South Austin’s new hangout Spokesman offers draft beer, coffee and art

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Spokesman serves draft beer out of repurposed bicycle handles, in a nod to one of the co-founders’ love of cycling.

The Yard, the new mixed-use complex built out of old warehouses off South Congress Avenue, is springing to life with new additions this month.

Following in the footsteps of neighboring St. Elmo Brewing at one end of the row are two boozy newcomers at the other end: the Austin Winery, which relocated from the east side of the city, and Spokesman, a coffee shop and beer bar from industry veterans who are finally opening their own space.

The next-door neighbors are planning to have grand opening celebrations later this month, although their doors are open now to offer locals early looks at each. (Here’s what to expect from the Austin Winery.)

Spokesman is the brainchild of C.J. West and Trey Ramirez, who wanted to create a comfortable hangout for the neighborhood that features two of their favorite things. West has helped to open and brew at local breweries like the ABGB and the south location of North by Northwest, while Ramirez developed his love for coffee working at Home Slice and the Brew & Brew.

As a result, Spokesman has opened with nearly two dozen draft beers — primarily local — and a toddy, served in a chilled pint glass sans ice and roasted on-site, that will be the first of many house coffee drinks to come. A few of the taps are also devoted to wine and cider.

Working with coffee for many years, I’ve always wanted to learn how to roast,” Ramirez said. “Getting the control and being able to shape what it tastes like is huge. It can be overwhelming at times, but it can be a lot of fun. And C.J. has been brewing beer for a long time here in town. He’s the other side of it. He’s been pulling in amazing beers from Austin and Texas. So you could say Spokesman is kind of a fusion of both our backgrounds.”

But don’t try to pigeon-hole Spokesman as the place to go solely for beer and coffee. The two co-founders feel strongly that Spokesman — decked out with eye-catching art from local painter Briks, of the Blue Dozen Collective — has more to offer than just drinks.

The name of the coffee bar, for example, comes in part from West’s passion for cycling. Spokesman aims to be “a ride-up shop where you can park your bikes inside and not have to worry about locking them,” Ramirez said, pointing out the vertical metal racks along the front garage-like wall where bicycles can hang. (Another nod to cyclists is the row of tap handles made of colorful bike handles.) 

And then there’s all that wall art.

Walk in and your jaw just might drop at first glance, like mine did, at the larger-than-life figures adorning nearly every available inch of wall space: the plump cat (or is it a raccoon?) with his arms folded, the boombox with dials and two large eyes and lips, the cheerful stork covering the Employees’ Only door leading to the back warehouse. The art is a marvel and so integral to the experience you’ll have at Spokesman.

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. When Spokesman uses its projector to play a show, the screen fits perfectly in the painted screen that local artist Briks created on the back wall.

“To bring Briks onto this project was amazing. I don’t think we could’ve picked anybody else. His art and his sense of humor reflected in his art just made this place come to life,” West said.

He and Ramirez hadn’t expected they’d renovate an old warehouse for their project. They looked for about two years at retail spaces in Austin, none of which were quite right for what they envisioned. Then, West’s friends at St. Elmo Brewing told him about the Yard.

Part of the reason the warehouse works so well is that it’s got lots of extra room to grow into — which, first and foremost, will be used for the expanding coffee program. The goal is to sell bags of roasted beans to go from the shop and to have them in retailers around town as well. But that’s largely phase two, the co-founders said.

In the meantime, Spokesman has a coffee roaster visible to customers in its nook at the back of the shop. Ramirez will continue using it to make the toddy and other upcoming coffee items until Spokesman outgrows it, he said, and needs to move roasting operations to the back warehouse.

We’re starting with just a couple of origins that we’re really excited about,” he said. “We’ve always loved Mexican coffee and African coffee, and we’ve been looking around for coffees that are just right for us and what we want to kind of mix together. The African coffee that we’re doing with our toddy we’re super thumbs-up on.”

West similarly aims to pay careful attention to the draft beer program. He said the taps will rotate out constantly (save for four always-on brews: Real Ale Axis IPA, Live Oak Brewing Gold, Hops & Grain River Beer and Austin Beerworks Peacemaker) and will primarily, but not exclusively, be from area brewers. Austin Beerworks’ limited Grinds My Gears, a hoppy ale with hefeweizen yeast, is only available at the Beerworks taproom and at Spokesman, in a nod to the coffee bar’s bicycling theme.

“We take a lot of pride in the breweries that we feature because for me, personally, this is my contribution to Texas craft brewing,” West said. “I went from the production side to this side. In the brewing industry, everybody wants to be a brewer. It’s like the star quarterback. The lead actress. Everyone wants to do it. But brewers can’t do it alone.”

For now, Spokesman is open 4 to 10 p.m. on weekdays at 440 E. St. Elmo Rd. A small menu of cafe food is to come. After the grand opening — look for that date to be announced on the coffee bar’s social media accounts — it will be open 7 a.m. to midnight daily.

