Field Trip! Live Oak Brewery tour.
We recently had a tour at Live Oak Brewery, the only beer we carry that’s made here in Austin. Steve Anderson, the head brewer at Live Oak, was nice enough to accommodate Jessica and and I on a weekday and dropped a staggering amount of science on us! I kept feeling like I should’ve been taking notes. In hindsight, I should have.
Before I get into the tour, a word on our beer list from one of the owners, Joseph Strickland, “The goal of the beer list is like making a great mix tape: you need some quiet/loud, some power ballads, some weird meandering shit, some ironic stuff but it all has to flow well together, woven into an overall vibe, which for our beer list means they all have to complement the pie in some way.” Nicely put, which is why we don’t have tons of beers, or many of the commonly popular beers. We aren’t trying to ruffle anyone’s feathers by not carrying their favorite beer, just as with the wines, the beers were chosen to compliment our food.
Live Oak is a small brewery located on Austin’s east side. Their year round brews are the Pilz, styled after the original Czech pilsner, Big Bark Amber Lager, a smooth Vienna style lager, and the Pale Ale. Their seasonal brews are HefeWeizen (spring/summer), Oaktoberfest (fall), and Liberation Ale (winter). You can tell by the sparkle in Mr. Anderson’s eyes as he talks about enzymes and temperatures, or, actually, any of the employees you talk to, that there is a deep passion for the craft in the folks at Live Oak. They LOVE beer. And consequently, as he points out, they have to, since they specialize in making lager beers. Lagers have a substantially longer brewing process, taking 4 to 6 weeks in most cases. A brewery could easily turn out 4 times the amount of beer in that time if they brewed ales exclusively, and make more money. But that is not the end all for these folks.
Neither of us having ever been to a brewery, or having an inkling about the beer making process, we were like kids in an alcoholic candy store.
“This one tastes like banana!” –Jessica, about the HefeWeizen
So, very very simply, this is what we learned: You start with 55 lb bags of malted barley from the Czech Republic, then you crush em up, but not too much, then they go into a big thingie called a mash tun where they get mixed in with hot water which breaks the starches in the malt down to sugary water. Right before the liquid is moved on from the mash tun, it’s heated up really hot to kill the enzymes that convert the starches to sugar. Then the sugary water gets drained through the “false bottom” which basically strains out the grains from the liquid.
Then the liquid, called “wort,” goes into the brew kettle where hops are added and they are boiled together. The hops are flowers that are used as the bittering agent in the beer. People talk a lot about the hops in beer, but water and malted barley are the biggest ingredients. Hops are just the squeaky wheel. If you’ve ever had an IPA or a true pilsner(i.e. Pilsner Urquell as opposed to Budweiser), that’s the bitter, hoppy flavor. Anyway, after that, my handle on the facts got a little fuzzy. There is only so much new science I can hold in my head at once. But, I’m pretty sure the hopped liquid gets spun inside the brew kettle so all the residual proteins and grain matter settle into a neat little pile on the bottom of the vessel, then goes through a magic cooling machine and into a big vessel where the yeast is added. In this vessel, the real fermenting action happens.
When the fermentation is done, you have beer. That doesn’t mean the beer is done, but it is technically beer. Lager, for instance, is stored for weeks at a cold temperature before it’s ready to be served.
Steve is extremely knowledgeable not only about the brewing process, but about the history of beer as well. He patiently answered all our newbie questions (is beer in green bottles supposed to taste like that?). By the end of the tour, we were ready to start our own brewery. It seems perfect; a job that combines math and science, grains and flowers, textures and smells, bubbles, no computers in sight, tall German men named Hans, and an end product you can stand behind and celebrate. A glamourous majority of the job, as Steve kindly informed us, is being on your knees and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. And then a pint of cleaning. Sterility between batches is of utmost importance to ensure quality and consistency of product. Another reason to love your craft; lots of sweat and hardwork, little glamour, but with the satisfaction that you’ve been getting people laid since since 1997.
Live Oak does tours on Saturdays at noon and they last about and hour to an hour and a half, you just have to call ahead to give them a heads up and let them know the size of your group. I highly recommend it, especially if you’ve never been to a brewery. There’s a great local brewery right in your backyard, take advantage of it and live a little!