Home with the Armadillo

(Originally printed in Southern Draft Brew News Southwest in 1999.)

"Austin," Michael Jackson once told me over a couple of pints at the Ginger Man, "is one of the best beer cities in the U.S." I'm quite biased, but I agreed. Having lived here for something like 16 of the past 20 years, I've had the pleasure of watching the city, and the beer scene, grow exponentially. The effect of the population boom is open to debate, but I'll say unequivocally that the beer boom is far and away one of the best things to happen to Austin since I first moved here in 1981.

Not that there wasn't plenty of beer here in '81. There was. There just wasn't a lot of craft beer. Back then, Shiner Bock was a tiny brand known as the "National Beer of Austin," selling for around $2.29 a six-pack. Bass, Guinness and Harp were highly exotic and not widely available. Heineken was what you bought when you wanted to show off your beer snobbery; Pearl was what you bought when you wanted two cases for 10 bucks.

In those days, Scholz Garden (1607 San Jacinto Blvd., 512/474-1958) was the beer hall of choice. Built in the 1800s, Scholz Garden had (and has) one of the best outdoor patios in town, making it especially alluring. Serving cheap pitchers, cheap munchies, close to both the University of Texas and the capitol, Scholz was where I was received my first Shiner Bock indoctrination. It's still where I go to tailgate before Longhorn football games in the fall.

I don't remember exactly when I was turned on to the Draft House, which is now the Draught Horse (4112 Medical Parkway, 512/452-6258), but I do remember my eyes bugging out at the selection of beers they offered. Beers from England, Germany, Belgium, everywhere. The taps poured Pilsner Urquell instead of Budweiser and there were who knows how many bottles to choose from. Best of all, this was a neighborhood joint, with great, thick wooden tables on which you were allowed - hell, ENCOURAGED - to carve your name or whatever else came to mind. Low-key almost to the point of sloth, making it a near-perfect fit for Austin, the Draft House was truly special, so I was glad to see it reincarnated as a brewpub a couple of years ago.

Of course, being on Sixth Street meant that Maggie Mae's (technically 512 Trinity St., 512/478-8541) would not only be discovered and frequented, but that it would stay alive to this day. The "old" side of Maggie Mae's, which is the only side I ever go in anymore, is reminiscent of an English or New York pub. Long and narrow, Maggie's served up a full complement of English brews even in the early '80s, catering primarily to serious beer hounds. And it still does, although I tell visitors they should consider this an afternoon bar unless they like drinking with the 15,000 rowdy UT students that fill Sixth St. on weekend nights.

Unfortunately, not every beer joint has been able to match these when it comes to longevity. Long gone are such great places as Gambrinus, which I seem to remember being on Congress Ave., rumored to have been the bar where Pierre Celis made his decision to move to Austin and build a Belgian-style brewery. The Alamo Hotel, which I think was on Sixth St. way back when, was where you'd go to have a Lone Star or a Dixie alongside musicians (Willie Nelson, for instance) and politicians. Xalapeno Charlie's bounced from location to location, serving icy Mexican beers to wash down Charlie's fiery Tex-Mex food. I spent many a Sunday evening comparing the chile pepper-diluting properties of Bohemia, Negra Modelo, Tecate, Dos Equis, etc., while listening to Tex Thomas and the Dangling Wranglers in Xalapeno Charlie's beer garden.

Of course, the greatest beer hall ever was the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters, but I never actually set foot in the place. It closed just a few months before I moved to town. Too bad for me.

Austin's seen a couple of brewpubs come and go, too. The Stonehouse Brewery, owned by my old rugby teammate James Elston, was one of the first brewpubs to open, and may have been the very first to close. The Stonehouse's main problem was finding a brewmaster who could brew decent beer, maybe the one problem no brewpub can survive. Today, the Stonehouse lives on as the Havana Harbor cigar factory.

Katie Bloom's (419 E. 6th St., 512/472-2528) started out as a brewpub, but the demands of the Sixth St. pub-goers soon forced a change of direction. When the crowd wants cheap, high-octane drinks and lots of 'em, craft beer doesn't seem to sell much, as the owners of Katie Bloom's soon discovered.

It's always dangerous to sit and reminisce over a pint or two like this. The inclination is to start glorifying the "good old days," missing places you never even went, and generally getting all maudlin for no good reason. The fact is, Austin's never been better as far as beer's concerned. Within walking distance of the capitol are four brewpubs (Bitter End, Copper Tank, Lovejoy's, Waterloo Brewing Co.), with another (Draught Horse) just a couple of miles up the road. We have a microbrewery (Live Oak) that's putting out some first-rate German-style beers and a superb pale ale just a mile or so east of downtown. Not to mention Pierre Celis' place just a few miles north of downtown. We may not have the Armadillo any more, but what we got ain't bad.

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