In our column Suds & Sounds we turn the spotlight on breweries, focusing on the role of music in that brewery’s history, packaging, tastes, and in its city or town as a whole. The idea is to get beer and music lovers to connect with a side of the brewery that may often go overlooked, but one that we think is absolutely vital. To accomplish this, we are talking to the brewers themselves about their own love of music and the role it plays in how they approach their beer. And who knows, maybe we’ll even talk to a musicians from time to time to give a perspective from the other side.
When a few friends started producing craft beer out of a tiny basement in the Texas Hill Country in 1996, finding a quality brew in the Lone Star State wasn’t always easy. Sure, there were a few microbreweries in cities like Houston and Austin and maybe you could snag a Sierra Nevada at your local store, but for the most part the beer of choice was cheap, cold lager. Clearly, the people of Texas had a thirst for the tasty brews coming from the little town of Blanco and in less than ten years the brewery hit 3,200 barrels a year. By that time the craft beer movement was in full swing and Real Ale was in an ideal position to satisfy demand, quickly expanding both their brewing facility as well as their selection of beers.
This year Real Ale is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Their beers – which include 10 year-round offerings such as Devil’s Backbone Belgian-style tripel and Lost Gold IPA – are available all over Texas. It should come as no surprise that Real Ale’s flagship and most popular beer is Firemans 4, a crisp blonde ale that is perfectly refreshing for the brutal heat of Texas in the summertime. Firemans 4 also happens to pair wonderfully with live music. I can say from personal experience after having spent the last decade living in the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” that there are few things better than sipping a cold Firemans under a big Texas moon while soaking up the sounds of artists like Gary Clark Jr. and Jimmie Vaughan. The brewers seem to share this same sentiment (how could you not as a brewer so close to Austin?) and they have proudly brought Real Ale to festivals like Austin City Limits, LEVITATION and UTOPiAfest. In Texas, beer and music go hand in hand, and often what’s in one of those hands is a Real Ale.
Much of the brewing team at Real Ale are metalheads, and though their beer is practically ubiquitous at any Texas music gathering, metal references can be found throughout their beer selection, especially in special offerings like their BLAKKR Imperial Black Ale as well as their Ghost Eye Oatmeal Stout and Iron Swan Ale, both of which are collaborations with Austin metal band The Sword. Then there are more “apocalyptic” offerings like Red King Imperial Red Ale, Three Lions Imperial IPA, and their barrel-aged quad Four Horsemen. To get a sense of what makes Real Ale not just a special brewery well worth a visit, but also what makes it so linked to music, I caught up with head brewer Schmitty.
For people who may have never heard of your brewery, can you give us a little background on how it started and what kind of beers you specialize in?
Real Ale Brewing Company started in 1996, in the early days of craft brewing in Texas. Our original lineup consisted of our Brewhouse Brown Ale, Rio Blanco Pale Ale, and Full Moon Pale Rye Ale, the brewery’s original flagship. Our roots in brewing have always been very traditional, and remain so to this day, though our catalog has expanded dramatically. These days our production is focused primarily on Firemans 4, a blonde ale that is our biggest seller, Devil’s Backbone, our Belgian-style Tripel, and Hans’ Pils, our German Pilsner. All told we have 10 beers that we sell year round, a group of high-gravity bomber offerings, a strong seasonal lineup, a rotating series of one-off beers in our Brewers’ Cut program, and an ever-expanding collection of sours and other barrel-aged beers.
How long have you been brewing and what do you consider your greatest triumph so far as a craft brewer?
I’ve been brewing for 11 years, between two different breweries. I’d say my greatest triumph so far is getting to feel the glory-by-association every time I’m representing Real Ale, be it at events or just walking around town. People know and respect Real Ale, and it is a proud moment when folks take the time to compliment the brewery and the work we do.
Talk about the beer culture a bit in your city. What do people look for in a good beer and what do you hope to provide, and also do you see the beer scene as being linked in any way to the music scene?
