoming beer releases. The brewers of Black Star come up with a basic concept, such as a light wheat beer that could become a spring seasonal release. They have a basic recipe to start with before taking suggestions on additional ingredients from members, to make the beer unique.
In the case of the award-winning Elba, they started with an American Wheat Ale and added lemongrass, grains of paradise and bitter orange peel. It was also a member-owner’s idea to garnish the beer with a cucumber peel, making this the perfect light session beer at a poundable 4.4% ABV. The bronze-medalist came in third in the herb and spice category, which Austin ended up dominating at Great American Brew Festival (Namaste Brewing inside Whip In took home the gold).
Elba wasn’t available during my recent visit to Black Star and most likely won’t be seen again until early next year, although we haven’t heard anything official yet.
Rating Your Craft Beer Joint
Just as Eric did with his burger series, I’m using a grading scale of 1-10 to rate Austin’s favorite watering holes. With a 1 being “avoid at all costs!’ and a 10 indicating you are officially in “craft beer nirvana.” Remember, this is simply your humble, craft beer loving author’s opinion on the bars around town. Please feel free to disagree and let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear your take on these venues. The bars will be rated using the following categories:
- Beer Selection
Reviewing Black Star Co-op: Multiple Cooks in the Kitchen Can Work
Beer Selection = 9.5. Fantastic and well-balanced 6 tap rotation of in-house brews. Having a Great American Beer Festival award winner as part of the seasonal lineup lends instant credibility to Black Star. They also have a rotating 20 guest tap rotation. Member-owners have some say in what gets brought in next. While Black Star doesn’t have as many taps as other craft beer joints in this series, the great selection of in-house beers gives them a leg up.
Food = 9.0. Texas pub fare with locally sourced, high-quality ingredients are featured here. Think standard pub food with an Austin twist, and ingredients kept as local as possible. I had the burger: local 44 Farms brisket ground in-house with house-made beer mustard and buns from the amazing Easy Tiger. There was nothing really special about the burger, yet I absolutely loved it. The bun was semi-sweet with just the right amount of thickness to soak up the grease from the burger, and all the condiments tasted fresh. The bacon caramel popcorn really stood out as well, and I’ll be sure to get the fish n’ chips on my next visit, as I’ve heard really good things.
Ambiance = 7.25. There is definitely a unique feel to Black Star Co-op. It’s a bit startling at first if you don’t know what you’re walking into. There is no wait-staff, just a central line upon walking in where you order your beers and food. Grub is brought out in a timely fashion by any of the self-managed workers who happen to be free at the time. You are expected to bus your own table. It takes some getting used to, but it’s honestly not that big a burden, especially considering that you’re never required to tip. The place itself is spacious with a contemporary warehouse look to it, plenty of seating in the outdoor section, and a few dart boards near the back by the brewery setup.
Value = 7. You’re not going to come here for happy hour. They don’t have one. You also won’t come here for cheap bar food that was probably still frozen right before it was thrown on the grill. But you will come in for quality brews and food, and you’ll pay slightly more for it. Nothing extravagant, but a bit more than expected. However, the price increase is almost off-set by the no tipping necessary policy and tax already included. The workers are all paid fair living wages, and although I’m not exactly sure what that means, it may explain why prices are slightly higher. Your typical pour will run you about $5-6 bucks.
Service = 6.5. You should know what you are getting here, and that’s really not much service at all. The system is purposeful, so I have no problem with it. Just know going in that you’ll have to bus your own table when done eating and will have to get up for each beer, and you’ll be fine.
Overall Score = 7.85
The above score is an average of the five categories. Despite being the lowest score in our craft beer joint series so far, I do not want to deter you from visiting this incredibly unique craft beer joint. The fact that it is the world’s first (and probably still the only) cooperatively owned brewpub is reason enough to check out Black Star Co-op. The award-winning beers and stellar pub food are just the icing on top.
- Whip In: 9.4
- Craft Pride: 8.2
- Wright Bros. Brew and Brew: 8.1
- Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery: 7.85
Have you tried any of the recent Great American Beer Festival winners yet?