Hot Crowd at 10th Annual Tour de Vin

How can you travel around the culinary world without ever leaving Austin? That’s what more than 400 eye catching people did at the 10th annual Tour de Vin wine and food fest put on by The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas at W Austin. The paired some of Austin’s hottest chefs with 15 wineries serving representative food and wine from Japan, America, Italy, South America, Mexico, France, Greece.

The evening started, Shawn Croft, executive sommelier of Gusto Tastings, and the beautiful Marie-Louise Friedland, head cheesemonger of Henri’s Cheese Shop, hosted a VIP Tasting featuring four wines and cheeses. The white Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Chilean Pinot Noir and Condrieu were expertly paired with delicious cheeses. Friedland lives cheese and was weaned on brie and camembert by her French mom. She explored the world of stinky cheese as a child and learned to make cheese in England. “I did everything from milking the cows to making the curd,” said Friedand. “I can’t tell you how many times I was pooped on.” I think she meant by cows.

The main event was a delightful walk through table after table of scrumptious food and wine. Along with some of the city’s established restaurants like Enjoy fresh and innovative dishes from Kenichi, Barley Swine, Buenos Aires Café, Trace, Nobel Pig came newcomers Swifts Attic and brand-newcomers Bangers Sausage House in its first event and Tapas Bravas a new food truck on Rainey Street. Speaking about another newcomer, Marshall Jones, executive director of the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas said, “We’re excited to introduce Alison Jenkins from Denver and her new restaurant LaV which will be opening soon on East 7th.” There were too many good things to eat to try them all.

“My favorite thing about it is the ethnic pairing with the focus on different foods from around the world and the wine that is paired with it,” said Jones. “We often think about Australian wine, but who thinks of Australian meat pies and then the wine to pair with it. This is the only sip and stroll event in the city that organizes the food regionally.”

My favorite part was the wine. Which? Hmmm, let me see. I think my favorite was the German Riesling, or the Spanish Tempranillo, or the Burgundy, or the Bordeaux, or the sake served by Sake Sommelier, Adam Faraizl of Kenichi, or the Gruet rosé and St. Germaine served by Jessica Sanders, owner of Drink.well. It sure as hell wasn’t the French rosé, because Denise Clarke (one of our city’s newest Certified Specialist of Wine) drank it all. I guess I didn’t have a favorite wine.

In addition to the wine and food, guests were entertained by raucous samba drummers and dancers and there was a silent auction. The auction featured excellent wines, foodie gifts, and entertainment packages like a helicopter trip to Formula 1 with Capital Wings, tickets to see the GoGo’s at ACL Live, and a private chef dinner with Chef Allison Jenkins of LaV. I got flirted into buying something called a Golden Ticket for $100. I have no idea what that means, but Bill Elsey’s girlfriend is so adorable, I’d buy anything from her.

The money raised from ticket sales and in the silent action support the events, scholarships, grants and education programs provided by the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. The Foundation hopes to raise $20,000 after expenses.

This is the third Wine & Food Foundation of Texas event that I’ve attended this year (not counting TEXSOM) and I’m always impressed with how well run they are. The people they draw are a ton of fun to hang out with and the food and drink are always top notch. If you are a fan of wine or a foodie, you simply must join the Foundation. Now.

Disclosure: The Foundation provided me with a free VIP and event media pass for which I am grateful.

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Uncle Billy’s Brew & Que gets new Brew Master

The Austin beer world was a buzz this summer when word leaked that award winning brewers at Uncle Billy’s, Amos Lowe and Brian “Swifty” Peters, were leaving to start their own brewery. Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. plans to open its doors in south Austin in January 2013. They will have 10 beers — like Pilsner, Pale Ale and IPA — on tap and serve hand-crafted pizza and in a music hall-style beer garden. That means Swifty won’t have to make the long drive in his Bitchin’ Camero out to the Uncle Billy’s Lake Travis location anymore.

According to Swifty, its an amicable split with plenty of notice so Uncle Billy’s can have a smooth transition. Right on cue, the Que announced a new brew master for the Barton Springs location. Michael Waters, previously the head brewer at Independence Brewing Company, will start brewing the Uncle Billy’s recipes on premise immediately. He is a fan of hoppy and Belgian-style beers like the ones currently made at Uncle Billy’s and will keep favorites on tap for now.

“I plan to carry on the beer philosophies, theories and outlook of Uncle Billy’s, hopefully continuing to make great beers while adding my signature brewer’s touch to them,” Waters said in a press release.  “I’m really looking forward to having an opportunity to be more creative and make better and better beer.”

