During the middle of March, Austin, Texas transforms into a playground of music, film, and technology. Unlike most playgrounds, this one has beer. Navigating the thousands of bands at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festivals is a daunting task, but even the most dedicated will want to escape the madness and do a little exploring, likely with a beer in hand.
Where to Stay
If you’re coming for SXSW, securing lodging a few months in advance is key. Hotels fill up quickly. Expect gauged rates, but procrastinators may be rewarded by last minute price drops. If you’re looking for old-school Texas oil tycoon vibes and a pair of “suicide brides” haunting the halls. Book at the Driskill, an old school stunner that’s right in the middle of the festival fray. Pro-tip: this is also the best place in the area to stop for a bathroom break.
Another option is a bit of a hike from most venues. Hotel San Jose is the cornerstone of South Congress thanks to hotel magnate Liz Lambert, whose style of understated West Texas chic has built an empire (including neighboring luxury option Hotel Saint Cecilia). Entering San Jose is like walking through a hedge maze, with greenery unveiling a small courtyard of rooms with spartan mid-century modern furnishings, vintage Austin concert posters, and option for a shared bathroom for budget travelers. If you can’t find a room, it’s still worth a visit for their legendary free SXSW party or a michelada at the bar.
Where to Drink
Live Oak Brewery
Rough flight into Austin? Thankfully Live Oak Brewery is just outside the airport. The expansive taproom opened in 2015, but don’t let the new digs fool you. This brewery has been the trailblazer of Austin’s craft beer boom. Founder Chip McElroy began homebrewing in the 1980s, sourcing ingredients from local grocery Wheatsville Co-op. He unveiled his European-inspired brews to Austin taps in 1997.
Your first pint should definitely be the HefeWeizen. Its banana peel flavors taste like summertime to most Austinites, as it’s long been the city’s category-defining wheat beer (most bars serve it with an orange slice, but the brewery kindly suggests otherwise). Next up do a Pilz, with just enough hops and a crisp finish that makes it another summertime staple. Should you arrive in one of Austin Winter (December through February), try the dark and malty Primus Weizenbock.
The best way to tour Texas breweries, other than actually visit them, is to hit up Craft Pride on Rainey Street. A hoppy oasis in the middle of the festival circus, it specializes in all-Texas taps. Naturally the move is to explore the menu by ordering a flight. On the light side, it’s easy to be tempted by a Pearl Snap pilsner from Austin Beerworks, but avert your gaze—this is basically the city’s beer of record and you can find it everywhere. Go with a Carl Kolsch from St. Elmo, a South Austin brewery that’s likely too far from the downtown fray to visit. For maltier palettes, Real Ale is one of the city’s oldest craft purveyors and its whiskey barrel-aged Shipwrecked strong ale is a… strong choice. You’ve got 13 IPA options so it’s easy for the hops to go to your head—take it easy with Oasis’s Meta Modern Session IPA packs Citra and Mosaic fruit bursts into a lean 4.5% ABV.
Whatever you order, be sure to chase it with a double pepperoni Detroit-style pizza from Via 313, a trailer operating on the back patio. And once you’re stuffed, crawl over to neighboring Banger’s, another fantastic beer bar that boasts over 100 beers on draft and whole hog barbecue.
Walking into the Draughthouse feels like passing through a time portal. The city’s pioneering craft brewpub is miles from any festival venue and will likely be filled with locals. You won’t find reclaimed wood and Edison bulbs here, it’s a true Bavarian-inspired pub experience, without any of the hipster trappings. As with any old-school dive, there’s an element of danger: Look alive when entering through the side patio door, a precariously placed dart board makes it crucial to watch for flying objects.
In terms of the beer, you’re going to want to try at least one of the house brews. But once you’ve paid your respect, dive into the 68 other taps. Local standouts include Hops & Grain’s A Pale Mosiac—a piney but surprisingly refreshing IPA—and Celis White—a pitch-perfect witbier from a revived craft innovator.
