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 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.
North by Northwest
What is the oldest, still active craft brewery in Austin? If you guessed North by Northwest because of the title of this article, you’d be wrong. But not by much. Live Oak lays claim to being the first still active brewery, founded in 1997. Having opened their doors just two years later in 1999, NXNW is a relatively close second. It’s hard to believe that one of Austin’s first brewpubs has been open for 15 years now.
Typically known first as a restaurant, it’s easy to forget NXNW is a brewery at all. One step inside evokes thoughts of the great hunting lodges of the Pacific Northwest, with huge stones and towering wood beams – a place to hang your hat and enjoy a cold brew after a successful hunt. Owner Davis Tucker set out to convey exactly that image as he envisioned what North by Northwest would become. His venue pays homage to the many brewpubs and micro-breweries that got their start in the Northwest U.S.
So how did NXNW emerge as a successful brewery at a time when virtually every other brewery ended up closing its doors? Because Davis Tucker learns from his mistakes.
His first foray into beer-making, Copper Tank Brewing Co., opened in June 1994 as a brewery first, adding a kitchen later. While popular with the college crowd for cheap beer, the brewery lacked staying power and filed for bankruptcy in 2005. Tucker left only two years into the new venture, but recalls the emphasis being more on the brewery than the food. He rearranged these priorities with North by Northwest.
Brewpub or Restaurant that Brews?
The distinction doesn’t really matter, but the fact that the question is even asked is a testament to Tucker’s commitment to both aspects of the business. Shortly after opening, NXNW lured away George Powell from famed Austin institution Mezzaluna and made him Executive Chef. They then tapped Don Thompson, who started his first microbrewery in Plano in 1982, as brewmaster. The veteran trio – Tucker, Powell and Thompson – have crafted a concept with NXNW that is built to last, with award winning beers and a diverse menu.
Described as New American cuisine, the food at North by Northwest is like Southern comfort food with a fresh Italian take. The balanced menu has a variety of pasta dishes, meat, pizza and seafood selections. Herbivores and the gluten intolerant are also well taken care of with plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options.
Going for your first time? Order the roasted garlic bulbs ($9.95) as your appetizer and Cedar Plank Salmon ($18.95) for your main course. You won’t regret it. The Pork Chop Porterhouse ($17.95) and Beef Tri-Tip Pizza ($10.95) are also house favorites.
With heavy German influences, the beer at North by Northwest is designed to be easy to drink and pairs well with the food offerings. The five mainstays include a Pilsner, Amber, Pale Ale, Black Ale and a Hefeweizen. The Py Jingo Pale Ale is their strongest mainstay, clocking in at a very sessional 5.5% ABV. Their seasonals vary widely, but if you happen to catch their Blackjack (black ale aged in Jack Daniels whiskey barrels) or Holiday Ale (English style barleywine) on the menu, be sure to try one.
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 North by Northwest
Beer Selection = 7.0. There are 7 taps and NXNW is your only option. It’s damn good beer, but you’re limited to one brewery. Fortunately, the mainstays cover most of your popular beer styles and their seasonals are inventive enough that you’re almost always trying something new. Flights are available, as well as growlers and bottles to go. They even give you the option of buying beer by the keg. The Bavarian Hefeweizen and Duckabush Amber are two of my favorite beers on the regular rotation.
Food = 9.0. The food is simply phenomenal. Executive chef George Powell has created a menu that will satisfy the pickiest eaters. Standout appetizers include the Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms and Grilled Bacon Wrapped Quail. Healthy options abound with Pepper Crusted Seared Tuna or Grilled Chicken Penne Pasta. Prices are incredibly reasonable for the quality, with most plates averaging between $12-$18 bucks.
Ambiance = 8.0. Despite the excellent brews, you are coming to NXNW to eat. This isn’t going to be your neighborhood bar. But they nailed the Pacific Northwest theme perfectly. The high vaulted ceilings are perfect to provide windows into the huge brewing setup found throughout the restaurant. Even the giant silo found in front of the building is a functional grain store with over 25,000 lb. of barley when at capacity.
Value = 9.0. I’ve always been a fan of having a beer with my lunch and NXNW makes it easy. I can order a full lunch entree with a pint of beer and walk away paying less than $15, tip included. Pints are typically between $4-5 with 22oz bombers starting at only $6. You can buy a sharp-looking NXNW growler and get your first fill for only $30 total.
Service = 9.0. You’re always greeted with a smile upon entering NXNW. The bartenders are quick and knowledgeable about their beers and the work that goes into making them. You also get full bar service with an excellent selection of bourbons. The waitstaff is friendly and the food comes out quick. Despite being one of the first, this definitely doesn’t feel like your typical Austin brewpub.
After 15 years of serving the NW Austin area, NXNW is finally expanding to a 2nd location, planned to open in September 2014. Hayden Winkler, formerly Lead Brewer at Real Ale, has been tasked with the head brewing job at the Parkside location, which is right in front of Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter. Editor’s Note: the Slaughter location closed Feb. 2, 2019. They are also gearing up for a big 15th Anniversary celebration on August 31, 2014. The original location of North by Northwest is on 10010 N Capital of Texas Hwy.
Overall Score = 8.4
- Whip In: 9.4
- Pinthouse Pizza: 8.9
- North by Northwest: 8.4
- Craft Pride: 8.2
- Wright Bros. Brew and Brew: 8.1
- Black Star Co-op Pub and Brewery: 7.85
- Porter Ale House & Gastropub: 7.5
What is your favorite North by Northwest brew?