Jester King–the Near-Magical Brewery

Jester KingIf you’re a beer geek, narrowing down your absolute favorite breweries is tough, right? My own all-time, near-magical brewery is Jester King in the Texas Hill Country. The allure JK holds for me is probably incomprehensible for Bud Lite lovers or non-beer drinkers.

Even if you have a car, getting to JK, outside Austin, isn’t quick, and it’s only open to the public Friday through Monday. Then there’s the seating—open-air—in a place where locals consider a 90o summer afternoon blessedly cool and dust an integral part of country living. And let’s just say JK’s beer is about as far from Bud Lite as polar bears are from the Hill Country.

For Anheuser-Busch InBev’s hundreds of brewers across the world, it’s critical that a Budweiser bought in New York in December taste exactly like one purchased in New Delhi in July. At Jester King, no two seasons of a particular beer will taste quite the same, the result of an inoculation method most brewers would consider anathema.

Jester King's new coolship

Jester King’s coolship

Today, virtually all breweries go to great lengths to ensure the viability and purity of the yeasts used to ferment their beers. Infections from wild yeasts or bacteria are generally a brewer’s worst nightmare. Then there’s JK, where wort (unfermented beer) is pumped into a coolship—imagine an oversized kiddie pool—and the windows are thrown open overnight. The next morning, that wort, inoculated with whatever was in the air, then goes into oak or stainless-steel barrels to ferment and age anywhere from several weeks to years. Along the way, different batches of the same beer may be blended to soften or heightened desired flavors. You might expect JK’s beer, packaged in 750-milliliter (wine size) bottles, to dance in a price range similar to premium wines. Not so. I paid $8.00 for a Colonel Toby last week.

Like many of the Belgian brewers JK founder Jeffery Stuffings has visited and learned from, he isn’t particularly concerned with beer style categories. And like their Belgian cousins, JK’s beers tend toward tartness, funkiness, and even the famous barnyard aroma. Unlike many American craft brewers who hop to extremes or aim for double-digit ABVs, few of JK’s beers would qualify as hop- or booze-bombs. Colonel Toby, described as “a hoppy little farmhouse ale,” has 56 IBUs and a modest 3.4% ABV. By comparison, Dogfish Head’s 60-Minute IPA clocks in at 60 IBUs and 6.0% ABV, while Dogfish Head claims the 120-Minute IPA has 120 IBUs and a 15-20% ABV.

Part of what has made Jester King visits near magical for me has been the events around them. The first time, January 2016, I got a private tour, tasting and interview with Jeffery Stuffings himself that resulted in a long, but (modesty aside) fantastic, blog post and my unabashed support of Stuffings and his brewery. My second visit was on a blistering Sunday afternoon last July when I’d traveled to Austin to be with my only sister in the last weeks of her life. Needing a break from the harsh realities of terminal cancer, I drove out to JK alone and lost myself in the exquisite flavors of several beers I hadn’t tried.

Bottles of Queen's Order

Bottles of Queen’s Order

In contrast, last Tuesday’s visit was in the company of some 25 craft brewers attending a workshop where my husband, Hugo, was a presenter. We hardly piled off the bus and servers were handing us snifters of Queen’s Order, a delicate and enticing blond ale. Dinner was proper Texas barbeque—brisket, ribs, brisket, chicken, and…who cares, there was Texas brisket. (A true native daughter, I ate BBQ—brisket and sausage—three of four days in Texas.) The de rigueur after-dinner entertainment was a brewery tour that lasted close to an hour with brewers.

And those craft brewers were what made this third visit so special. We ate dinner across a picnic table from Emily and Evan Watson, founders of Plan Bee Farm Brewery, outside Poughkeepsie, New York, who source all ingredients within state, including yeast from the honeycombs on their farm. At the bar, I met Matt Pennisi, who had traveled from Durham, North Carolina where he’s manager and co-owner of Durty Bull Brewing Company. In January, the brewery, which specializes in barrel-aged and sour beers, made Beer Advocate’s “Class of 2016: 34 of the Best New Breweries in the US.

Matt Pennisi of Durty Bull

Matt Pennisi of Durty Bull

I made sure to introduce myself to Sarah and James Howat, founders of Black Project Spontaneous and Wild Ales in Denver, Colorado, mentioning that I’d seen their brewery’s name in beer news a lot lately. Both James Howat and Jeffery Stuffings issued statements the day ABI acquired North Carolina’s Wicked Weed, stating that they were cutting ties and ending collaborations with Wicked Weed. These were serious words from Howat, who had two collaborations with Wicked Weed in progress. Black Project and Jester King were among the first breweries to pull out of Wicked Weed’s July Funkatorium, which was postponed a week after the acquisition news, due to massive brewery cancellations.

Sarah Howat of Black Project

Sarah Howat of Black Project

All evening, I’d wanted to talk with John West, head brewer at Pedernales Brewing Company, but it didn’t happen until we climbed on the bus for the half-hour ride back to Austin. Turned out, we have some mutual acquaintances. He mentioned a collaboration brew with Monterrey, Mexico’s Cervercía Albur. I pulled out my phone and shared photos of myself with Albur’s head brewer Víctor Soto, who I had quoted in a May 2016 article for All About Beer. John grabbed his phone with a photo from the May/June 2017 All About Beer featuring him, Soto and brewers from their respective breweries who had collaborated on a brew they called Chico Temido. On Sunday Hugo and I had flown from Monterrey to Austin with an assortment of Mexican craft beers, including a bottle of Chico Temido.

I’ve gone on too long, but can you see why Jester King is my near-magical place brewery? Visit them and experience the magic for yourself!

Comments

  1. I’d have to say that JK is a near magical brewery to me too simply from the images of glistening mountains of loquats, mushrooms, squashes, oranges, grapes, cherries etc. The fertility of the local landscape seems unreal.
    If it weren’t for accounts such as yours, I might even have concluded it’s a work of fiction or an hallucination. Several of their beers are available in bottle here – Dichotomous is one of them but they’re rare.
    The Wicked Weed takeover has been acknowledged over here in the UK but I didn’t realise other breweries were cutting ties with them.
    Great post!

    • Leslie Patino says:

      Alec, it sounds like you need to make a trip to Texas. My next JK goal is to attend an exclusive release party. I once read something Stuffings wrote about the lines at one of their first releases and people actually reselling their allotment in the parking lot for ridiculous prices. Of course, they tweaked the process to preclude that sort of thing in the future. Even when I went on a regular Sunday, they had attendants directing traffic in the parking lot and lots of bartenders at both bars so customers didn’t have to wait. Pretty impressive.

      As for the Wicked Weed acquisition, yes, there’s been a lot of push-back from independent brewers. Something like 50 of 70+ breweries committed to the Funkatorium cancelled within a week of the announcement. Craft brewers worked so hard for so many years in the U.S. and have created an entire movement with a wonderful sense of community. The way brewers collaborate and help each other and their communities is very special. If macro beer continues to snap up successful breweries, in another decade, our current reality could be history.

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