Austin's Bitter End

By Dave Kelley

It's hard to feel sorry for Tim Schwartz when even he laughs at his biggest complaint. "We've been blanked at the GABF," grouses Schwartz, the head brewer at the Bitter End, over a pint of his Modulator Dopplebock, "which is kind of disappointing. We've always gotten great response, and it's always good to go and get that great feedback, but no medals." Then he laughs, saying "Then again, Celis hasn't won the gold for Belgian White, and it's their style, so we're in good company."

Good company indeed. Since taking the reins of the Bitter End's brewery side in February of 1995, Schwartz has built a reputation for producing consistently outstanding beers. And in '98, his GABF shutout ended when the Bitter End's Prescott Wee Heavy scored a Gold Medal for Strong Scotch Ale.

A longtime homebrewer, Schwartz's professional career started almost on a whim, and turned into a baptism by fire. "I was getting ready to go to grad school," Schwartz recalled, "and I knew there was a part-time and a full-time position opening up here, so just for the hell of it I came down and applied, thinking I'd probably get the half-time scrub job. I'd always wanted to see if I'd enjoy doing the brewing at a brewpub or microbrewery, so I thought I'd get it out of my system before I went to grad school, basically. But instead of getting the scrubbing job, I got the full-time assistant brewer job, and three-and-a-half months later I became the head brewer. It happened a lot faster than I'd expected. It was a very intense little training -- I got thrown right into it."

He hit the ground running, and hasn't missed a step yet. Schwartz and his right hand, Stephen Tidwell, concentrate on brewing traditional styles, with traditional ingredients such as imported English malt and East Kent hops for their Bitter End Bitter. And according to Schwartz, that's just the tip of the iceberg. "We do decoction mashing," he pointed out. "When we do the pilsner, we do a double-decoction mash. The last set of lagers we did were 100 percent Weyermann German malt. The next Poindexter Pils we brew, which will be out in the spring, we're going to use some Czech malt that's being brought in by (St. Patrick's of Texas). It's supposed to be from the same maltster that does the Pilsner Urquell malts, so that should be good."

That Poindexter Pils, based on a recipe that Tidwell created during his homebrewing days, will be found on the Bitter End rotating tap, which features a new specialty or seasonal brew every two or three weeks, year-round. The rotating tap's 20-25 new brews each year are Schwartz and Tidwell's license to "get crazy." Over a recent period, Bitter End regulars got to taste a Belgian trippel, a Helles, a steam beer, Modulator double bock, an IPA, a strong Scotch ale, and, in celebration of the birth of Schwartz's son, Zachary, "Zach's Pale Ale," a super-hopped brew.

Along with the rotating tap, the Bitter End has six house beers and at least one true cask ale always available. E-Z Wheat is a basic American wheat with 20% malted wheat and lightly hopped, meant to be an intro-type beer. Aberdeen Amber is a "big-gravity Scottish ale," but NOT a strong Scotch ale, with a strong malt character that features Hugh Baird's peat-smoked malt for a hint of single-malt smokiness. Bitter End Bitter is an 1053 OG English ESB that's always being adjusted as Schwartz and Tidwell search for the elusive "perfect" balance of malt and hop character. Austin Pale Ale is a highly hopped American pale in the Sierra Nevada mode. The Hill Country Honeymead started as a specialty beer, but has been promoted to "regular" status, made from two-thirds local honey and one-third malt, and is often enhanced by the use of real fruit in the brewing process. The regular "dark beer" tap rotates between the Sledgehammer Stout, an Irish-style dry stout; Sledgehammer Express, which uses eight pounds of fresh-ground espresso beans in every seven-barrel batch; and the Hammerhead Porter, a traditional English porter with a smoked character.

The brewing takes place in the Bitter End's "thrown-together" system. The brew kettle is a 10-barrel, Bohemian Systems unit, matched with a mash tun that's a dairy vessel that has been copper clad. The fermentation and cold-aging tanks are Porter-Lancaster, "Grundy" tanks, English serving tanks, that have to be disassembled and hand-scrubbed after each brew, making for a very labor-intensive brewing process. The cask ales are served via imported beer engines that draw from a dedicated cooler right behind the bar, giving the Bitter End the ability to serve "three or four" cask-conditioned beers at any given time.

Outstanding food is a trademark of all the restaurants in Bitter End owner Reed Clemons' San Gabriel Restaurant Group. SGRG Executive Chef Emmett Fox has been called one of the premiere chefs in Texas, and his touch can be seen at the Bitter End. Complementing Schwartz's beers -- which are the only beers available at the brewpub, although there is an extensive wine list and a full liquor bar -- are Chef de Cuisine Kathryn Mathis' creations, which are every bit as noteworthy as the beers. Appetizers such as the Charcuterie Taster, with duck liver pate, beer sausage, BBQ pork with braised cabbage, and a homemade pretzel, are designed to enhance and be enhanced by beer. As a result, grilled entrees are the stars of the menu, with Grilled Pork and Beef Tenderloin, Grilled Lamb Loin, and Grilled Yellowfin Tuna most prominent.

Obviously, as Schwartz said, "Steve (Tidwell) and I are still way into brewing. We've been doing it three years, we're way into it, and we don't cut corners on this stuff." It shows, and as he poured himself another pint of Modulator Dopplebock, Schwartz wasn't complaining a bit.

-- The Bitter End, 311 Colorado Street, Austin, Texas 78701. 512/478-2337. Brewery tours are available, but please call in advance to schedule a group tour/tasting.