Vista Brewing Brings Barrel-Aged, Collaborative Beers to the Hill Country
The Driftwood brewery utilizes casks from local wineries and distilleries to create unique brews
By Laurel Miller
“People don’t realize that beer can be vintage, but our barrel-aged releases yield a different product every time, depending on the yeast used for fermentation” says Karen Killough, co-founder and apiarist at Driftwood’s Vista Brewing. “They’re about a place in time.”
The 21-acre brewery’s barrel program is the embodiment of what Killough and her brewer husband Kent set out to accomplish when they started Vista in 2018: creating small-batch seasonal and collaborative beers representative of the region. While not all of the brewery’s offerings are aged, those that are spend time in wet casks sourced from regional distilleries and low and no-intervention wineries.
Brewmaster Daniel Heisler handpicks the casks alongside folks like William Chris Vineyards winemaker Tony Offill. More casks are sourced from Louis Wine and distilleries like Balcones Distilling, Treaty Oak Distilling, Milam and Greene and Desert Door. Current offerings include Stonewall, a Lambic-style ale made with peaches from Stonewall’s Vogel Orchards, aged in freshly dumped port and Sangiovese barrels from William Chris, and Treaty, a bourbon barrel oatmeal stout aged 12 months in Ghost Hill barrels from Treaty Oak.
Some of Vista’s wine barrel brews are released in tandem with wines aged in the same barrel so that visitors can try both products at the same time in the taproom or at a pairing dinner. A stellar example is Lassiez-Faire, a collaborative Lewis Wines barrel-aged Brett oenobeer (beer brewed with fruit) was refermented with about 20% Cabernet Sauvignon juice from the vineyard. “But,” says Kent, “You can’t always control these things. The products tell us when they’re ready.” He says one reason winemakers are happy to offload some barrels is because they’re contaminated with Brettanomyces, a yeast reviled in winemaking, but beloved by brewers.
To keep a steady selection of beer in stock for on-site consumption and distribution, Vista also has an unaged Beer Garden series influenced by classic European styles like Saisons, pilsners, IPAs and Kölsch. The Collaboration series includes what Karen calls “social movement” beers — charitable partnerships with other breweries that benefit various nonprofits and ingredient-driven beers, like one made with herbs sourced from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
The Killoughs were living in England and working corporate jobs in 2008 when the idea of opening a Hill Country brewery first occurred to them. The Austin natives were “beer fanatics,” says Karen, but otherwise had no industry experience.
“We wanted to live closer to family here in Texas and near Jester King, which has been such a source of inspiration to us,” adds Kent. “Our concept was also influenced by English country pubs. We wanted a place where you could bring your family dog and just hang out, with great food and drink. A Hill Country pub.”
The couple eventually settled in Driftwood. “It’s such a special place,” says Kent. “It’s still wide-open ranchland and has a lot of historical aspects. We knew we wanted an on-site farm and eventually lodging, while remaining close to Austin.”
The Killoughs both have agriculture in their DNA: Kent’s family farmed cotton, while Karen’s raised cattle. “It’s a part of us,” says Karen of their shared pastoral heritage. The brewery currently has a market garden, overseen by farmer Noël Lopreore, that supplies much of the produce for their on-site eatery, Vista Grill.
Vista also has 16 beehives tended by Karen, whose grandfather was an apiarist. This summer, the brewery will release their second version of Hive Mind Honey Ale, a collaborative beer made from native yeast collected from one of the brewery’s bees, and honey donated by over a dozen regional beekeepers. To bolster the bee population, the Killoughs planted six acres of wildflowers. The insects also pollinate their fruit trees.
Everything at Vista is very much a team effort: Heisler, Lopreore and Chef Kyle Barker work together to plan beer garden menus and pairing dinners. The latter are often attended by Texas farmers and ranchers whose products appear on the menu, like cattle rancher Ryan Jentsch of Driftwood’s Double J Ranch.
While not all of the brewery’s ingredients can be grown in Central Texas or even in-state due to climate and supply limitations (malted barley comes from Fort Worth’s TexMalt, hops from the Pacific Northwest and overseas), “we try our best to buy locally, right down to our T-shirt supplier,” says Karen. In the past, Vista has also made beers with Texas-grown heritage wheat from nearby Barton Springs Mill.
Barrel-aging was always part of the Killoughs’ vision for Vista.
“It went hand-in-hand with our location in the Central Texas wine region and mission,” says Karen. “It’s also just something we love. The first time I tried a barrel-aged beer while traveling in Europe after college, it blew me away.”
Kent emphasizes the less tangible aspects of the barrel-aged beers, which use ambient or native yeasts. The former, also called wild yeasts, are naturally occurring around the fermentation tanks. The latter are collected in nature by San Antonio’s Community Culture’s yeast lab.
“The lion’s share of craft beer are fast styles that can be recreated time and again,” says Kent. “We think of our barrel program as a life form because it’s alive — the yeast is competing with other microflora, which aids in flavor development. It’s also not as temperature controlled.”
There are 12 wine casks per batch and each barrel can taste different, says Kent. “It’s Daniel’s job as brew master to finesse that at the end, when he starts blending.” As laborious as the process is to produce these singular beers, what ends up in the keg or bottle is, in essence, a distillation of their beloved Hill Country. The Killoughs wouldn’t have it any other way.