For more information, visit spokesmancoffee.com.

Arianna Auber / American-Statesman. Enjoy local beer, like Zilker Brewing’s Murderino, while admiring wall art from local artist Briks, who completely covered Spokesman’s interior with his expressive characters.

Still Austin Whiskey Co. to become Austin’s first urban whiskey distillery

Visiting distilleries in the Austin area often means a day trip to Dripping Springs or other nearby towns — but driving the distance won’t be so necessary with the opening of a new urban distillery by the end of this year.

Still Austin Whiskey Co., which is transforming an industrial space just south of Highway 290 off South Congress Avenue, is going to make it easy for locals to try Texas-made spirits right from the source. It’s one of the businesses opening at the Yard at St. Elmo, a collection of creative spaces that will include artist studios, a recording studio and offices, as well as other boozy producers. The two-year-old Austin Winery is moving in, and St. Elmo Brewing also plans to launch there.

The distillery, as its name suggests, will focus exclusively on making all types of whiskey — from bourbon to rye to single-malt to a moonshine-like whiskey called new make, which will come fresh off the still and go into bottles without time in barrels. Named for the 50-foot column still stretching upward in the center of the distillery, with the capability of producing a barrel of whiskey an hour, Still Austin Whiskey plans to both bottle and serve the spirit onsite.

And if the founders of Still Austin Whiskey have their way, their whiskeys will be made with as many Texas grains as possible. Farmers in Central Texas grow many of the necessary ingredients, including corn, wheat and even rye.

“Everything is here in Texas,” Lisa Braunberg, head of marketing for Still Austin Whiskey and one of the six founders, said. “So we thought it was not only a huge opportunity to connect with those resources and meet farmers around Central Texas and beyond, but also see if we could do something interesting with the grain bill, which is (head distiller) Kris’ specialty. He takes some really unusual, sometimes even heirloom, grains and sees what we can do with them. Because they taste really different.”

Photo by Arianna Auber. Kris Bohm, left, Chris Seals and Lisa Braunberg are opening the Still Austin Whiskey Co. later this year. The project is in the construction phase now, although fermenters are already in place.
Photo by Arianna Auber. Kris Bohm, left, Chris Seals and Lisa Braunberg are opening the Still Austin Whiskey Co. later this year. The project is in the construction phase now, although fermenters are already in place.

Because most whiskeys require barrel-aging, the distillery will launch with the new make whiskey that Kris Bohm, as the mastermind behind each recipe, has already started to craft and gotten good results with so far.

“It doesn’t have any color, like vodka, but it does have a lot of flavor where you can taste the grain that went into it, the fermentation,” he said.

He joined Still Austin Whiskey after Braunberg and her husband Andrew, along with Chris Seals, his father Cleveland and another couple, Sal and Joanna Salinas, formed the business upon taking a whiskey class together and finding they had a similar passion for it. They patched together a business plan and searched the city for a viable place to put their distillery — a tricky find until the Yard came along.

Similarly difficult for the business partners was coming up with a name that represented their dream. They chose Bohm, who had distilling experience, to run the production side because of his desire to make whiskey “all the way from the grain to the glass,” Chris Seals said, and they wanted a name that denoted this concept.

“There are so many whiskey distilleries that buy whiskey already made, already aged, already ready, and then they say they made it,” he said. “So we wanted a name that would nod at our authenticity without spelling it out. We wanted something that was also fun, letting people know they could be part of it. We went with ‘Still Austin’ and added ‘Whiskey,’ so people know that’s all we make.”

Once Still Austin Whiskey is open — which the founders anticipate might be later this fall — visitors will be able to come in and help make the whiskey. They’ll also get to enjoy cocktails and whiskey tastings inside in the tasting room or outside in the whiskey garden.

In addition to the new make whiskey available at the start, Bohm wants to offer a handful of flavored whiskeys made from the new make and local ingredients.

“One of the things I’m working on is incorporating peppers that are grown in Texas and doing a spicy whiskey,” he said. “We want to make whiskeys that represent the flavors around us. Have a whiskey with terroir to it.”

He and each of the founders of Still Austin Whiskey are open about the process of making whiskey: “We first brew a beer, then distill it, then barrel it, then age it, then blend it because each barrel tastes a bit different. Then, we bottle it,” Seals said. Educating people about how it’s made is important to them, especially in a city like Austin where authenticity is so highly valued. And none of the founders — most of whom live in one of Austin’s central neighborhoods, Bouldin Creek — could have imagined opening a distillery anywhere else.

“Austin has this amazing brewery life, but it’s missing this important element,” Braunberg said. “So we said, ‘Let’s bring it to the city instead of going out to the country.’ There are some nice distillers out there doing some interesting stuff, but wouldn’t it be great to be part of it right here in the city? That’s the heart of it.”