Jester King Head Brewer Leaves to Start Own Brewery

Austin Ray

THE GIST
Small batch brewers everywhere bang the drums for locality, framing their wares as a direct representation of their given communities. Few, though, have been as successful as Jester King Brewery of Austin, Texas when it comes to imbuing beer with a provincial spirit. And that’s not merely a testament to the company’s branding prowess. For the last three years, Garrett Crowell has helped define the brewery’s portfolio as head brewer, creating along the way its mixed culture of brewers yeast, native yeast, and native bacteria used to ferment all of the company’s beer—save its 100% spontaneous fermentations.
 
Now, Crowell is leaving to start a new chapter in his brewing career. The native Texan hopes to open a brewery of his own about 50 miles west of Austin in Johnson City, a “quiet little community of ranchers and winemakers” home to fewer than 2,000 people. “We’re eager to find a space, or some land in Johnson City to get ourselves up and making beer,” he tells GBH, adding, “we’re still exploring many options and aren’t absolutely tied to one spot.”

Crowell says his new brewery won’t likely be open before 2018. In the meantime, he plans to travel and do consulting work while “solidifying the minutiae of the business side of operating a brewery.”
 
Jester King founder Jeffrey Stuffings acknowledged Crowell’s contributions to the company in a note detailing his departure. “Through his thoughtfulness, creativity, and skill, Garrett has done an exemplary job helping us make beer tied to a time, place, and people,” he says. “His work has helped us document our natural surroundings through beer and [breathe] life into our core philosophy.”
 
We don’t know yet what Crowell’s exit will mean for Jester King. (It has since promoted Averie Swanson from within to fill the role.) But we touched base with the home-brewer turned master of mixed culture fermentation himself to learn more about his new project and time at Jester King.

ON THE RECORD

What has it been like working with Jester King for the past three years (five years counting the prior two as a brewer and volunteer)?

It’s been an immensely gratifying experience. I was fortunate to receive some incredible opportunities, especially given the fact that it was my first transition from homebrewing to professional brewing. During my time there, I was able to fine-tune my thoughts, philosophies, and practices concerning mixed-culture fermentation. Furthermore, I was afforded opportunities to meet some incredible people making beer all over the world.

Why is now the right time for you to branch out on your own?

Since before my tenure at Jester King, I've been eager to make beer, draw labels, and build a space where folks can share beer. I've had a bounty of ideas, and stacks upon stacks of notebooks with sketches, recipes, and philosophies scribbled down for future use. 

Some of those ideas made sense to practice at Jester King. The Dichotomous series of beers was a huge outlet of my personal idea log. But, I found that my idea of what I wanted beer to be, and what Jester King wanted it to be, began to slowly diverge. That's certainly not to say there isn't merit in the direction Jester King has gone, but it's just a deviation from the path I'd personally like to be on, so I've decided to take a turn. Opening a brewery was an inevitable decision, made long ago, and Jester King was an incredible road to travel on to get there.

Tell us about where you’re hoping to open.

About a year ago, my incredible girlfriend, Adrienne Ballou, and I moved out to a small town called Johnson City, which is about 50 minutes west of Austin, TX. Adrienne managed the barrel and fruit program at Jester King until February 2016, and left to make wine out here in the Texas Hill Country, a path directly tied to her formal training in Viticulture and Enology. My oldest brother, Todd, is the head winemaker for Yates Winery, just down the road from Johnson City. So, we've found a lot of happiness out here in this quiet little community of ranchers and winemakers. It's an odd intersection of culture, but being a native Texan, somehow it just makes sense.

In the note announcing your departure, Jeffrey Stuffings sang your praises for “spreading the gospel of mixed-culture fermentation.” Will you be brewing more beers like that?

We'll surely make mixed-culture beer, but it's such a broad term that currently leans towards acid-forward beer. There's a lot of exploration to be done, and I really like yeast driven beers. Brasserie Au Baron's Cuvee des Jonquilles is a beer I'm most fond of, and although not a beer of mixed fermentation, it is a beer that inspires me to make something without guidelines. They've been making that beer for over 25 years, and it isn't really a categorical beer. It could be a Bière de Garde or it could be a saison, but it doesn't quite make a difference because it's just an incredible beer, and that's all that really matters.

What other types of beers can people look forward to from your new venture?

I don't want to let out too many secrets yet regarding what kinds of beer we'll make. I'll be pursuing my own personal philosophies concerning mixed-culture fermentation, with an intense emphasis on subtlety and balance. Adrienne will also be pursuing a series of fruit re-fermentation beers akin to her winemaking sensibilities. Most who know me can attest to my fondness of Lager beer. We'll likely give some of those a whirl, too.

How do you see mixed-culture fermentation spreading throughout the industry?

It seems the idea and practice of fermentation with more than one yeast has opened up a lot of avenues for folks looking to branch out into new territory. I think we'll see a lot of the dogma and indoctrination of what limits and propels these peripheral yeast and bacteria broken down. There really isn't much literature on mixed-culture fermentation, and there are some remarkable people discovering the capabilities of yeast and bacteria that texts have previously contradicted. Mixed-culture fermentation is nothing new. The regimented and scientific exploration of mixed-culture fermentation is most certainly new, and there are folks dedicated to its research. That's a testament to its merit and place in the industry. There will be those who view it as an arrow in the quiver, and those who view it as the bow with which they shoot.

—Dave Eisenberg