Alcohol and food may get equal billing in Pinthouse Pizza’s name, but the reason for the season is beer. Pinthouse is a serious contender for best brewery in town, thanks largely to the fact that is produces city’s most revered IPA, the Electric Jellyfish. The brewpub has expanded to three locations and constantly unveils new brews, like a pair of Lebowski-themed big beers: The Dude, a White Russian Imperial Stout fueled by coffee from local roaster Tweed (whose homebase is blocks away at Houndstooth Coffee), or the whiskey barrel aged Big Lebarrelski.
Fitzhugh Road twists and turns through a dense treeline of cedar and oak, revealing a farmstead complete with an open air barn whose wooden ceiling rattles with the sound of live bluegrass and country bands. Located 30 miles west of downtown, Jester King is a fantasyland for beer geeks. A wood-fired pizza oven pads stomachs with Neapolitan pies, but, obviously you traveled here for beer. Le Petit Prince is its “table beer”, a Belgian saison that’s a nice, neutral starting point before getting experimental. Expect spontaneous fermentation, collaborations with local restaurants, barrel aging, and head-scratching ingredients.
El Cedro will please IPA fans, but not because of some treasure-hunting hops—the farmhouse flavors are amped by cedar spirals. If you can’t wait the hours in line for Franklin Barbecue’s brisket, you can still get a taste its smokers at Jester King with the Figlet, an ale featuring figs smoked at the legendary barbecue joint. Another beer that will expand even the most experienced palates is the Super Ultramega Hyperforce, an ale with ginger salt and tarragon that’s refermented with cantaloupe.
Where to Do Everything Else
No trip to Austin is complete without paying respect to the Texas Trinity: brisket, sausage, and pork ribs. Barbecue verges on religious experience in Texas, and Austin boasts perhaps the highest density of meat churches anywhere in the state. Despite its ubiquitousness, great barbecue commands big lines. Wait times vary from 30 minutes to five hours, but whenever you choose it’s best to arrive before opening. The one consolation to the long lines is that many trailers offer free beer. Excellent options within city limits listed in order of shortest wait time: LeRoy & Lewis, Kerlin, Stiles Switch, Micklethwait, La Barbecue, and Franklin.
During the festival, venues host showcases themed around specific labels, countries, or publications. That means a club that’s known for indie rock may book a whole night of African music. All bets are off, but many venues still stick loosely to their identity, especially during daytime parties, which are often free. Here’s a few worth noting:
As the city’s premiere space for indie rock and one of the larger venues on Red River, Mohawk’s tiered outdoor stage makes even their most packed shows feel like you’re in the front row. Inside is more like a mancave, with a giant taxidermied bear greeting you at the entrance. This is the venue for breaking artists as well as legacy underground acts. Look like a local by ordering a Lone Star tallboy, the unofficial PBR-substitute that fuels nearly every Austin musician.
The city’s most forward thinking LGBT venue, Cheer Up Charlies hosts perhaps the most diverse slate of music in town. From raging DJ nights to avant-garde drag shows, with a healthy dose of indie rock in between. The tap list is short and sweet, with a seasonal from Austin Beerworks and a few other local options. It’s also known for fresh-squeezed fruit juice cocktails as well as the Golden Ticket, an intoxicating and somewhat healthy mix of kombucha, whiskey, and ginger.
ACL is the longest running music show on television. It typically hosts bands ranging from vintage reunions (think Earth, Wind, and Fire) to fresher talent like Janelle Monae. Keep an eye on the ACL Live taping schedule, when admission is free and you can often snag a ticket if you arrive to the venue an hour early. Pregame a few blocks away at Mort Subite, which boast the best Belgian beer selection in town that isn’t crafty nor cheap. Even though Austin’s now a serious contender for best craft beer scenes in the country, it’s a reminder that you’re still in the live music capital of the world.
Main photo by Travis Lilley courtesy of SXSW