On a recent summer day in Austin, Texas—one of those days when your car door handle feels like lava and taking a walk outside is a monumental feat—the heat index hovered around a sweltering 115 degrees. Inside the brewery at The Brewer’s Table, the temperature rose to 85 degrees, spoiling an entire batch of lager in the process. The easy thing to do would have been to pour it down the drain. Instead, head brewer Drew Durish turned it into vinegar.
“It’s not dead; there’s still life in it,” he recalls of the spoiled batch. “And we can find a way to turn it around and do something right by it.”
Salvaging, reusing, sustaining— whatever you want to call it, it’s all part of the driving ethos behind The Brewer’s Table, a progressive restaurant and brewery that opened in East Austin’s Govalle neighborhood in April. Jake Maddux, a stalwart in the restaurant and beer industry, conceived of the idea more than five years ago: A thorough integration of a restaurant and a brewery that centers around sustainability, maximizing creativity while minimizing waste. He had the dream, but he needed the team. Enter Durish, formerly of Live Oak Brewing, and executive chef Zach Hunter.
“Drew and I met for breakfast and beers bright and early one day,” says Hunter, who previously ran the kitchen at Fixe, a Southern restaurant in downtown Austin. “Jake gave us both homework.” The task for Durish was brainstorming beers that would use ingredients from Hunter’s pantry. For Hunter it was designing dishes that encorporated barley, hops and yeast.
“I tell people this a lot: I didn’t know much about brewing beer before this project,” Hunter admits.
Durish was in the same boat. “I thought I had an open mind and an open palate about food going into this, and it’s almost embarrassing to look back and realize I barely scratched the surface, given the breadth of ingredients he’s introduced me to.”
By constantly brainstorming and stepping into each others’ workspaces, though, a synergy was found. On the menu is chicken paprikash with beer grain spaetzle, chips featuring beer brine and malt vinegar, and whipped chocolate mousse made with malted rye. Durish’s lineup of lagers is a split between wildly inventive brews and crushable creations, with beers such as the Sleepytime Lagerbier, which uses the same toasted milk powder that Hunter incorporates in his desserts. It’s a collaborative process that involves thinking outside the box and constantly asking, “What else can we make with that?”
Take, for example, corn husks. After Hunter made a corn-based infusion—toasting corn husks and steeping them in cold water for a couple weeks, which eventually became toasted corn broth used in a red snapper dish—the two started throwing around ideas for how it could be used in the brewery.
“With the cold liquor tank, I can cold steep those corn husks and that will become the brewing water,” says Durish. “So we toasted pounds of corn husks, then infused it into the water and recirculated it for four or five days on cold, and then brewed with that water.” It’s still in the early phases, but the experiment has inspired Durish to start thinking about other off-the-wall infusions.
From the restaurant’s airy, plant-laden dining room, you can see a row of American oak tanks behind a glass window, beautiful things made by Foeder Crafters in St. Louis that are kept in the temperature-controlled aging room. Eventually, says Durish, they’ll be packaging beer to sell on site, but for now visitors can choose from a drink list of more than 25 guest beers in addition to the house lagers. Local breweries like Jester King and Zilker Brewing are given a nod, as are other friends: Upland Brewing, Avery Brewing and Brooklyn Brewery.
There have been hurdles in merging kitchen and brewery pantries, with the biggest culprit being the overbearing, highly potent hops. Hunter first tried making an oil infused with hops, but it was incredibly bitter and far too strong. While experimenting with a dry hops cure (a mix of salt, sugar and spices), he initially lost an entire batch of scallops, but later found success after making a few adjustments. Now, the kitchen uses a dry hop cure on whole rabbits, fish and ribs, such as the aged pork ribs featuring black beer vinegar, garden dry rub and yeast pickles.
“Zach has a lot of ingredients to play with in the kitchen, infinitely more than what you make beer with,” Maddux says. “It’s up to him to continually figure out new ways to incorporate the four basic ingredients that Drew uses and all the different byproducts and systems and processes, and vice versa.”
Any potential mishaps are nowhere to be seen by the time you sit down for a meal at The Brewer's Table, housed in a renovated 1950s quonset hut with high vaulted ceilings. Dried flowers hang from rafters above and decorate the table, which are later tossed into a batch of Transatlantic Flourish lager for aroma. Each dish is beautifully presented, from the plate of hearth bread and addictive mesquite butter to the venison tartare with sourdough pita. And as the fall season gets underway in Austin, a whole new list of ingredients becomes available for experimentation, such as acorn squash, apples and pears.
“I love sitting at the pass and chatting with Zach and figuring things out,” Durish says. “That’s where it starts. I ask him what’s coming in season or, if it’s not in season, what he’s feeling right now. I love it when it’s organic like that. Very rarely have I come up with beer concepts in a dark room or off in a corner somewhere.”