Signifiers

At the Intersection of Black Metal and Economic Suicide — Jester King has the Last Laugh

There’s a new term in craft brewing — artisanal. You’ve seen it in cheese, woodworking, bread, and wine. But until now, it hasn’t been used to describe beer all that often. And that’s because we already had the word “craft.” But in recent years, you’ve probably heard more about the craft industry — a bit of an oxymoron — than the craft of small batch beer-making itself. That’s because craft beer is quickly becoming the new default — somewhat disregarding the craft of beer-making in any meaningful sense of the word. Most of the attention on the definition of a craft brewery is focused on size and ownership structure more than the process or artistry itself. Larger craft brewers are still making amazing beers with the same original intent, utilizing many of the same ingredients as they did when they were small. But with all the growth in the craft sector, a new niche has emerged that has little chance of ever becoming industrialized, or defined by objective metrics. And that’s artisanal brewers. 

The term artisanal can be bastardized like anything else, but so far it’s most often used to describe a brewer who’s making small batches, often aged or fermented in wood, and otherwise incorporates natural elements like yeast, bacteria, and ambient temperatures into the brewing process through wild and spontaneous fermentation. It takes time, sometimes a lot, and a healthy sense of humility in the brewing process. Where industrialization, even on the level of craft, reduces beer-making down to a series of weights and measures and chemistry, the artisanal process does the same, but then releases that beer into the wild. And from that moment on, it’s a matter of balancing the brewer’s intent with nature’s will. 

Much of the success of craft brewing this time around is due to an increase in quality, consistency, and quantities. These are important elements to supplying and competing in a consumer market. In the 90s, craft producers, save a few, were not prepared to meet these demands, but in the most recent wave of last 10-15 years, craft beer has earned and protected its market share this way. And it’s because of this foundation that some brewers are deciding to open things up a bit, and try something new. In fact, some newer breweries are staking their future on it. Artisanal brewing is replete with risks. It’s far more likely that your beer will stray from your intent than it will ever behave. But to the artisanal brewers like Jester King, that’s the whole point. 

"This process is integral to who we are,” says Jester King’s Ron Extract. “Making beer that’s tied to the land with a sense of place — not constrained by time or production deadlines. In farmhouse brewing the product drives the process rather than the other way around.”

Located about an half hour west of Austin’s city center in Texas, the Jester King brewery is situated on some dusty, scraggy land in the midst of half-green rolling hills, farms, and a serpentine system of creeks. The metal and wood shed-like buildings form the brewery grounds — picnic tables here and there. It’s a decidedly lazy place. The windows are all open, the Texas breeze is flowing through, but invisibly, the natural microflora of the region are busy working on the beer. Barrel program manager Adrienne Ballou, with her background in the wine industry, explains: “We use a lot of cultures that are native to the ranch and we have a spontaneous program with our coolship. Those cultures have become an integral part of our barrel aging program. All the barrels we’re doing are using a very unique set of yeast and bacteria you wouldn't be able to find anywhere else in the world.”

Most traditional beer styles can be made anywhere on the planet. All you need is access to the basic ingredients, preserved and delivered in a timely manner, and a means of production. That’s what makes beer a manufactured product more than an agricultural one in most people’s minds. But breweries like Jester King are changing that. They’re incorporating hyper-local ingredients, often seasonally, and taking advantage of free resources like bacteria and wild yeast to complete the picture.  It’s more akin to cider and wine making than beer production — and Jester King doesn’t just do this for the special stuff. 

"All of our beer now contains native yeast and bacteria,” explains Extract. “It’s an impression of where we are, a sense of place. Wildflowers, berries, the air, and our land. Take that and mix the organisms into to a new environment, and the equilibrium and flavors will change. Let it ferment for as long as it needs to ferment, to a complete dryness. We like dry beers and the flavors theses yeasts produce when they run out of sugar to eat and start to wind down, kicking out other flavors and aromas. From kettle to glass the quickest we can make beer is about three months. They could just as easily take six months or more if they need to. It takes a long as it takes. It’s ready when it tells us it's ready. Our spontaneous fermentation program with the coolship, in the winter we’re making beer that goes from kettle to coolship, cools overnight, starts off with 100% native airborne yeast, and ferments several years in oak barrels until it’s ready — or it doesn’t and we dump it. For us, it’s about embracing nature and taking risks.”

Indeed, at the cross-streets of “black metal and commercial suicide” this team has been hard at work finding ways to off-set the feasibility problems faced by many of their ideas. The costs of sourcing grains from a local malster, water from a well, fruits from local farmers, and waiting — so much waiting — adds up fast. And then there’s the strain on their infrastructure. “We brewed a bière de garde with hay in the mash,” recalls brewer Garrett Crowell. “It's going to be aged in some brandy casks starting next week.” What does hay do in a mash? "Mostly it breaks the rakes in your mash tun,” explains Crowell. “Word to the wise — 80lbs of hay in the mash is a terrible idea. But you can get some minuscule amounts of sugar from it. Used properly, it can aid in run-off like rice hulls. And the aroma comes through in the wort.”

