All About Beer Magazine - Volume 38, Issue 5
December 19, 2017 By Bo McMillan
(Photo by Tyler Malone, courtesy Jester King Brewery)

It was 100 degrees outside—this being July, and in Texas—but lines still snaked across Jester King Brewery’s campus, located on part of a 200-acre ranch just 20 minutes from downtown Austin. The weekend marked the release of Atrial Rubicite, one of the brewery’s most coveted wares, and the lines were long with good reason: 4,000 bottles of the raspberry farmhouse ale had sold within just six hours the day before.

Inside the brewhouse, away from the hordes of patrons buying bottles, merchandise and bread from a local baker, co-founder Jeffrey Stuffings stood atop a small Cantillon keg and began a weekend tour.

“Here at Jester King we consider ourselves a farmhouse brewery,” he announced. And as Stuffings laid out the numerous components of Jester King beer for the dense and sweating room—from the hops aged in the attic of a horse barn a few hundred feet from the brewery, to the local fruits and grains and water used in its brewing, to the laissez-faire allowance the brewery gives to native bacteria and yeasts during fermentation—the second part of his credo unfurled.

Jester King, Stuffings told the crowd, makes beer “of a time, a place and a people.”

“It all just kind of stems from a general philosophy: trying to envision, if we were here a hundred years ago, how would we make beer?” said Stuffings.

Stuffings, who founded the brewery in 2010 with his brother Michael Steffing, was inspired in Jester King’s particular farmhouse approach by the writings of Yvan De Baets, brewer for Brasserie de la Senne in Belgium. While paying homage to traditional Belgian methods such as blending and spontaneous fermentation, De Baets also espouses a more relaxed definition of farmhouse ales. As he writes in Phil Markowski’s book Farmhouse Ales, the key criteria, to him, are lower alcohol levels (usually up to 6.5%), high attenuation and dryness, some degree of “wild” fermentation, and either a “sour or very bitter” character.

“I think he’s just one of the brightest brewers we know and one who’s an authority on saisons and farmhouse ales. … He speaks, to paraphrase, about saisons having this indiscernible or indistinguishable quality … kind of this rustic note,” says Stuffings.
The location of Jester King—which coincidentally arose from a rancher’s response to an article on breweries in planning in a local paper—fits naturally with the barrel-aging, spontaneous fermentation, hop-aging and blending techniques Jester King borrowed from its Belgian inspiration. After cultivating native yeasts and bacteria from local fruits and flowers (Texas Hill Country is rich in agriculture, and known for its wine industry), installing a coolship, moving to local well water, and latching onto the development of a nascent Texas malt industry, Jester King was able to mime the über-local nature of traditional Belgian brewing. The history of saisons, in fact, is largely bound up in making the most of a single farm’s leftover grain, fruit and produce.

That emphasis on locality and the quirks of location have rendered Jester King subject to a distinct beer-world version of that old cliché: a taste of place, or terroir. Texas Hill Country well water, Stuffings says, is hard—bearing mineral contents of up to 750 and 1,250 parts per million, far beyond what’s typically recommended for brewing—resulting in heightened minerality. The Texas malt used by the brewery is high in protein and tends to run darker than most, lending toasty qualities and richer, more turbid color. Lastly, the brewery’s mixed culture of yeasts and bacteria, as well as the local climate, yields super-attenuated, dry beer.

“We see beers that are 100 percent to 105 percent apparent attenuation,” says Stuffings.

“I think that’s a product of our temperatures and diversity of microorganisms. We can ferment very, very warm in the summertime, and the mixed culture of microbes of the land around us has led to beers that are extraordinarily dry—by the numbers, some of the driest beers we’ve encountered.”

The addition of mostly Texan produce such as peaches, pecans, honey, loquats, figs (cold-smoked by Austin’s famous Franklin Barbecue for a collaboration beer), lemon bee balm (grown on the brewery’s grounds), strawberries and even Hill Country wine grapes further add to that local flavor. But what is Texas terroir?

“It’s hard to really pinpoint one specific thing,” says Stuffings. “If you go to any one particular thing, I wouldn’t say that’s distinctly Texas, but you add them all together, and you get something that’s essentially impossible to reproduce.”

Hops, which don’t typically grow well as far south as Texas, are the one significant aberrance in Jester King’s local sourcing, but Stuffings hopes that will soon change. The brewery is experimenting with rhizomes on its site and is up to try any new hops developed in the state.

“If there’s viable hops that aren’t just really, really crappy, if they’re solid and unique and that have flavors that will be unique to us, we’re sold. We’ll buy ’em,” says Stuffings. “We’ve got a pretty low bar. … I’m cool with whatever the land around us gives because that’s going to translate into our own unique flavor profile.”

For now, “I won’t make any claims on terroir when it comes to hops,” he adds.

As could be expected, Jester King’s products and business ethos have drawn comparisons to vineyards—a comparison made all the more apt by the brewery’s use of winemaking techniques like bottle fermentation and punchdowns (bearing down with a potato-masherlike device on the fruit added to its beer).

“I would say the parallels with wine are significant, even from the business perspective,” says Stuffings, noting that 75 percent of the brewery’s sales come on-site, that the bottles it produces sell at high margins, that each year’s bottling of a beer will vary (producing, essentially, vintages), and that it maintains a small production level—about 2,000 barrels per year.

On the brewery tour, as Stuffings pulled a Live Oak Pilz from his back pocket (also brewed out of Austin), he extolled the values of consistent, precise brewing while also acknowledging that the beers produced by that method are very different from those of Jester King’s approach.

“I would say, philosophically, that farmhouse ales are beers that are not really processed,” says Stuffings. “It’s not to say that beers that are highly engineered or processed are bad—quite the opposite, they’re fantastic—I just think these rustic farmhouse ales that Yvan talked about, they’re not going to be engineered, and there’s going to be natural variation because of that.”

After the tour, when Stuffings removed the wire cage from a bottle of 2016 SPON—Méthode Gueuze, he was surprised to find the cork starting to force itself from the bottle. Smiling, he put the bottle down and left it to its own devices. The cork launched upward, untouched, with a resounding pop, before Stuffings picked up the bottle once more and distributed its contents.

“Having the discipline to resist [control] is a big part of making a farmhouse ale,” he adds.