Review: Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co.

Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. (The ABGB)
1305 W. Oltorf St. (map), 512-298-2242,
Hours: 11:30am-11pm Tue-Thu; 11:30am-midnight Fri; noon-midnight Sat; noon-10pm Sun
Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.11.14
They were brewing the first time I came to the Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co., an aroma defined by the green bean esthers of boiling hops and a kind of malty molasses languor in the air. More pronounced than anything from the kitchen, the smell foreshadowed my impression of ABGB after four visits: I’ll drink here because I want to; I’ll eat here if I have to.
What I’ll drink first and always is Big Mama Red, one of ABGB’s five mainstay beers ($5/pint). It was a robust red ale with malt and hops turned way up high but kept in balance like a good band’s mixing board, pushing out 7.9% alcohol without making the sound too fuzzy. A pale lager called Hell Yes upheld the other end of the spectrum, as cool and dry as late fall, a standout from the flatline Industry pils and the pine-forest hops of ABGB’s more mainstream Day Trip pale ale or overblown Superliner IPA. In all, I tried 13 beers, thanks in part to generous flights of five for $6. Most fell in the respectable middle of the craft-beer pantheon, a few below. A pale sour was lifeless and flat; an American ESB shone coppery and balanced.
(TOP: A flight of ABGB beers with three slices: Margherita, beef with pesto and Calabrese. ABOVE, clockwise from top left: Glasses of Ivan Drago Russian imperial stout and Superliner IPA; one of two patio levels in front of the long South Austin warehouse; pizza with Brussels spouts and pancetta; the brewhouse that shares space with a stage and communal tables.)
All the beers performed better than the pizza they accompanied. The crusts of all seven pies I tried were toasted to a shellacked, homogeneous brown, like a doughnut glaze. No hot or cool spots for the dough to express a broader range of texture and flavor. The signature ABGB pie is a white clam, and it had the flat character of grilled cheese, with a sheen of oil and little contribution from the bits of chopped clam except for rubbery textural protest. Other mainstay pizzas got a boost from a sharp, sweet tomato sauce, but the Margherita was overcooked and stiff, and a Calabrese is just pepperoni by another name when it comes out like a delivery pie.
(ABOVE, from left: White clam pizza and a spinach salad with grapefruit and blood oranges; a flight of beers; a tabletop marker with a Polaroid of the Gen. Lee.)
But even those pizzas were better than some of the overwrought combinations. Avocado, almonds and grapefruit? There’s only so much you can or should pile on a pizza, even with a crust like paperboard. With five, six and seven ingredients, the modest amount of each required to stay under the load limit means you might not taste the pork jowl or pancetta at all, but you’ll surely get a noseful of the habanero pesto. I enjoyed a pie with Brussels sprouts, smoked gouda and pancetta, and a slice with beef, olives and hot pepper pesto. But who wins the battle royale between portobellos, peaches, basil, ricotta, microgreens and balsamic reduction? None of them. It’s a weak return on investment, and I use the word “investment” on purpose, because at $18-$24, these are among the most expensive pizzas in town. More than Bufalina, more than Via 313, more than Home Slice, all of whom make much better pizza.
The more-is-more approach worked well for salads, though. ABGB’s peach and plum Caprese ($8) was an elegant tower of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes supported by a mosaic base of fig pesto, stonefruit and walnuts. And a late summer salad of spinach, grapefruit, blood orange and beets ($6) gave cool counter-argument to the pizza. Little red peppers stuffed with creamy chevre ($4) tasted like Mediterranean bonbons, and I enjoyed a meatball sub with ABGB’s red sauce on Easy Tiger bread with a light Caesar salad ($10).
(ABOVE, clockwise from top left: Pizza with lamb and roasted garlic; a flight of beers; a meatball sub with chevre-stuffed peppadews; the ordering counter; a peach and plum Caprese salad.)
In the big picture, the ABGB’s warehouse-style space was clean, with that scrubbed-down look and sanitized air of a food manufacturer. But on a macro level, it felt unkempt. There was red pizza grease on my beer tray. There was pizza grease on the clean plates by the water dispenser, which itself could have used a good wiping down.
And there were dogs. On the patio, a Dalmatian from an adjacent table stuck its nose between my legs without proper introduction, followed by that awkward moment of eye contact — with the owners, not the dog — that said, “You gonna do anything about this?” I accept that this is how dog-friendly restaurants cater to people who love their dogs but are appalled by your children. But on a night when a portion of beer sales were devoted to Austin Pets Alive, there were dogs inside the restaurant, too. In my Big Book of Reviewing, you lose half a star for any non-human mammals inside the restaurant but not on the menu — be they rats or bats or Labradors.
One incentive for coming back to ABGB is a staff that stayed friendly and fast even in the crush of twin ordering lines that ran 20 people deep. Another is a rotating bill of specialty beers. Their Road Trip saison left a trail of dry incense spice like a westbound VW, and their 10% alcohol Ivan Drago Russian imperial stout was as strong as its movie namesake but as complex as a Dostoyevsky character. Raskolnikov Russian stout? Let’s make it happen.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)