Waters, a Florida native, started his career in veterinary medicine, and brewed beer as a hobby. He was hooked on home-brewing from his very first batch of English-style pale ale. After his move to Austin in 2009, he decided to turn his home-brewing passion into a job. He started volunteering at Independence Brewing Company, then began working in the brewery’s cellar, and eventually became head brewer in 2011.

“The pride and accomplishment, the history and tradition of making beer are important. There’s a bit of prestige that comes with being a brewer,” Waters says. “It’s something I take seriously.”

Not only does Waters bring creativity and a strong resume to Uncle Billy’s, but he also brings an impressive beard. This is a huge bonus in the beer scene. I’d venture to say that his beard is even better than one Dr. Seuss could draw.

I’m looking forward to tasting some of Uncle Billy’s classics, like Hop Zombie, and new brews under Waters’ direction. Cheers to his success!

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Entering the world of the sommelier

I thought I knew a lot about wine. I mean I’ve worked at a winery, I’ve visited tons of them over the years and I even got married at one. I’ve been writing about the subject for a couple of years and have interviewed dozens of winemakers and industry professionals. I thought I knew a lot about wine, until I joined a sommelier study group last January.

That first meeting I was given a quiz with questions like: “Briefly describe the difference in detection threshold and recognition threshold in regards to wine,” and, “What is the name for the airborne molecules in wine that allow us to smell its aromas.” What?

The next day I ran out and bought a bunch of text books and study guides to prep for the next week’s quiz.

The study group was made up of eight people who were preparing for various exams held by two leading sommelier organizations, the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Society of Wine Educators. It was led by Bill Elsey, Texas’s Best Sommelier in 2011, who was studying for his Advanced Sommelier exam, the third of four levels in the Court of Master Sommeliers education process.

The interesting thing about the group is that half of the members were not employed in the beverage industry. Two of us were food and drink writers, one a wine PR professional and one just a really interested wine drinker. That’s not your typical make-up for a group studying for this kind of specialized education.

Why would I — or anyone not in the wine business for that matter, go to the trouble — time and expense of studying for and taking a sommelier exam? It came down to curiosity, passion for the topic and an intense interest in learning more about the subject about which I so frequently write. The reality is that I had no idea what I was getting into. It was far more than just learning a little about wine.

Over the six months of weekly study groups, blind tastings, quizzes and lots of independent study, I learned all about viticulture, wine production and the geography and grape varieties in major wine producing regions. I also learned the art of discerning where a wine is from, what grape it’s made of and when it was produce with descent accuracy just by looking at it, smelling it, tasting it and deductive reasoning.

I even learned that a puttonyos is the measurement of the sweetness level of Hungarian Tokaji Aszú, which is made from botrytised grapes.

What I also learned is that there is a close fraternity among sommeliers. It turns out that beverage professionals are a tightly knit, highly dedicated and incredibly supportive group of people. Many of them are motivated by the same things that motivated me to join that study group: passion for the topic and an intense interest in learning more about it. In fact, they approach continuing education like a shark constantly on the move.

This was on grand display at TEXSOM, an industry conference dedicated to the education of top beverage professionals in Texas and around the world. The three day conference presented by the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and the Texas Sommelier Association featured more than a dozen educational sessions, the annual Texas’ Best Sommelier competition and the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Course and Exam.

TEXSOM was founded in 2005 by James Tidwell MS, CWE, beverage manager at the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Las Colinas; Drew Hendricks MS, CWE, director of beverage education for Pappas Restaurants in Houston and Guy Stout MS, CWE, with Glazer’s Distributors. In its first year, TEXSOM had around 110 attendees; This year there were almost 700.

“James [Tidwell] and I noticed that a lot of people were studying wine, but not taking exams,” Hendricks said. “We decided to start TEXSOM with an education focus. The star of the conference was and the Texas’ Best Sommelier competition, which gives people a free look at what it is like to take sommelier exams. In the second year we started offering the Court’s Intro Exam and since then around 2,700 people have taken it at TEXSOM.”

I was one of those 2,700 people. Aspiring sommeliers, retailers and wholesalers and even members of the general public take the Court’s Intro Exam to get a solid foundation of wine knowledge. The course covered a mind-numbing amount of material in two days.