Blanco is a small town at just over 1700 people. While we do have a passionate, albeit small, community of craft beer fans, the bulk of the beer culture comes in the form of pilgrimages from the surrounding cities (the corridor between Austin and San Antonio in particular). I’ve found that most folks are looking for some balance, or a beer they can approach, and this is typically what we strive for. We are not seeking extremes in flavors or profiles. We hope to provide the best in quality, not the most in quantity, and I think these factors keep our guests coming back. As for music, there is most certainly a link with beer. With Austin being a live music hub, and our leading market in the state, we see this often at shows and events around town.
Texas Hill Country
A lot of breweries seem to incorporate their own musical tastes into their packaging and presentation, whether it be a collaboration with a band, a tribute label, or a beer name that references something they like. Has you brewery ever done something like this, and if so can you tell us about it?
We have done this over the course of a few different collaborations, two of which were beers brewed with Austin band The Sword, the other being a collaboration with Three Floyds and Surly. In the case of both of the Sword projects, their artists handled label creation. With the Surly/Three Floyds project, the art drew from a common love of metal, from which the idea had spawned in the first place. These collaborations were a great opportunity to break the mold of our packaging design and bring in some of our other inspirations, in each case our passion for heavy music.
Real Ale’s brewers with Three Floyds and Surly
In your opinion, is there a particular band or genre that is ideal to listen to while brewing beer?
While we do listen to quite a bit of metal, it is not the only thing you will hear at the brewery. Ultimately, the ideal music to listen to is whatever moves the people doing the work. We are pretty open to styles and bands, but there are a few rules: no catalogue (three hours is way too long for 80’s glam rock), no ‘greatest hits’ (believe it or not Zeppelin had a lot of other great tracks), and no Chili Peppers. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Is there a hierarchy or system to which employee gets to pick the brewery playlist?
For the most part, it falls to whoever gets to the stereo first. While we do not have explicit rules about newbies putting music on, we’ve found that the ones who wait and take their time, are more often the ones who do not get berated about putting crap on the stereo. If you wait a few months for your first play, and it happens to be Dave Matthews Band, you’ll still hear about it (and it may earn you an unfortunate nickname). If you play that shit on your first day, we’ll just turn it off.
Have you brewed any beers that are specifically inspired by a certain band or kind of music, or maybe one that’s even named ever a band? (The best example of this would be Dogfish Head’s Bitches Brew inspired by the Miles Davis album or their American Beauty inspired by the Grateful Dead.)
Not outside of the collaborations with The Sword. We will make references to bands or songs in beer descriptions, but most of that is for our own entertainment. For a time, Dio was getting a lot of love in beer descriptions. Well-deserved love, I might add.
Has your brewery ever brought in any bands to play?
We have bands every year at our anniversary party, as well as other events here and there. Most of those bands come out of Austin and are bands that we are friends with and/or fans of. For a time we putting on a show with ABGB during SXSW that brought some great local and out of town metal to their place, but it fell by the wayside. We have coordinated release shows with The Sword for each collaboration, and that has been a blast.
Party at Austin’s ABGB
In your opinion, what is the absolute best band or kind of music in general for drinking beer?
Good music, no crap. Anything that meets that criteria is perfectly appropriate.
Some breweries have gotten more into music through sponsoring tours, festivals, or even throwing their own versions of those. How do you think live music fits into the fabric of craft beer, and is this something your brewery has done?
We have worked with Old Settler’s and ACL Fest for a few years, and were slated to sponsor Levitation Fest this year before it got rained out. These are always great opportunities to get local beer in the hands of folks, a number of whom are traveling in from out of town. In Texas we’ve seen a lot of progress in the direction of bringing craft beer to fans of live music, working with festivals like these, as well as getting beer into venues around town. While craft beer might not make it into every dive and honky tonk around, we’ve found it fits in quite well in venues that are known for the talent they bring in.
Do you have any musicians or noteworthy people that you can say are fans of any of your beers?
We have a close connection to, and have shared a number of beers with a lot of great local musicians. I’ve successfully taken beers to bands over the years and found that many of them were more into craft beer than I may have thought before meeting them. Recent beer sharing included Uncle Acid, Clutch, Mastodon, and of course, The Sword. I once left a cooler of beer on Robert Plant’s doorstep, but I don’t know how that panned out. Hopefully he enjoyed it.
Real Ale Brewing Co. is located at 231 San Saba Ct. in Blanco, TX. For hours, beer releases and more visit realalebrewing.com.
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