On a warm winter evening 20 miles outside of Austin, Jester King’s brewing team gathered around a large copper basin called a coolship, joined by friends from Perennial Artisan Ales and Trillium Brewing Company. Months of planning had brought the parties together to brew a one-off batch of Hommel Bier, a Belgian pale ale available year-round at Perennial’s taproom in St. Louis, Missouri. Already, the new beer differed from the original. The wort — brewer’s lingo for the sugary liquid that later becomes beer — had been made using Texas well water and conditioned with local grapefruit to simulate Hommel’s citrusy hop profile.
“It smells like Froot Loops!” one of the brewers yelled over the gushing of honey-colored wort into the open-air coolship. Hot steam filled the room, and the sunset, coupled with the room’s mosaic glass windows, cast a kaleidoscope of green and orange around the brewers. “This is crazy,” yelled another. “I feel like I’m in The Twilight Zone!”
Ingredients aside, the new beer’s biggest departure would happen unseen. Over the next hour, 930 gallons of boiling wort — or 30 barrels’ worth — would fill the coolship, resulting in a pool of warm, viscous sugar water. Overnight, billions of airborne yeast microbes, along with leaves, bugs and whatever else made its way through the open windows, would inoculate the sugar, sending the liquid on a long, unpredictable journey known as spontaneous fermentation. No one in the room had any idea what the resulting beer would taste like.
This method of brewing, made famous by Belgium’s traditional lambic producers, such as Brasserie-Brouwerij Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen, relies on ambient microbes, rather than cultured yeast, to spark the fermentation process. Some beers, like this one-off Hommel, undergo it only partially; from the coolship, the beer would be moved to a foeder, basically a large-format oak barrel, where a yeast cake containing Jester King’s mixed culture — a diverse blend of yeast and bacteria, developed over years of trial and error — would be added to help speed along the process. Still, this version would take approximately four months to complete, more than six times longer than regular Hommel.
Around the coolship, the excitement tempered to a whisper, as, one by one, the brewers filtered downstairs for a feast of sour beer and takeout barbecue. One of Perennial’s brewers, Tyler Stewart, remained crouched in the corner, staring into the stilled pool of wort, entranced. “This is so fucking cool,” he said. “I’d stay here all night if they let me.”
Jester King is one of just a few breweries in the United States exploring spontaneous fermentation. Allagash Brewing Company, in Portland, Maine, was the first American brewery to install a coolship on-site; others, like de Garde in rural Oregon, depend on them exclusively. “As a style, spontaneous is very much in its infancy here in the States,” said Jeffrey Stuffings, who founded Jester King in 2010. “Give it three years. It will be a somewhat common style. Not in terms of volume, but just people doing it.”
Last fall, Jester King launched Spon, its first project to rely entirely on spontaneous fermentation. The beers in this series made use of a technique Jester King calls “Méthode Gueuze” — a reference to the Belgian tradition of blending spontaneously fermented beers. Each blend was comprised of different vintages spanning anywhere from one to three years old. Each remained unfiltered and unpasteurized, meaning the beer would continue to ferment in the bottle and change over time. “We did four blends,” Stuffings said, “and obviously there are some common threads, but every single one was just a distinctly different beer. That’s what gets us excited. The natural variation is something we really embrace.”
One of these blends, Spon Flor — named in reference to the film of yeast that develops on top of sherry during fermentation — was bred from a happy accident. The beer was aged in Jester King’s expansive barrel room, next to a few Oloroso sherry barrels from another beer. “I felt like some of the flor that was in the sherry barrels migrated through the wood into the Spon barrels and influenced the character of those beers,” Stuffings said. “It was kind of a random microbial one-off. I’m pretty confident we’ll never be able to recreate it.”
Spon doesn’t just navigate the fringes of beer making, but the geopolitics behind it. On a blog post last year announcing the series, Stuffings wrote: “We’ve struggled mightily with what to call this beer for a few years now . . . . Lambic and gueuze come from Brussels and the Pajottenland. End of story . . . . Our beer is NOT ‘lambic’ or ‘gueuze.’”
The distancing wasn’t just to appease lambic producers in Belgium. It was to signal that Spon, like all of Jester King’s beers, is distinctly Texan — made by a distinct group of individuals in a distinct place. “We sat down with my favorite lambic brewer-blender, Jean Van Roy from Cantillon, and he was very adamant, ‘There’s no such thing as Texas Gueuze,'” Stuffings said. “Him being a friend and inspiration, we didn’t want to offend him. We asked his blessing, and he actually came up with the concept of ‘Méthode Gueuze.’ Basically referring to, not the appellation or region, but the process.”