Master Sommeliers from around the country, including Austin’s own  Devin Broglie and Craig Collins, lectured on wine regions, proper wine service, beer, spirits and sake. The fun part was the blind tastings and determining what wines we were drinking. It was a little intimidating to stand in front of 80 people and say what country and region the wine was produced in, the grape it was made from and the year it was made, but it was also thrilling to get it right.

Tim Gaiser, MS, the lead instructor for the course, has been teaching wine education since 1993. According to Gaiser, TEXSOM is a perfect place to teach the Court’s Intro Exam, “It’s easy for us to teach at TEXSOM because we have 25 Master Sommeliers here. We usually have three Master Sommeliers teach the class, but at TEXSOM we have nine. That’s a one of a kind deal.”

At the end of the second day of lectures and tasting, we took the exam: 70 questions to complete in 45 minutes. While I knew I was well prepared for the test, my hands started to sweat and I had to pee. Test anxiety hit! Never fear, I’m thrilled to be one of the few non-beverage industry people in the room to pass the test. All of the hours spent studying were worth it in many ways. In a small way, I just joined the fraternity of professionals that care deeply about sharing information about wine with anyone who is interested.

Would I do it again? Yes, in a heart-beat. Will I go on to take the Court’s Level II Certified Exam? I haven’t decided yet. Maybe if the study group gets back together. You should do it. It was a ton of fun.

What about you? Have you taken a sommelier course? What did you think? If not, are you thinking about taking one?

This story was previously published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: While I paid the $525 to participate in the Intro course, I received a complimentary press pass for TEXSOM. 

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Craft beer boom: Industry could have $5.6 billion economic impact on Texas if laws are changed

We pride ourselves on having a free market economy where supply and demand are the only regulators of prices and trade, but that’s not actually the case — especially when it comes to craft beer in Texas.

An economic study commissioned by the Texas Craft Brewers Guild says that the craft beer industry, while booming, is artificially hindered by restrictive laws.

According to the study, Texas craft brewers, both in brew pubs and breweries, had an economic impact of $608 million on the state in 2011. While that sounds like a ton of cash — and it is a big impact — it could be bigger. The study estimates that the craft brew industry’s economic impact for Texas could be as much as $5.6 billion a year with an addition of 52,000 new jobs by 2020, if legislation is created to support it.

That’s an optimistic estimate that requires a long-winded explanation of the equation for economic impact. The number is a combination of direct impact (the actual sales of the beer and wages calculated at $221.6 million), indirect impact (the money and wages made through related industries dependent on beer money calculated at $173.9 million) and induced impact (an extrapolation of the cash from direct and indirect money calculated at $212.6 million). Phew.

Lately, demand for craft beer around the country, and in Texas particularly, has been stout. The number of breweries and brew pubs in Texas has increased exponentially in recent years with 78 actively licensed brewers in 2011 up from 52 the year before, and another 61 licensed brewers in planning. Sales increased 13 percent in 2011 over the previous year, and the amount of beer brewed jumped 46 percent.

Many of the brewers in Austin, like Austin BeerworksJester King Craft BreweryHops & Grain Brewing and Live Oak Brewing Co. say they are doing everything they can just to make enough beer to satisfy thirsty Austinites. To remedy the shortage, 92 percent of the study’s survey respondents said they would invest in expanding their production if the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code (TABC) were changed to lift restrictions on market access.

The estimated economic growth prediction is predicated on continued growth in the industry as well as a change in current laws. “In other states, brewers can sell their packaged goods directly to consumers through tasting rooms… brew pubs can sell beer off premises, at festivals, for instance, and as packaged goods in retail stores, not just at their brew pub location,” says Metzger. “These sales opportunities are lost for Texas craft brewers — and they add up.”

“If regulations were to change, the entire craft beer environment in Texas would change for the better. We would see a drastic increase in revenue, and subsequently tax revenue, from our tap room sales. These sales are taxed at a higher rate than our wholesale sales through our distributor. With the ability to sell our beer in our tap room we could generate more revenue for our business as well as for the state,” says Josh Hare, brewer and founder of Hops & Grain Brewing.

Ron Extract, managing partner at Jester King Craft Brewery, agrees. “Craft beer is a growing part of the economy and it could grow more. We are constrained right now. We don’t have the same rights that wineries or other out-of-state breweries enjoy. The growth is hampered by the current laws. The chances of a new brewery succeeding are much, much lower in the current climate.”

Efforts to address the laws are underway and there is hope that constraints will be removed during the next legislative session. In addition to active lobbying by brewers, consumer group Open the Taps is working to change the state’s legislative and regulatory process.

