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Tapped In: The state of craft beer in Austin

For attendees at this year’s South by Southwest festival, there was no easier beer to find than Miller Lite. As one of the show’s major sponsors, it was everywhere – and being freely offered every few feet by one company or another.

But savvy beer drinkers at the interactive, film and music festival were sampling — or, in many cases, re-discovering — some of the local brews.

There are 18 licensed breweries in Austin these days, with another 4-5 on the way, says Josh Hare, owner of Hops & Grain Brewing. And they’re putting out some absolutely amazing products – though many don’t have aspirations to ship nationally.

“We have no interest in expanding outside of Texas,” says Sara Brand, co-owner of (512) Brewing, which crafted Austin’s first IPA eight years ago and distributes to all of the major cities in the state.

That’s a shame, because the Austin area is teeming with high-quality microbrews – some of whom have managed to achieve national reputations without reaching too far beyond their own taprooms.

Jester King, in Austin’s Hill Country, for instance, has amassed a rabid fan base around the country for its sour farmhouse ales, but owner Jeffrey Stuffings says 85% of the company’s sales come from a 10×10 pop-up tent at the company’s brewery.

Jester King, in fact, breaks pretty much every rule of traditional beer making. It has no flagship product, having made roughly 55 varieties since its start. It’s situated on a farm that can only be accessed via a dirt road. And rather than selling its products in 12 oz. bottles or 22 oz. bombers, it prefers 750 ml bottles which are usually used for wine.

“We consider ourselves to be an experimental brewery,” says Stuffings. “When we start a new batch of beer, we really don’t know what the taste is going to be down the road. … Our secret is time, patience and being self-editing.”

That doesn’t stop people from seeking the brewery out. Only open to the public three days per week, the line waiting at the door in the pre-opening moments on a recent Friday afternoon was 25 people deep. Stuffings says most visitors are from out of town.

(512), meanwhile, opts against bottling or canning its products, focusing on draft and growler sales. And Thirsty Planet has limited its distribution to a three county area (though has recently started bottling its flagship Thirsty Goat, which could widen its national exposure).

While there are plenty of stylistic differences among Austin brewers, they do seem united on one philosophy: Legally, Texas has a long way to go before it can be considered a craft friendly state.

Two years ago, the state lowered the amount of beer breweries could self-distribute from 75,000 barrels to 40,000. There’s now an effort underway to lower than to 10,000, says Brand. Additionally, she says, breweries who sign with a distributor can have that license sold or transferred to another distributor, but don’t see a penny of the sale price.

“The problem in Texas is the distributors have a stranglehold on breweries,” says Alex Andrawes, founder of Austin-based Personal Brew, which private labels craft beers for private parties and special occasions. “It definitely limits Texas’s ability to grow.”

Brewers, though, are hopeful that the tide will slowly turn – and think Austin will be the city to lead the state’s growth in the craft scene.

“With Austin turning into such a foodie town, the beer is following,” says Mike Haiges, co-owner of Thirsty Planet. “But we’re still probably 10-15 years behind Portland.”

Planning a trip to Austin? Here are a few of the local beers you absolutely have to try. (Been recently and discovered one we missed? Sound off in the comments below.)

Austin Beerworks Fire Eagle

For a lot of SXSW showgoers, this is a go-to IPA. It’s hoppy without being overwhelming and has a full body, but doesn’t fill you up. There’s a strong bitterness to it up front, but it finishes clean as the malts assert themselves. (ABV: 6.2%)

Hops & Grain The One They Call Zoe

This dry-hopped lager is incredibly refreshing and crisp. Each sip has a tanginess to it with hints of floral and citrus notes. Lagers have a bad reputation among some craft lovers. Don’t let that make you bypass this one, though. (ABV: 5.2%)

(512) Pecan Porter

Before you adjust a porter, you need to nail the base – and (512) absolutely does that, with a great chocolate/coffee balance and creaminess. But the hint of pecan that rests atop that takes this beer to another level. The nutty maltiness is a nice twist on what you’d normally expect. (ABV: 6.8%)

Fireman’s #4

Looking for something to sip with your BBQ? This is it. It’s a light, grainy blonde ale with some citrus notes and just a hint of hoppiness – though nowhere near enough to scare off people who don’t like IPAs – and offers a nice, sweet finish. (ABV: 5.1%)

Jester King Biere de Blanc du Bois

A farmhouse ale re-fermented with Blanc du Bois grapes, this is a tart, tangy, intense sour that pirouettes around your taste buds. It’s incredibly well-balanced, and like most of Jester King’s offerings, has an evolving flavor profile as it warms. Sold exclusively at the brewery, it’s worth the drive – and the wait – to get your hands on it. (ABV: 6.7%)