A brewery that ages hops open-air in the barn and tosses 80lbs of hay into a mash isn’t the kind of place that barrel-room manager Adrienne Ballou thought she’d find herself. She studied wine fermentation at UC Davis where according to Ballou, "they drill into your head that you have to have as clean a fermentation and sterilized an environment as possible.” But following her studies, she worked at a winery in France. “That really opened up my eyes to a different world of fermentation. I didn’t see santiizer used at all. They just sprinkle some water on it. And this is some of the best wine in the world. You don’t have to have this sterile environment using one strain of yeast to make a good product. You can make much more interesting things and kind of let loose and embrace your environment. That’s when I started looking into Jester King.”

Similarly, Crowell had been pursuing the outer edges of home brewing at the time Jester King was opening. He came out to the brewery a couple times a week to help clean and bottle, and he brought his homebrews along to share. “I was making beers in the same vein. I’d been homebrewing for about six years off and on but those two years I was  exclusively making wild and sour beer, experimenting with different bottle dregs. At the time you couldn’t go to the homebrew store and get these, so I just used bottles of Orval or I’d special order brettanomyces — they would explain that this "brett bacteria" would really mess up my beer. I didn’t correct them at the time and tell them it was yeast.”

Needless to say, the Texas market is a long way from being primed for Jester King’s offerings. Historically, it hasn’t been conducive to craft or small producers at all. The laws are holdovers from a bygone era, as they are in much of the US, but with some unique quirks that kept most of the world’s greatest beers out of reach. Extract, who came from the distribution side, knows all to well how frustrating the Texas laws are for beer. From the point of view of Shelton Brothers, the importer he worked with at the time, Texas was impenetrable. 

“I was importing for seven and a half years with Shelton Brothers, which gave me the opportunity to work with some of the best artisan brewers in the world — understand what they were doing, their philosophy, the rationale behind choices that were different than other breweries — that all sunk in. When Jeff and Michael the original founders were planning the brewery, they were inspired by some of the same breweries that I worked with. We spend a lot of money moving liquid and glass overseas and there’s no reason those beers couldn’t be made right there. Even then, Shelton Brothers didn’t have a high profile in Texas because of regulations in the state, which made it difficult to sell the portfolio. Wine and spirits is fine, but when it comes to beer in Texas, each importing brewery is required to carry their own license, which is over $6,000 a year. For places like Texas, it doesn’t make sense for Shelton Brothers to pay that when they can’t supply the markets consistently anyway.”

Brewers in Texas also had to deal with some screwy labeling laws. Anything over 4% by weight couldn’t be labelled “beer.” So the majority of beers were actually being mis-labelled as “ales” (whether they were ales or not) with unique labels being produced just for the Texas market. Brewers also weren’t legally allowed to inform their customers where they could buy their beer. Not on the website, not at the brewery, nowhere. Consumers had to fish for it themselves. And most recently, Jester King has helped fight for the ability to sell their beer directly on-premise in their own taproom, and for brewpubs to distribute. Now, Jester King taps kegs from exceptional breweries they feel a kinship with (made possible by switching to a brewpub license) as well as cideries nearby. “We think our customers will better appreciate what we’re doing by understanding the influences behind our work, explains Extract. “They’ll promote the category rather than seeing us as a off-ball brewer. That we’re not alone in our philosophy. We can showcase the things we think are special in addition to what were making on-site. It paints a bigger picture of what artisan brewing is all about.”

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In addition to the barrel-aged, wild, and sour beers, Jester King makes a “table beer” — a very low abv, full-flavor beer with a tradition of serving farmers and workers throughout the day. Also known as “small beer,” these super-sessionable beers are the counter-trend to the hops race and the monster chasers. They’re quietly showing up in the portfolios of craft brewers around the country, such as Penrose’s Proto Gradus, a 4% Belgian single, and Crooked Stave's Petite Sour at 4.5%. Jester King’s Petite Prince comes in at an astonishing 2.9% while retaining that light, fluffy saison flavor full of citrus and a balanced bitterness. 

"Table beers are about flavor,” explains Extract. “Enjoying what’s in the glass. Beer is always my first choice of a beverage. I don’t like soda — I drink coffee, water, and beer. Most of us are like that here. So if we want a beer during the day while were working, having a beer that’s 2.9% and has the flavors we like, doesn’t load us up and allows us to do our work is nice. We feel that’s the default. Beer was conjured originally as beverage. This escalating abv content among some styles is weird for me, for people that like beer. Bigger isn’t always better. It’s not a mark of artisanship.”