Brewers Question Jester King’s New Méthode

Austin Ray
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Last week, Jester King Brewery of Austin, Texas, unveiled that, going forward, it plans to designate its spontaneously fermented Lambic- and Gueuze-style beers with the term “Méthode Traditionelle.” The move, as we reported at the time, represented a concession to the High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers (HORAL), a group of Belgian brewers that took issue with the company’s original mark, “Méthode Gueuze,” arguing “Gueuze” and “Lambic” refer specifically, by definition, to spontaneously fermented beers made in the Zenne River Valley near Brussels.

“Méthode Traditionelle,” the group allowed, more adequately conveyed that similar beers made outside the region followed traditional brewing methods without appropriating Belgian nomenclature. Jester King relented in the name of not making enemies and thus concluded one of the more niche disputes in all of beer.

Or so one might have thought. In reality, though, by kowtowing to Belgian propriety, Jester King’s new mark has actually served to intensify the debate. That’s because the Texas brewery’s mark isn’t meant merely to label its own products. Rather, the company is offering it up as a certification of sorts for other brewers to use on their own spontaneously fermented beers made elsewhere in the world but in accordance with Belgian tradition. And in turn, the company is facing some of the same accusations of opportunism it hoped this compromise would squash.

Most notably, De Garde Brewing of Tillamook, Oregon, published a statement on social media, in which the company slammed the mark as a way for non-Belgian brewers to gouge customers on stylistically similar beers.

“To try to pull cachet from the traditions of others who have fought to support them…is not just disingenuous, but capitalistic,” the company wrote. “It is telling that good Lambic and G(u)euze is an affordable luxury at the source, even amongst new and growing producers, and merely a luxury amongst most emulating the methods here.”

The company did not identify Jester King by name in its post, though De Garde’s Trevor Rogers took to the Milk the Funk Facebook group, a collection of amateur and professional brewers devoted to the making of beers such as those in question, where he directly engaged with James Howat of Black Project, who went to Belgium with Jester King’s Jeffrey Stuffings to work on the terminology compromise.

“It is exhausting,” Rogers wrote. “We just make beer, and that's tiring enough. Trying to keep up with the ins/outs of folks trying to attach extra value to their brand is an impossible endeavor.”

Regardless, this line of attack is additionally noteworthy because the Belgians themselves proposed the phrase “Méthode Traditionelle” in the first place after criticizing the original mark as being an overly capitalistic and “outspoken mercantile move.”

De Garde wasn’t the only company to take issue with the mark, either. TRVE Brewing Company of Denver, Colorado, took a stance as well, though the heavy metal-themed brewery’s opposition is rooted in a more philosophical than monetary argument.

“Though the concept (i.e., intent) is to establish best practices without limiting factors, the very creation of a mark demands a certain level of gatekeeping,” writes Zach Coleman, head brewer, on the company’s blog. “This is then inherently limiting, as it allows one to hold those accountable who choose to take part while letting those who do not remain free to proceed as willed.”

Coleman continues: “Why, then, would one choose to join? The unstated assumption is that this mark, and the caliber of breweries associated with it, will have such social/cultural power as to all but totally devalue those who choose to not participate and use the mark.”

If the latter point here sounds familiar, that’s because similar arguments were made earlier this summer when the Brewers Association introduced its seal of independence, a label adornment meant to distinguish independent breweries from those owned by multinational brewing conglomerates. At the time, some, including TRVE, worried that the spread of such voluntary marks could hurt businesses that opt, for myriad reasons, not to use them. Said TRVE founder Nick Nunns at the time: “Can't wait for trolls to bust my balls about not putting the independent beer emblem on our labels.”

Similarly, Jester King weighed in on the certified independent seal themselves, saying that, while they agreed to use it in a limited sense, it was a good reason to bring up the BA’s definition of independence, which Jester King found to be inadequate and inconsistent.

This debate over what to call Belgian-style beers made outside of Belgium also follows a very similar debate over what to call Vermont-style beers made outside of Vermont. As we reported earlier this year, that conversation rested on one key question: “Given the perceived value and repute of Vermont-made beer, how should brewers outside the region recognize their inspirations without deflecting away from the true birthplace of a given product?”

And, similarly, answers are again in short supply.

—Dave Eisenberg