Even in Central Texas the nights are drawing in, and it’s time to break open some seasonal brews. At this time of year, I love indulging in dark sour beers that are perfect for the crisp, chilly weather, carrying warmth but not weight, with rich, deep dried-fruit, wood and smoke, and a tart tang that adds and edge of brightness. As a sceptic of sweet beers, I’m drawn to dark sours that offer the promise of holiday flavours without the dessert-like qualities of many boozy dark beers. One of my favourite characteristics of sour dark beers is how delicately weighted they are, the precise and specific balancing act that results from the interplay of the sour-ferment on a deep, full-bodied base. Here in the Texas Hill Country I’ve discovered some truly exceptional dark sours, ranging from stouts to saisons to wheat beers and quads. While the likes of Crooked Stave, Jolly Pumpkin, The Bruery and Ommegang are the best known flag-flyers for deep, wintry sours, these five Central Texas brews more than hold their own in the most prestigious of beery company. If you’re hitting up the Hill Country this holiday season, get as many of them as you can.
Real Ale Brewing – Magnum Trux (Barrel-aged sour quad with blackcurrants)
Magnum Trux was one of the first Texan dark sours I tried, at Real Ale’s 22nd anniversary party back in May 2018, and remains a highlight of both the exceptional Real Ale Mysterium Verum series and my dark-sour adventures. While I would heartily recommend all the beers in this series, particularly the dark sours, the Magnum Trux is particularly spectacular – the addition of the blackcurrants at the final stage of fermentation adding a dark, juicy oaked layer to the tart dried fruit of its Black Quad base. At 10.3%, the Magnum Trux is a thing of boozy beauty, but each tongue-tingling mouthful leads to another surprisingly fast, so that however much you want to savour it, you find it has mysteriously vanished and no other beer is going to taste quite as exciting for a while afterwards. People can (and do) charge pretty much whatever they want for this beer, and my frugal tendencies suddenly disappear out the window whenever it is available. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Blue Owl – Lord Admiral Gravitas (Sour Imperial Oatmeal Stout aged in Balcones Brimstone barrels)
Blue Owl are ATX’s very own kettle-sour deity. While we never cease to be amazed by the quality, complexity and variety of their output and all their dark sours have a very special place in my heart, the seasonal treat that is the Lord Admiral Gravitas is incredibly special. This Imperial Oatmeal Stout aged in barrels from my favourite Texas Bourbon, Balcones Brimstone, is a badass 9% of deceptively quaffable, silky-smooth-smoky tart-oat goodness. Sour oatmeal may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s much warmer than you might anticipate, with the sweet oak-smoke of the Brimstone adding an additional layer of rich complexity. The gentle tartness running through it offsets the weight of the oatmeal and makes it a perfectly balanced moreish treat. While there is a lot going on in this beer, each element is so carefully calibrated that the result is positively orchestral. Get it if you can!
New Braunfels Brewing Company – Self Medication (Black wheat sour aged 16 months in port barrels with lees then 2 months in Garrison Brothers bourbon barrels)
NBBC are one of my top Texan spontaneous-ferment breweries, and no trip to New Braunfels is complete without a visit to their lovely cosy and super-friendly taproom. Self-Medication combines several of my favourite things – dark sour beer, barrel-aging, port and bourbon, so expectations were high when I sat down with it. Fortunately, I was not disappointed – NBBC have truly excelled themselves with this heavenly creation. The black wheat sour base is an exciting and unusual choice, and the 18-month aging process, first in ruby port barrels for 16 months, then in local Garrison Brothers Bourbon barrels for the final two months, has created a wonderful complex brew. Port-barrel aging isn’t super-common here in Texas, and the fruity warmth softens the wheat sour, while the bourbon adds the spice, smoke and booze – this is another big hitter at 11%, not that you would know it from the flavour. You can taste the love and care that have gone into making this beer, and it is so incredibly satisfying to drink that I now want to get into the car and go and buy some more!
Roughhouse Brewing – Sordid Nature (Dark Saison)
Roughhouse is a gorgeous new(ish) brewery just outside San Marcos, with a strong focus on local ingredients, sustainability and quality. All their beers are foeder-fermented, and the use of foraged yeast, herbs and flowers as well as produce from their kitchen garden yield fresh, exciting flavours. I first tried the Sordid Nature, a Dark Saison brewed with English Malt, at WhichCraft, ATX’s finest craft beer emporium, and was immediately hooked – the firm, confident texture and rustic roasty tartness make this a perfect beer to cosy up with in the colder weather. Roughhouse’s delightful countryside-hunting-lodge-inspired taproom is also an excellent place to imbibe the Sordid Nature, although it is also great to pair with warm wintry meals that you might enjoy with a red wine, so it’s definitely worth taking some home too!
Jester King– Black Metal (Farmhouse Imperial Stout – Russian Imperial Stout fermented with farmhouse yeast)
While I have my ups and downs with Jester King and their beers, there is simply no denying that their Black Metal is pretty bloody brilliant. This wild-fermented Russian Imperial Stout is bold, boozy, yeasty and dry. Smoulderingly roasty and packed with intense flavour, this is, for me, the highlight of Jester King’s oeuvre and a must-try if you’re visiting their Hill Country taproom. Unlike the other beers on this list, it is sold in 750ml bottles, so makes a great bottle-share contribution (or you can just keep the whole thing for yourself if you are feeling so inclined), and of course, there’s the super-cool Kiss artwork on the bottle -win! At 10.8% this is a beer that packs a punch, but you will go down smiling because it just tastes so good. The annual release around Halloween-time is definitely worth looking out for.