It will be a tough battle in light of the failure of similar legislation in Texas last year, but the community is hopeful that beer drinkers will join the cause. “If you want to see a better economic climate for Texas craft beer, you should reach out to your legislators and weigh in on the law,” Extract says. “The legislators need to hear from their constituents that we want to see things change.”

The next time you’re thirsty for a take-home six-pack of Uncle Billy’s Hop Zombie from the brew pub, take action by contacting your senator. You may get the beer you want and you’ll improve the state’s economy at the same time.

This story originally ran on CultureMap.

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Celebrating two years of What Are You Drinking?

I love any excuse to throw a party and the second anniversary of this blog was a good enough one to gather a group of friends at the Red Room Lounge. Dear friends, winemakers, distillers, wine shop owners, beverage PR people, sommeliers and wine drinkers shared a few laughs and many bottles of wine to celebrate the friendships fostered over a drink. Many of the people in the room I have met only because of this blog. Its fitting, because that’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this blog – making new friends.

In the past two years I have written 153 articles about wine, beer, spirits and cocktails. The blog has changed a bit over time, and I keep trying to improve it based on your suggestions. The blog has led to other writing opportunities as a contributor to CultureMap, The Digital Texan, 12Most and now Austin Man magazine. Each article is another chance to talk to fascinating people in the beverage industry and another opportunity to taste something new. I love that.

Thanks to everyone that shares their time to tell their stories. Thanks to the PR people who help make the connections. And most importantly, thanks to you for staying with me, reading my stories, commenting and making suggestions. Cheers!

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Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden Brings 103 Beers on Tap to Rainey Street

Inspiration struck Ben Siegel late at night while jonesin’ for a drunk nosh, impatiently waiting in the long line at the Best Wurst sausage and hot dog cart.

He wondered “why can’t there be a restaurant that serves great sausage and beer?” And now there is.

The newest addition to the red hot Rainey Street District, Siegel’s brand-new-as-of-Monday Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden has 30 varieties of house-made sausage and 103 beers on tap.

While it isn’t exactly a shrine to all things swine, busts of domestic pigs (not boars) are mounted on the walls. Pig takes a prominent position on the menu with traditional selections like bratwurst next to inimitable creations like BBQ bacon and shrimp sausage served with white cheddar grits.

If you’re like Jules in Pulp Fiction and don’t eat pork, try the fried chicken sausage. Its chicken thighs wrapped in chicken skin, soaked in buttermilk and fried just like southern fried chicken. “It looks like sausage, eats like fried chicken and tastes like awesome,” says Chef Aaron Zarczynski.

Banger’s will keep it exciting with recipes from artisan sausage makers from around the country and a steady stream of game meat from Broken Arrow Ranch such as south Texas antelope and venison. And don’t forget the ten different sauces to spice them up; everything from curry ketchup and spicy mustard to aioli.

But you can’t have a beer garden without beer, and Banger’s has that in spades. Designed to be one of the best beer bars in the country, the bar has one of the largest tap walls in Texas with 101 taps and two cask engines. And blessedly, more than half the taps are dedicated to Texas brews.

Beverage director, Chris Booth, formerly of Black Star Co-op, hand-selects interesting and unique beers and rotates them frequently to keep the menu fresh. He chose two very different beers to be the first two on cask.

For those who want more than one beer, Jester King Drinking in the Sunbelt, a super dry wheat beer with a rustic, Saison flavor and only 3.9 percent alcohol. At the other end of the spectrum, Chris chose the Real Ale Sisyphus Barleywine Ale, an intense English ale with a whopping 11 percent alcohol that is well suited for the less cold, less carbonated style of a cask pull.

The confluence of sausage and beer makes a magical eddy. Chris stocks plenty of German style lagers and Czech style pilsners that go really well with sausage. He also suggests beer pairings to go well with their sausage. One of his favorite pairings is the Duck, Bacon and Fig sausage with the Rogness Beardy Guard, an earthy malty farmhouse style Biere de Garde ale.

The spacious outdoor beer garden has communal seating for about 200 people, a stage for live country music, and even a fenced area for your dog to chill off leash. Siegle’s bulldog, Miss Pickles, will be on hand daily to keep other dogs in line with a stern look.

Banger’s is a perfectly relaxed space to explore gallons of new beers and sample an ever developing menu of artisanal sausages. “My goal with Banger’s was to create a place I would want to hang out at in Austin,” says Siegel.

Finally, a full restaurant with great sausage and beer. Dreams do come true.

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