While Spon may be Jester King’s latest and most romantic endeavor, the ongoing project is but a small part of the brewery’s overall mission. Its other offerings range from a low-ABV table beer, Le Petit Prince, to about a dozen different fruit refermentations brewed using Jester King’s mixed-culture yeast. “We’re a self-proclaimed farmhouse brewery,” Stuffings said. “A lot of people define that differently. We’ve always defined it as just a beer that has connection to a place and a time.”
“For me, ‘farmhouse’ very much means texture,” added Averie Swanson, Jester King’s head brewer, who comes from a background in evolutionary biology. “Texture in the ingredients, texture in the people that are making it. It’s a little rougher around the edges.”
In many ways, the processes that define Jester King align closer to those of an old-world winery than a modern-day brewery. Stuffings and Swanson work on years-long timelines and refer to specific batches of beer by their vintage. More salient, however, is the brewery’s pursuit of terroir — a term made popular by winemakers to describe character of place through sensory experience. “I think myself, and a lot of people who are into craft beer, crave something that is authentic,” Stuffings said. “When you travel somewhere new, you want to experience something that’s unique to that location. I don’t want something that can be made anywhere else.”
In 2015, the brewery purchased 58 additional acres to experiment with site-grown fruits — like peaches and blackberries — as well as an endemic hop varietal known as Neomexicanus. Jester King also works with an Austin-based malthouse, Blacklands Malt, to source various varieties of Texas-grown malt. “We’ve gone from basically [using] no Texas malt to about half,” Stuffings said. “The goal is definitely to get to one hundred percent. Some of the most excitement I’ve had recently with beer making is just what we’ve been getting out of various Texas malts that we had no access to when we started.”
Even the brewery’s water, raw and unadulterated, tells a story. “It’s way out of spec, as far as the brewing textbooks would say. It’s very hard — a limestone formation, with a lot of calcium carbonate,” Stuffings said. “It just goes back to that core philosophy of expressing what’s right here. The ingredients tell us what beer to make, and not the other way around. I just love the simplicity: taking grains, steeping them in water, boiling it, adding hops and just seeing where it goes.”
With all these variables in play, not every batch made at Jester King is up to snuff. When experimenting with a new beer, the brewery anticipates that about 10 percent will find its way down the drain. “When we taste the beer, there are some barrels that we love. But there are plenty of duds, too,” Stuffings said. “A common flavor we’ll get is vinegar-y or acetic acid. When barrels go bad, it can be spectacularly bad. Like gagging-level bad. Above all else, whether you’re making a pilsner or a lambic, it should be drinkable.”
Of course, tossing a bad batch is simple quality control — something every brewery must factor into its process. “There was a talk at the Craft Brewers Conference by the lab manager for Avery Brewing, and he was touting how much beer they dump. It sounded like way more than what we do,” Stuffings added. “It wasn’t that the beer was necessarily bad; it just wasn’t to spec. With us, on the other hand, we embrace natural variation. If we feel like it’s a good sensory experience then we’ll blend it, regardless of how it compares to the past.”
Today, Jester King brews about 3,000 barrels of beer a year — 12,000 fewer than what it could produce and still be considered a “microbrewery” by the Brewers Association. Regardless, Stuffings has few plans for expansion. “All the extra money we have, we’ve just been pumping into the land,” he said. “Austin is growing fast, and I’m confident that the area around us is going to be pretty developed over time. That’s another reason we decided to take a chunk out of it.”
Though Stuffings and Swanson travel the country to work with other brewers on collaborative beers, some of which employ spontaneous-fermentation techniques, their focus is very much at home. A majority of Jester King beers are sold on the premises through on-site bottle releases and the taproom; some of Jester King’s most loyal patrons even flock to the brewery from out of the state. “We want people to come out here and create that associative memory so that when they take the bottle home, or they bring it to their friend’s house, they’re transported back to this place,” Swanson said. “If you were to just pick one of our beers off the shelf somewhere, having never been here or knowing the story behind it, you might be like, ‘Man, this beer’s got too much texture. It’s strange.’ Having been here helps.”
“You can’t replicate what we do here, but you can make stuff that’s just as good,” Stuffings said. “I have this doomsday vision that all of our relevance will go out the window someday. Based on that, I try to think about what will never go out of style. And that’s just hanging out with friends or family, having a beer in a nice place.”
More from the Issue
A celebration of all things beer. From coolers to coasters to easy-to-find IPAs, here’s everything you need to know to put your best beer forward, all the time. Read the Story