Live Oak Brewing: Only in Austin

By Dave Kelley

When Chip McElroy and Brian Peters met as members of the Austin Homebrew Club, they were just a couple of guys interested in brewing good pilsners. "I had some really good homebrewing equipment," McElroy says, "and Brian had a great stove. We lived in the same neighborhood, so we just started brewing together. We were working on the pilsner mostly, and figured out how to make a good one." Good enough to sell, they thought, and so Live Oak Brewing, Austin's "downtown" microbrewery, was conceived.

At first, Live Oak wasn't going to be a micro. McElroy explains, "We started trying to do a brewpub, and figured out we didn't know anything about the restaurant business. We were interested in beer, not what kind of sauce goes on the asparagus." So they ditched the brewpub idea and started making plans to build a brewery. For a couple of guys with more enthusiasm than money, it wasn't exactly an easy row to hoe. Live Oak Brewing was officially formed in September of 1994, and the next 18 months were spent raising money to actually start brewing. In March, 1996, McElroy and Peters finally began build-out on their brewery, in a one-time sausage factory on the east side of Austin.

Their work was just beginning. Peters admits, "The place was in really bad condition when we got here. We didn't see that, though, because we had big stars in our eyes and thought we could do anything, and people wouldn't say anything because they were being polite. Even the landlord didn't want this side of the building. In hindsight, it was crazy, but we're proud of it." The building needed almost a complete renovation, and McElroy and Peters found themselves doing virtually all the work themselves, from stripping out cork insulation from a freezer room to installing cooling and cleaning lines.

Once the building was in usable condition, the two began to haunt equipment auctions. "We got all of the equipment used," Peters says, proudly. "We got the mill and the auger that feeds into the bigger auger from a brewery near Ft. Worth that never started up, so we got it for dirt cheap. We got the big stainless augur from Guiltless Gourmet. The actual brewhouse came from Niagara Falls Brewing Co. in Ontario. He makes equipment, and this is a system he bought before he started making his own equipment, so he gave us a good deal on it. The hot and cold liquor tanks came from a Borden dairy auction. It's stainless interior, insulated and jacketed, but the jackets leak. They were going to be conditioning tanks, but we need the jackets to work for that, so we just used the existing holes in the top and put in our own plumbing." Fermenters and storage tanks were also purchased at auction, as were most of the company's kegs and the commercial refrigerator that serves as the semi-official hospitality room.

"We got the fridge for $100," Peters brags, drawing a taste of Live Oak's newest brew, Live Oak Pale Ale. "We wanted to have a nice little tasting room, but we never have had the budget. So we bought this old refrigerator and put taps through the wall. At the end of a tour, we just stop here and fill up a beer. So this is this hospitality room. The guy next door makes tamales, so I'll steam some tamales on the stove, and it's kind of nice. Someday, though, we'll have a beer garden."

The brewery, including the "hospitality room," is the very definition of Austin Funk, but when it's time to work, serious beer is made. The Niagara system is a 30-barrel setup, but Live Oak generally brews 20-barrel batches in the interest of keeping the beer fresh and rotating. Three of the four Live Oak brews -- Pilz (the beer that started it all), Hefeweizen, and Oaktoberfest (not a typo) -- are lagers, brewed with single-decoction mashing for color and taste, and lagered for four weeks. The Pale Ale is not decoction mashed. It's a harder, longer brewing process, but McElroy and Peters won't even consider changing it. "We try to do the style the way it's supposed to be done, and we're sticking to our guns with that," McElroy says.

That dedication to stylistic integrity catches some people off-guard. Those who think pilsners are timid little beers find themselves stunned by the full-flavored Live Oak Pilz (3.9% abv), with its strong Saaz hop character. "The hallmark is lots of Saaz hops," McElroy says. "We do a four-temperature, single-decoction mash. Someday we may do more decoctions, but right now we don't have the right equipment to do it really well."

The Hefeweizen (4.1% abv) is brewed in the true German style, with 50% wheat malt and 3068 Wyeast. McElroy says, "We try to get a lot of yeast flavor in the Hefeweizen. A temperature rest to accentuate the clove flavor, and the geometry of the fermenters helps a lot. It doesn't scrub out so much of the phenolics or esters. We're trying to get a lot of flavor. We don't want just clove -- we want the fruitiness, too. There are certain German brands we try to emulate, some we try not to emulate."

The Pale Ale (4.3% abv) is for the hopheads, weighing in at 40 IBUs. According to McElroy, "It's an American pale ale with Cascade hops pretty much all the way. We use an English yeast, but it doesn't give any of the diacetyl -- it just contributes a little fruitiness in the nose, not much in the palate."

The Oaktoberfest (4.3% abv), was intended to be just what it sounds like, a big, malty seasonal, but demand changed those plans a bit. Introduced in September of '97, the Oaktoberfest was Live Oak's biggest seller throughout the winter, and will remain in production until demand sags.

In spite of growth they describe as "more than we expected but less than we want," Live Oak remains a two-man operation, which means only Austinites can enjoy a Live Oak brew, and even then, only on draft. The start-up costs for bottling are still prohibitive, so McElroy and Peters keg everything they brew. (They hope to start bottling as soon as more financing comes available.) And they're still the two who go door-to-door selling, servicing accounts, and acting as Live Oak's Austin ambassadors. They even make their own tap handles -- one by one. Peters says, "We get oak branches and make every tap handle by hand. We use a chop saw and a drill press, then we spray lacquer them and put our logo on. Every one is handmade, every one is unique. That's what everybody likes about them, why people swipe them -- (the occasional theft) is a pain but it's a compliment."

It's hard work, but it's a labor of love, they say. Since Live Oak's first brew, Pilz, on February 20, 1997, McElroy and Peters have been doing exactly what they want, exactly how they want. "We never worry about what other people say they want," McElroy emphasizes over a pint of Pilz. "We're not making it for people who don't want a real beer. We're not shooting at the Bud drinkers. Bud's already doing that much better than we can. There are three big companies and lots of little companies making American pilsners much more efficiently than we can, so we're not shooting for their audience. By the same token, we don't tame down our Pilz or Hefeweizen because we're going for the hardcore beer connoisseur."

Peters adds, laughing, "We're not looking for sales, we're looking for image!" They're doing a good job building both.

- Live Oak Brewing, 3301-B East 5th St., Austin, TX 78702, 512/385-2299. Tours available by appointment -- call ahead for time.

(Originally published in Southern Draft Brew News Southwest)